On the nature of victimhood

by The Editor


ARTICLE: There is a strong case to be made that South Africa is nation of victims. And here I do not mean in the literal sense – for there are many who can objectively be described as victims of some great injustice – I mean as an attitude – victimhood: we suffer low self-esteem, we lack agency and we generally see circumstance as our ever-present tormentor. This is to our great disadvantage, for victimhood is a sure path to apathy and, with it, further injustice.

On the nature of victimhood

By: Gareth van Onselen


19 September 2012

Victimhood is a delusion: its own inadequacy forces it to pretend itself agency’s equal. But it is not.

It knows to reveal that fact, however, would be to admit its own addiction: to the acknowledgement and attention that accompanies pity – rather than the often unrewarding risk and responsibility that agency demands.

Thus, victimhood creates the pretence that it is held back only by rational consideration and the suggestion that its options are justifiably exhausted. As a result, it deals in excuse and uses blame to misdirect any proper interrogation of its intent, to its situation.

Victimhood’s satisfaction lies not in affecting change, but in sympathy for its circumstance. For an agent, the aspiration to make a difference is eternal; for a victim, it dies a thousand deaths, each one a chance to mourn and delight in any condolence that might come its way.

With misdirection comes misunderstanding, and here victimhood deliberately conflates a description with an attitude, to achieve that end.

The word ‘victim’ is the locus for that confusion. Someone in pain, the consequence of circumstance beyond their control, can rightly be described as ‘a victim’; but of their behaviour it says nothing at all.

Contrariwise, a defeatist manner is a comment not on circumstance, but one’s outlook. Such a person is also ‘a victim’.

The former is an explanation, the latter an indictment. Often a victim is both things simultaneously but when an attitude alone, victimhood turns attention to its condition, exaggerating its suffering, amplifying the supposedly insurmountable obstacles before it and shirking responsibility – all that it might claim the legitimacy attached to its ostensible torment and, with it, its other meaning.

Consequentially, offence is a good friend of victimhood; for, like victim’s double meaning, it is a clever way to avoid self appraisal.

Should agency make the mere suggestion victimhood rise above its circumstance, its’ moral indignation quickly piques. Who are you to judge, it asks? But that attitude comes at a cost – because offence runs both ways, and if one easily takes it, it usually follows that one is overly anxious about causing it in turn.

And so, for the most part, victimhood is meek, unquestioning and conflict averse; avoiding hard decisions it hides away in a shadowy corner, and yet its wail fills the room.

‘For the most part’ because victimhood can become angry at times, particularly when its cry is too long ignored.

In this state it is harmful, its frustration unleashed on those bored by its apathetic sympathy seeking. Its anger is not designed to achieve an outcome or to positively influence an attitude or behaviour; it is rage, invective, the purpose of which is to try and legitimize and reinforce victimhood’s perception that it is suffering the consequences of callousness and unfair expectation.

Unchecked it can be entirely destructive, on an organisation or relationship; and is often born of agency’s insistence that it explain its inertia or failure to deliver on a desired outcome.

This has consequences for accountability. To explain choice one must be able to introspect. But victimhood cannot. It believes it has no choice – circumstances have determined its direction. Put under increasing pressure, its pretences rationally argued away, it panics and its explanations become less credible; until, ultimately, its enemy becomes unseen, even unheard of, some powerful force plotting away in secret quarters.

And so victimhood loves conspiracy and, ironically, the idea that something out there is making its choices for it; for that is an all-purpose explanation to any difficult question.

In contrast to all of this stands agency, a wonderful attribute – and far simpler too.

Because it is confident in its ability, agency is not waylaid by insecurity and self doubt. It sees risk as an opportunity for reward, not failure. In this way it is empowering and independent.

It is questioning, because it understands that any unexpected answer is a chance grow and develop, rather than a confirmation of its inadequacy.

It is self aware, and that assurance means it is not conflict averse, nor does it fear choice and competition, hard decisions or responsibility, for it knows what it wants.

As it has a vision and a purpose, ultimately agency lends itself to leadership; which is at it should be, because victimhood will always need someone to follow.

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