The Cult of Victimhood

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a hardcore devotee of the ideas of Rene Girard.  I've tried before to set out, in a big picture way, why I think his ideas are so important and so fruitful--not just in terms of Christianity or religion, but in general.  But those things I mentioned are big-picture concepts, and can be seen as somewhat abstract.  If you want some specific idea of Girard's, one that is directly relevant to our current political and cultural situation, I think his most trenchant idea is his discussion of the Cult of Victimhood.

In Girard's analysis, the Cult of Victimhood is, though unacknowledged by its practicioners, literally a Christian heresy (or more accurately, a Judeo-Christian heresy, if one can say that).  For Girard, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ reveals to the world the mechanism of scapegoating--a victim is selected from among the people and sacrificed in order to discharge our rivalrous, imitative desires, and that sacrifice becomes both ritualized and camouflaged so that we are unaware of our participation.  Jesus, finishing a process begun at the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures, comes to strip off the veil over our eyes, to reveal to us the truth.  Where once we held fast to the idea that the victim really deserved to be sacrificed, we now understand that the victim is innocent.

Girard insists that this bell cannot be un-rung, and society can never go back to the way it was prior to Easter Sunday.  But that does not mean that scapegoating is ended forever.  It simply means that we as a people cannot rely on the simplistic old versions of the sacred to sustain the Big Lie.  Instead, if we want to avoid the hard work of imitating Jesus, forgiving our enemies, and learning to live in peace, we have to construct a new version of the Big Lie.  This new narrative has to incorporate on some level what Alison calls the "Intelligence of the Victim" that is provided by Jesus's life, death and resurrection (since that is now a permanent part of human understanding), while still finding a way to create space for sacrificing victims.

One way to do this, as Jean-Pierre Dupuy has explored in Marks of the Sacred and Economy and the Future, is to set up supposedly "neutral," technocratic systems to, in essence, "do the dirty work for you" while keeping a clean conscience ("I'm not punishing the poor, it's just 'market forces' that are leaving people destitute" etc.).  But the other way is through the Cult of Victimhood.  The Cult of Victimhood begins by appropriating the Intelligence of the Victim, recognizing the truth that discrete groups are often persecuted unjustly by virtue of being a discrete group, and not as a result of anything for which they are responsible.  And the Cult of Victimhood insists, correctly, that persecution of the particular discrete group at issue is unjust and should be stopped.  So far, so good.  But then the Cult of Victimhood turns being a victim into a status, defining itself in terms of the marker (either directly or indirectly) of having been through the experience of being a victim.

The Cult of Victimhood is thus an inversion of the normal, pre-Christian process of the Sacred--rather than the majority forming an identity over and against some identifiable minority victim or group of victims through the process of victimization, the minority forms an identity over and against the majority by virtue of being victimized, either presently or at some point in the past. This creates three serious problems.  First, the identity of the group is tied up in the status of being a victim.  Thus, perversely, there is an incentive for the minority to seek to be victimized, because it supports and reinforces the group identity, leading to counter-productive co-dependent relationships with the persecuting majority.  Or, at a minimum, the minority needs to perceive itself as being victimized in order to shore up its self-identity, leading to incentives to find persecution behind every rock or tree, even when it is not there.

The second problem is that the Cult of Victimhood is it creates a tempting platform to seize the moral high ground.  In light of the message of Jesus, we have an obligation to have special moral concern for victims as victims.  But it does not follow that those that are victimized have some special moral qualities or status by virtue of being victims.  Being a victim does not necessarily make you wiser, or more just, or better able to discern moral realities in the world around you, because being a victim is ultimately and fundamentally arbitrary.  As the great Ta-Nehisi Coates says, "[w]e, too, are capable of fictions because, as it turns out, oppression confers no wisdom and is rarely self-improving."  But the Cult of Victimhood seizes on being a victim to provide a kind of imputed righteousness.  Once again, this is an inversion for the old vision of the Sacred--whereas before the society explained that victims became victims through some narrative of moral failure, now the victims understand their victim status through a narrative of their own moral superiority.

In doing so, it sets up a purely binary, Manichean distortion of the Gospel message, dividing the world into fixed categories of victims who are righteous and victimizers who are unrighteous.  This binary system acts as a kind of moral shield for their own behavior.  The logical chain goes like this:  because I am a victim, I am righteous; because I am righteous, those that challenge or critique that righteousness (especially if the critique comes from those that victimized me) are per se wrong and their critique is per se illegitimate; thus, I can stay in a comfortable bubble of my own imputed righteousness.  Because I am an innocent victim, I don't have to take seriously any critiques of my own actions.

This in turn leads to the third problem.  Because of the power of feature #1 and especially feature #2 of the Cult of Victimhood, everyone wants to get in on the action.  And, given both the pervasive nature of scapegoating and the cultural awareness of the phenomenon (even if inchoate) brought about by thousands of years of Judeo-Christian presence, everyone can get in on the action if they look hard enough.  Everyone can craft a story of why they are the "real" victims over and against some group of victimizers.  What results is an utterly intractable set of mutually incompatible victimhood narratives, in which every group is the righteous but persecuted minority over and against some nefarious overculture.

In an attempt to resolve this deadlock, the basic instinct (especially for the partisans of one competing narrative or another) is to try to adjudicate who are the "real" victims and who is the "fake" victims.  Girard would insist that this is an utterly futile activity, because all of these stories of victimhood are on some level true and on some level self-serving nonsense.  The fact of being the victim is true, but the narrative of why the victimization occurred, tied into to some group identity and moral status, is not.  And it is not true because, again, being a victim is arbitrary.  Sometimes you are victimized because of some trait you happen to have (like race or gender), sometimes it is because of some social group you happen to belong to that happens to be on the short end of the stick for whatever reason (like LGBT folks), sometimes it is for no reason at all.  The only real difference between the victim and the victimizer is circumstance.  Or, to put it another way, there has only been one truly innocent victim in all of history, and He was last seen outside of Jerusalem 2000 years ago and 40 days after Easter Sunday.

Again, it's crucial, here and elsewhere, to draw a very clear line between the fact of victimization and the status as a victim.  People get victimized, and we have a moral obligation to try to end the victimization.  But the Cult of Victimization makes that project more difficult, because it weaponizes victimization and intermixes genuine victimization with dubious claims of moral righteousness.  It also incentivizes out-and-out bogus claims of victimization, because the power of victimhood status is to enticing.  

To see an example of the Cult of Victimhood in action, consider this piece from Andrew Sullivan about Trump.  In the piece, Sullivan makes the point that one key dimension of why white, working-class voters have rallied to Trump is the disdain shown by cultural elites (mostly liberal but also conservative, to the extent those are still distinct categories) toward the culture and values of said white working-class people.  The reaction on social media to the piece was very telling.  Instead of pushing back on the thesis (i.e., "you are wrong, Andrew, we don't disdain the values of these folks."), or to admit the thesis and stand firm on the position (i.e. "yes, Andrew, we do disdain the values of these folks because these values are bad."), the reaction was to criticize Sullivan for failing to assert that racism (and, to a lesser extent, homophobia) was the "real" reason why these voters were supporting Trump.

First off, Sullivan does talk about that in the piece.  But, more to the point, seizing on Sullivan's purported failure to talk about race or homophobia is a way to side-step and de-legitimize the basic point that cultural elites disdain a big chunk of the population.  Because, if the "real" issue is race or homophobia, then in the Cult of Victimhood world the issues and objections of white working class folks are per se illegitimate, because they are the unrighteous victimizers.  In other words, yelling at Sullivan for failing to talk about race is another way of saying "their assertion of victimhood status is bogus because my victimhood status is real, and because my victimhood status is real their assertion of victimhood status must be bogus."  And, of course, the same story can (and is) being said on the other side.  Which is why, along the lines of Sullivan's piece, the 2016 U.S. Presidential election has been a heretofore unprecedented orgy of the Cult of Victimhood from all sides, and promises to become even more grotesque as we get closer to November.

Or, let's take a perhaps less weighty example, from my geekdom of choice, tabletop role playing games.  To my utter shock, tabletop role-playing games are undergoing a renaissance.  A month or so ago, Slate, that bastion of middle-brow coastal opinion, published an article praising the Youtube show "Critical Role," calling it "flat out great television."  Now, I really like "Critical Role," and it is a very well done show with interesting and engaging personalities, but at the end of the day it is an extended (usually four hours at a time!) video of a bunch of people playing Dungeons and Dragons.  If you told Middle School me that filmed D&D games would be covered and praised in the media, my head would have exploded.

My head would have exploded because when I was a kid there was a bias against geeky activities like D&D.  Now, I don't want to oversell this--it would be grossly exaggerated to say most people into geeky stuff were persecuted, and it should never be compared to what is experienced by racial or sexual minorities.  But it was social disfavored, and the stigma was real.  For example, I kept my interests in this area mostly to myself as an adult, and kept the hobby at arms-length--I felt that people would perceive it as immature or weird.  I've shed that idea, partially out of a sense that letting what people think of your fun dictate what you do is lame and counter-productive, but also because it has become clear than no one cares anymore.

So, this should be a great time to be a tabletop RPG fan, and everyone should be happy, right?  Not quite.  It turns out there is a deeply toxic element of the tabletop RPG culture, one that has full-throatedly embraced the Cult of Victimhood.  Here's a good example.  The basic claim is that there is a culture of sexual harassment in the hobby, directed an women in particular.  Immediately with the first commenter, we see the classic Cult of Victimhood push-back--"I am not the victimizer, because I am the victim of your persecution."  Again, we see the clear binary, which is that if I am a victim, I cannot be a victimizer, and for me to be a victim, I need you, or someone else, to be the victimizer.

One theme, and this runs through much of the toxicity in geek culture (seen most clearly with "Gamergate"), is that the presence of women in the hobby is The Worst and is ruining it.  Here, I will simply restate my view that mixed gendered scenarios are basically always better than single gendered ones.  But the reflexive misogyny is not really about concrete experiences, but about the Cult of Victimhood.  A person who was rejected by the broader culture (which, to an adolescent male, is often identified with girls) builds an identity around the notion of being excluded and marginalized by "them."  When "they" attempt to enter those spaces, this identity formed via perceived victimhood is threatened.  Thus, something which would logically be seen as a victory ("Girls once shunned me for playing tabletop RPGs, and now they want to play, too!") becomes an existential threat.  By excluding these intruders, identity is maintained--at the cost, of course, of victimizing innocent women who just want to play a game.  But that reality doesn't have to be faced, because it can be shunted aside in the binary narrative of the Cult of Victimhood.

My point in using these two examples is not pass judgment on the validity of the victimhood claims involved (though, from where I sit, the claims of victimization of racial and sexual minorities, as well as women in the RPG space, seem mostly real; the claims of male gamers seem mostly bogus; and the claims of white working class folks seem to be some combination of truth and self-serving fantasy).  The point is to talk about how the Cult of Victimhood works, and why it makes these kinds of debates so intractable.  No matter how real the persecution, the stories people tell regarding the persecution are fundamentally unreliable, especially if they divide the world into an "us" and a "them."  And, once they are a "them," we can stay safe in our bubble of righteousness.

The power of Girard's ideas, for me, is the constant and destabilizing claim of a radical equality--we are all victims, and we are all victimizers.  This doctrine cuts through both our self-serving claims to goodness as well as the paralyzing guilt of our wickedness. Our only escape from the Cult of Victimhood is to find a way to embrace the hard teaching of Elder Zosima:

There is only one means of salvation, then take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men's sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for everyone and all things.  


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