My good friend Dana Yost recently made an excellent comment on a previous post dealing with Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose. While I noted that the narrator admired his grandmother’s Victorian stoicism in dealing with a self-involved husband, Dana pointed out the fact that his grandmother, like so many of the women in her era, was worthy of our sympathy. She had, after all, lived with a man who loved her but, as Dana notes “always on his terms.” She was indeed powerless in an age in which women were generally powerless. Dana fell short of calling the grandmother a “victim,” but what he was saying put me in mind of a book by our mutual friend Joe Amato, titled Victims and Values, on the nature of victimhood in which he says, speaking of American history after the debacle of the Viet Nam War:

“The language of victims, spoken by blacks, Native Americans, women, Latinos, the unemployed, the disadvantaged, animal rights advocates, representatives of wildlife, and others, became a part of standard public discourse, as did the poor, hungry, and the oppressed of the third world. This language escalated and it becomes a means for seeking moral dominance and contending for power. . .

“. . . heightened sensitivity was proclaimed to be a precious good; caring became an obligation; and compassion, ever more conspicuously flaunted, was assumed to be readily available in the human heart. At the extremes even those who committed crimes against property and persons were welcomed into the fold of victims. In fact, their crimes became proof that they themselves, not the victims of those crimes, were the true victims of the system. . . .

“The word ‘victim,’ once a religious term and until very recently used primarily to describe individuals or groups abused by nature or government, has come to form in our world the standard language of hyper-complaint. The dialect of victimology is increasingly utilized not only to express real and significant injustices but to level charges for unachieved expectations and unrealized imagined potentials.”

In a word, the term is being used so widely — and for various reasons, some of which are bogus — that it is in danger of becoming meaningless. Amato’s notion that it being used to seek “moral dominance” and “contending for power” by certain groups of people is especially interesting and echoes the point I made in an earlier post about the “will to power.” Assuredly, many of those who claim to be victims do so to draw attention to themselves and to demand recompense. Their suffering may be real or imagined. In any event, we tend to use a word like “victim” for so many referents that is eventually loses all meaning whatever. For the most part it still refers to those who suffer in one way or another.

But I am going to suggest something outrageous, something that very few people will allow as even a remote possibility. I am going to suggest, following Fyodor Dostoevsky, that we have lost sight of the notion that suffering may be a good thing. We simply assume, without any questioning whatever, that it is necessary to eradicate all suffering wherever possible. This has made it popular for all and sundry to claim that they are suffering and require our sympathy — whether they suffer in fact or not.

Recall that the Victorian women, like so many of the disadvantaged at that time, would have simply accepted the hand they were dealt and tried gamely to make the best of it. One doubts if they thought of themselves as victims. We might even admire their courage to endure the treatment they received at the hand not only of their husbands but of society generally, though we have also lost sight of what courage truly is. In any event, I quote Dostoevsky, in his notes to Crime and Punishment to make the point:

“Man is not born to happiness. Man earns his happiness and always by suffering. There is no injustice here, because the knowledge of life and consciousness (that is, that which is felt immediately with your body and spirit, that is, through the whole vital process of life) is acquired by experience pro and contra, which one must take upon one’s self. . . . “

And, in Notes From Underground, Dostoevsky suggests that it is through suffering that we achieve true freedom, which is central to our very humanity.

It is certainly the case that most Americans in the twenty-first century suffer very little. This may go a long way toward explaining our self-absorption. We do whatever is necessary to eliminate pain and suffering: complain, take pills, seek medical assistance, find an understanding and sympathetic partner. It seldom occurs to us that it may be a way to increase  our appreciation for what we have in hand, that it makes us deeper and more interesting human beings. I do not want to suggest that we should not do whatever we can to prevent suffering or that suffering in an inherently good thing. As Amato notes, “There is an elemental moral requirement to respond to innocent suffering.” But we do need to consider that, whether or not we agree with Dostoevsky (and what he says about suffering does sound like heresy these days, despite the fact that it is a notion fundamental to Christianity) we would do well to watch the way we bandy about terms like “victim,” because if everyone is a victim then no one is.


6 thoughts on “Victimhood

  1. Thanks for the mention, Hugh! And how ironic: I was actually reading some of Joe’s “Victims and Values” last night for an unrelated reason! You’re right in that Dostoevsky is picking up on a Christian theme — often expressed by Paul — that certain types of suffering can strengthen and deepen who we are as human beings. Among other things, they can enrich how we perceive ourselves and our world, give us more empathy toward others, make us more grateful for our own lives, can lead us to create (and/or appreciate) great art, etc.

    Certainly, not all forms of suffering are created equal. And our reactions to suffering may be relative to our circumstances, to an extent. We have a moral obligation to end many forms of it, but we should also have the wisdom to know the difference between those we must fix and those which don’t even merit a moment’s whine. As Joe and you point out, we don’t always have that wisdom. And by failing to have it — when we fail to distinguish — we miss opportunities for the kinds of self-examination, and spiritual, emotional and intellectual growth Dostoevsky, Paul and you have written about.

  2. Suffering for humans is akin to steel getting tempered, the more tempering , the stronger the material becomes …..or like steel railroad track, which is made of Hardenable steel, that is the longer its used, the harder the steel becomes…..

  3. Great and thought provoking post. We can never eliminate suffering, as what does not kill us makes us stronger. I think of this victimhood in two ways. First, Teddy Roosevelt said everyone should get a “square deal,” a fair opportunity to exceed. What they do with that opportunity is up to them. Teddy saw a rigged system that grossly favored the Robber Barons, who were called that for a reason. Note, when he said this, women would not have the right to vote for fifteen more years.

    Second, those who have been given more opportunities than others do not understand the favorable bias they have been given. Warren Buffett once said he was lucky – he was born a white male in America. His country gave him opportunity, but being white and male did so as well. White people fail to grasp the concept of “white advantage.” As a white man, I can pretty much go anywhere I want with few repercussions, but a black man cannot even if dressed in his Sunday best.

    There are white victims, just as there are male victims. But, fewer opportunities have been afforded non-whites and women in our country. And, if the former is doubted, I would encourage folks to listen to Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit.”

    Well done, sir. Keith

    • Yes after listening to “Strange Fruit” , you come away light years from your original perceptions of what you perceived to be the nature of being Black in America..

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