In Defense of Victimhood
Emily S. Cutler
“Stop playing the victim card.”
“Stop wallowing in self-pity.”
“Stop being so victimy.”
“You’re stuck in a victim narrative.”
“You’re not a victim. You’re a survivor.”
Chances are you’ve heard at least one of these statements before. Maybe you’ve even said one of them to someone else. These kinds of statements are pervasive in the media, religion, the mental health system, workplaces, and families. They are indicative of our culture’s general attitude toward victimhood: being a victim is one of the worst things a person can be.
Being a victim means that you don’t take responsibility. It means that you blame others for the things that have happened to you. It means you believe other systems, institutions, and individuals to be at fault for your current financial, social, and/or emotional state of affairs. It means that you reject the notion that the burden of changing your life circumstances should fall solely on you as an individual.
How dare you?
Being a victim, in our society, is a sin. It is a crime against humanity. It is a rejection of all that we hold sacred and dear. You crazy rebel!
The just-world hypothesis is the assumption that a person’s actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person. It’s the idea that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. This is an assumption that most people desperately cling onto. We want the world to be fair. We want the world to make sense. We want to believe that if you just do all the things you are supposed to do, your life will turn out okay. If you just work hard, eat healthy, be polite, say please and thank you, exercise daily, pray, meditate, take your prescribed medications, and refrain from pleasure-inducing substances, you’ll be fine. And even if something terrible does happen to you - even if your house burns down or you are violently assaulted or your family members die - if you just take charge of your life and take responsibility for how you react to the situation, then you will survive it intact. In fact, you may even come out stronger! Not only will you be a survivor - you will be a thriver. See? The world makes sense. It has to.
We want to believe that if we just do all the things required of us, we will be okay. And that even if something horrifically traumatic happened to us, we could survive the event intact by just taking charge of our lives. If we didn’t believe this, we would have to face the truth: that the world sometimes does not make sense, that bad things happen to good people, and that bad things could happen to us, any time, even if we do everything required of us, and we may not get through any of those bad things intact. Facing those truths would drive us crazy. So we do not. Instead we go on believing the just-world hypothesis.
Victimhood upsets this narrative. The notion of victimhood forces us to come face to face with all the times the world is unjust - and all the possibilities that we could be on the receiving end of that injustice. And so we prefer to reject victimhood. We prefer to pathologize it and stigmatize it. Depending on your cultural and familial context, being too traumatized to work or be productive might be seen as a sign that you need to pray harder, take psychiatric medication, meditate more, or just think positive. If you are really so traumatized that you want to die or become incoherent, you may be locked up in a psychiatric institution and declared “mentally ill.” Surely you could not be reacting rationally to the events that have happened to you; no, you must be out of your mind. Only crazy people would allow themselves to wallow in such victimhood.
There is one thing that we fear even more than victimhood, though. And that is being a perpetrator. If there is a victim, that also means there is a perpetrator - and we certainly don’t want to be that perpetrator. Dismissing the notion of victimhood allows us to ignore all the ways in which we might be perpetrating injustice. If we can label traumatized people “mentally ill” and lock them up in psychiatric institutions, then they will be out of sight, out of mind, and we will never have to think about the ways that we might have created an unjust world for those people. So long as we believe in the just-world hypothesis, we can go on believing that our actions never contribute to an unjust world.
This is why it is crucial, in my opinion, to defend - to cling to - victimhood. Victimhood upsets the social order. It makes people uncomfortable. It sends a strong and clear message that as a society, our actions affect one another, and the systemic forms of bias and oppression that occur every day victimize people. In holding on to my victimhood, I refuse to allow oppressive institutions and systems to escape responsibility for what they have done. I refuse to be held accountable for the effects of this oppression, and I refuse to be told that it is my responsibility to heal from these effects. I refuse to allow those in power to continue believing the world is just in order to ignore their own role in creating injustice.
When people repeat platitudes to me that deny my victimhood, I ask them what about my victimhood makes them so uncomfortable. “How are you victimizing others?” I ask. “Who are your victims? How does denying victimhood allow you to pretend those victims don’t exist?”
I am a victim of involuntary commitment, rape, sexual abuse, bullying, and a cult. I am distinctly NOT a survivor. These experiences did not make me stronger and I am not grateful to have been through them. I am not the same person I was before I experienced them. While I am technically still living after these experiences - which meets the legal and societal definition of “surviving” - my sense of self, hope for the future, and general well-being have been broken down and shattered.
My victimhood, however, has made me more compassionate. In acknowledging my own victimhood, I have been more willing to detect and examine the ways others are victimized, including the ways I victimize others. I have stopped encouraging people to take responsibility for their own lives and well-being and instead tried to understand where others (including myself) have failed to take responsibility for injustices that have left them traumatized.
I am a proud victim. I am proud to have not survived. I am proud to resist the narrative of “overcoming” and “taking charge” that is shoved down my throat every day. I am proud to spit it out in people’s faces. My victimhood is a quiet rebellion and one day it just may succeed.