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.