Embittered subjects

The new politics of blaming the victim

9 February 2011
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"Blaming the victim", a phrase originally intended to critique the attribution of social disadvantage to "inherent faults" of black Americans, has since come to mean something else: the condemnation of self-designated "victims" as manipulative. As Alyson M. Cole argues, this new critique itself has highly prescriptive notions about the "good victim".

There is a cartoon by the American artist, Jules Feiffer, that features a young, white man, muttering mournfully to himself. The caption reads:

African Americans are victimized. Native Americans are victimized. Gays and lesbians are victimized. ALL minorities are victimized. All women are victimized. Children are victimized. Senior Citizens are victimized. The physically challenged are victimized… I don’t belong to any group that’s victimized. Where do I get the right to feel so lousy?

This caricature concisely illustrates four precepts of a politics that I term “anti-victimism”. First, claims of victimization pervade American society. Second, virtually everyone can allege to be a victim, except for white, able-bodied, heterosexual, post-pubescent-pre-retirement men. Third, group membership determines victim status. And, fourth, victimhood entails certain privileges. The joke, of course, is that those who cannot establish membership in any officially acknowledged victim-group do not have the right even to feel badly. Beneath the humour, however, lies a presumption that most victim claims disingenuously cover for little more than general malaise, or personal dissatisfaction.

Victim-talk and talk about victims are among the most recognizable features of contemporary American politics. Although Americans “talk victim” — be it the demand is to curb “victimism” or, conversely, to cease “victim-blaming” — we don’t seem to know what we are talking about. For instance, some who promote Victims’ Rights — including a “victim amendment” to the United States Constitution — at other times employ “victim” as a term of contempt. Feiffer’s parody encapsulates this ambivalence towards victims, deriving its poignancy from the murky line dividing victim-envy from victim-hatred.

In recent years, fundamental political questions about power and injustice, have been raised — and yet transformed — by being spoken through a language of victimization, by victim-claiming and victim-blaming. The literal word “victim” is not explicit in canonical political theory until Marx, but the rhetorical and political assumption that society is shaped by domination is, of course, essential. It originates democratic theory (“the people” subject to kings, empires, and so forth), populist forms of democracy and subsequent labour movements, and the “identity politics” forged more recently by African-Americans and women, among other Others. How the subordinated understand and address their condition and define their subjectivity is a crucial question in this history and in post-colonial theory more broadly. But what does it mean politically when issues of inequality are cast in an explicit language not of exploitation or oppression, but of victimization? And, as importantly, what does it mean when people disadvantaged by hierarchies of power feel compelled to insist that they are not victims?

I focus on this critical turn in the American, specifically post-civil rights era context in which there have been prominent attacks on identity politics from the political right and from the left, as well as critics who diagnose “a culture of complaint” that includes left and right. What does it mean that there are widespread, even hegemonic, attacks on victim-claiming? What does it mean that these victim-critics themselves claim victim status, victimization by “victim politics”? In order to gauge the impact of this new anti-victimism on the way we think about and act in politics, I examine how Americans currently use the language of victimhood, and how that language entails a grammar that restricts what we can say about injury and injustice. I analyse the anti-victim challenge in its myriad manifestations — as a sensibility, a morality, a mentality, an ideology, a rhetorical form, and ultimately, a discourse. I show that the discourse creates coherence among what appear to be conflicting positions or dichotomous ideas. Therefore, animosity towards victims is not the opposite side, but the very phenomenon labelled “victim politics”. Indeed, as I demonstrate, victim-critics become deeply implicated in the discourse by offering new groups of victims — indeed a cult of true victimhood — even while warning that victims overwhelm society.

To chart the evolution of this new politics, I begin in a different political corner and at an earlier point in time, when, in 1970, the sociologist William Ryan introduced the phrase “blaming the victim” into public vernacular. We will see how political causes formulated around victimhood increasingly concentrate on the proper assignment of blame, often at the expense of serious efforts to address the material consequences of victimization, or its remedy. The victim/blame nexus is thus one context in which we can see how anti-victim discourse subsumes the ostensible opposition between victim-claimers and victim-blamers.

Coining a phrase

In his book, titled Blaming the Victim (1970), William Ryan challenged a host of studies and programs designed during the second half of the 1960s to assist the urban poor, to reduce crime and violence, and to respond to the bursts of social unrest that culminated in the 1968 race riots. Most notable among Ryan’s targets was the controversial The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965). In this report, author Daniel Patrick Moynihan discerned a causal link between the supposed erosion of black families and poverty in inner cities. He consequently proposed to redress rampant poverty by restructuring and reinvigorating the black family.

Ryan demonstrated the inaccurate data and dubious theories at the foundation of such analyses. He showed how vital factors were often neglected, most significantly, economic variables. Nonetheless, Ryan’s principal concern was to expose and explain the incentives that led to such distortions and oversights. With great rhetorical flair, Ryan labelled Moynihan and other social reformers “victim blamers”, arguing that they collude in the oppression of the poor by finding inherent faults within them, while ignoring the social and economic forces that create and perpetuate poverty.

Ryan defined “blaming the victim” as an ideology or an ideological process. Building upon Karl Mannheim’s theory of ideology and C. Wright Mills’s critique of the “ideology of social pathology”, Ryan understood victim blaming as emerging from “systematically motivated, but unintended, distortions of reality […] rooted in a class-based interest in maintaining the status quo.” Ryan argued that victim blaming is a uniquely liberal ideology that — unlike crude racism, for instance — entraps those most inclined to be sympathetic and committed to helping the disadvantaged. Blaming the victim provides an ingenious compromise: the middle-class liberal may leave the system that benefits him intact, while still seeming to care for those it victimizes.

Typically, victim blamers identify a cultural pathology as the source of inequality, and its removal as the ultimate remedy. Ryan mocked this recurrent scholarly tactic as “the art of savage discovery”. Thus, for example, the Ford Foundation “Gray Areas Report” postulated that the dire conditions of slum housing should be traced not to inadequate funding, but instead to the characteristics of their inhabitants, who had not yet “acculturated” to life in major urban centres.

The phrase “blaming the victim” rings with indignation. It is rhetorically powerful because it conveys, simply and concisely (through the juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory terms), behaviour that is patently wrong‹that is, blaming the blameless. Ascribing blame to the injured party (rather than simply a bystander), amplifies the gravity of this transgression. Although a commonly used expression rarely requiring explication, Ryan’s phrase is still somewhat puzzling. Is “blaming the victim” an ideology, as Ryan writes, or does it refer to an ordinary activity — the practice of blaming — as most of his examples suggest?

The structure of the idiom enhances these ambiguities; that “blaming the victim” contains a definite article and appears in the singular form regardless of context. (For example, in English we use the compound phrase “blaming the victim”, when referring to a group of victims even though grammatically we should say instead “blaming victims”.) There is also an incongruity between Ryan’s Marxian orientation and his employment of terms such as “victim” and “blame”; terms that elide class distinctions, insinuate innocence and culpability, and, in the case of “victim”, are laden with religious undertones.

Ryan did not explain his choice of words. Perhaps he adopted the term “victim” to refer to the urban poor because, unlike the working class, their relations to production less easily define them. Nevertheless, the most confounding aspect of the way Ryan employed “blaming the victim” is that he seemed not to use it literally. Oddly enough, victim blaming does not entail blaming the victim.

Let me clarify. First, it is important to remember that in contrast to the contemporary pejorative use of the term “victim”, which links victimhood to passivity and helplessness, Ryan did not equate victims’ condition with a lack of agency, inaction, or dependence. Structural economic and political inequality, rather than some deficiency of character, renders those with whom Ryan was concerned “victims”.

Second, there is the complication of what he means by blame. Moral philosophers distinguish attributions of causality and responsibility from blame. Blaming, they maintain, concludes a sequence of judgments and necessarily entails an evaluation of moral stature. While social scientists’ employment of cultural pathologies (such as the “culture of poverty”) would seem to amount to such a judgment, Ryan explains that identifying distinctive cultural traits does not constitute, in itself, “blaming the victim”. According to Ryan, blaming occurs only when such ideas are recruited to explain certain “failures” of the poor: insufficient education, criminality, crumbling families, lack of hygiene, and poverty itself. In other words, the blaming in “blaming the victim” is not about moral condemnation but rather a causal attribution.

Moreover, victim blamers do not judge victims, or even hold them responsible for their condition in any explicit way. They deploy cultural difference theories for precisely the opposite purpose — to diffuse judgment, seeing complicity between victims and victim-blamers in sustaining social injustice.

If victim blamers are not blaming, what then are they doing? At certain points in Ryan’s text “blaming the victim” refers to an act of greater aggression than simply making a judgment. While the victim blamer may not hold the victim responsible, he does seek to reform her and expects the victim to make an effort to change. These attempts to modify the victim’s behaviour and attitudes may amount to punishing the victim, both by perpetuating inequality — for, according to Ryan, none of the victim blamers’ plans would substantially improve the victim’s circumstances — and by forcing the victim to alter her ways.

The text suggests a more far-reaching idea: victim blaming itself turns the poor into victims. The intellectual process or ideology is what victimizes them. From this perspective, the poor become victims in two distinct ways. First, striving to deflect their own responsibility, victim blamers scapegoat the poor. They render themselves blameless by designating “victims,” for scapegoat is the original meaning of the term.

Second, ultimate responsibility is further deflected, especially through the idea of “cultural deprivation”, from the victim to a narrowly defined host of social and historical factors. Victim blamers regard the victim’s plight as an inevitable product of a long tradition of cultural dysfunctions (as a “victim of circumstance”), often inherited from previous generations. In this way, victim blaming deprives the poor of their agency precisely because it does not blame them, but blames unalterable circumstances instead. Does Ryan’s theory more accurately describe “making the victim” (in the Foucauldian sense) rather than “blaming the victim”?

Perhaps, however, attempting to adjust the phrase “blaming the victim” by finding some literal meaning (such as replacing “blaming” with “punishing”, “making”, or “attributing causal responsibility”) actually misses the point. For Ryan, victim blaming is not simply a mistaken attribution; it is a product of psychological strife. He describes this conflict, rather sparsely, in terms of a “sub-conscious reconciliation” of opposing self-interests and humanitarian “impulses”. “Blaming the victim”, he explains, is part of a larger ideological structure that facilitates and justifies class inequalities and, at the same time, is rooted in a collective unconscious. There are hints in the text that “blaming the victim” resembles a psychological complex, especially since it involves deflections, or displacements, leading to unintended results. Therefore, “blaming the victim” may be the diagnostic term referring to the unconscious roots, the desire, or the complex, rather than to its myriad effects. Capturing, understanding, and bringing these repressed motives and feelings to our collective consciousness (by calling the desire by its real name) is essential for a healthy resolution of the conflict.

The shock value of the expression, rather than its accuracy in describing a specific practice, is part of the potential therapeutic effect. Indeed, in a presentation before the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in the late 1990s, Ryan passionately called for psychologists to accept their roles in bringing about social change. One activity these professionals might pursue, he proposed (perhaps tongue in cheek), is “ideology-therapy.” Could it be that the enticing phrase “blaming the victim” was a first step in such a therapeutic venture — was it a prospective ideology-therapy?

Ryan’s examples of victim blaming actually support my interpretation. Victim-blaming theories commonly focus on poor African Americans and trace what Moynihan called the “tangle of pathologies” to a “heritage of slavery”. Moynihan, Coleman, Kerner and their cohort ultimately attribute blame for the contemporary endemic suffering of African Americans on some real or metaphoric American ancestors or “fathers”. As Ryan writes, the only class of people whom victim blamers fault (rather than pathologize) is “that long-dead ancestor of ours, the villainous slave master.” A Freudian might suggest that victim blaming allows the blamer to accomplish two tasks — symbolically killing his forefathers and burying his own guilty conscience at the same time.

A contemporary example further illustrates Ryan’s point. We can see how discussions of past injustices may serve to avoid addressing the inequalities of today in the proposal to offer a governmental apology for slavery. The idea for such a gesture originated in the US Congress. In 1997, House Representative Tony Hall, Ohio Democrat, recommended that the US government issue a formal apologize for slavery. Not surprisingly — given his expertise in the business of contrition — then-President Bill Clinton reacted favourably to the idea. Doubtful that Congress would eventually approve an official measure (much debate ensued regarding motives and repercussions, specifically a concern with reparations litigation, thereby stalling the legislation), Clinton decided to act independently and offered his own expressions of regret during his state visit to Africa. That Clinton apologized for slavery in the very same year that his administration gutted the national welfare system, seems (if we apply Ryan’s ideas accurately) a ripe example of victim blaming.

Blaming the rape victim

In the mid-1970s, feminists recruited “blaming the victim” as a slogan for their work on behalf of raped women. True to Ryan’s approach, they identified patriarchy as a pervasive system and an ideology, which facilitates both victimization and its justification — that is, both victim-making and victim-blaming. Susan Griffin, for example, argued that patriarchy relies on the assumption that women want to be raped and actually provoke it. Victims are thus recast as the seducers and their victimizers as innocents — powerless in the face of natural biological drives. By viewing the myths about rape as manifestations of a victim blaming ideology, feminists could elucidate precisely how the severity of the crime, as well as the offender’s responsibility, tended to be diminished. Just as Ryan’s victim-blamers secured their privilege by neglecting their complicity, so too men avert their responsibility for rape, initially by projecting their desires onto women, and then by refusing to acknowledge how (what Susan Brownmiller called) the “mass psychology of rape” serves men’s class interest by preserving male domination.

Another application of the phrase “blaming the rape victim” was used to characterize the entire experience to which rape victims were subjected after the crime — in their encounters with the police, physicians, social workers, and prosecutors, and especially in the courtroom. Such ordeals were called a “second rape”, as much a violation and as humiliating as the first one. As in Ryan’s text, “blaming the victim” at times referred to behaviour and practices that amount to punishing the rape victim. The victim’s travails in court, where victims were frequently accused of being responsible for their victimization, presented especially poignant examples of victim blaming.

In the feminist application, however, “blaming the victim” acquired new meanings. In the first place, feminists sought to establish the status of raped women as “victims”. Previously, American laws defined rape as a crime performed by men against other men. While the woman’s body is the site of the violation, men were presumed to be the victims of rape — the raped victim’s husband, father, brother, or conversely, a man falsely accused. Indeed, well into the late 1970s, raped women were not even referred to as “victims”. The term employed by authorities and in the courtroom was “prosecutrix“. So while Ryan’s decision to use the word remains unclear, the designation “victim” in “blaming the rape victim” was essential to the charge.

The rape victim’s legal standing as a “victim” continues to be greatly disputed. For example, in 2004 when the famous American basketball player Kobe Bryant was charged with rape, his lawyers petitioned the court to refer to his accuser as “the complaining witness.” The Colorado state court opted for another designation, but agreed that the term “victim” would be prejudicial.

The campaign on behalf of rape victims marked a new approach toward victims of crime. Its most fundamental principle was that prosecuting offenders does not exhaust the assistance society should extend to victims. Acknowledging victims’ vulnerabilities led to a variety of programs and services devised to help victims overcome their injuries, injuries that were increasingly understood to include psychological damage. Ideas about the victim’s fragile emotional state and consequent need for assistance added new dimensions to the idea of “blaming the victim”. Where emphasis falls on the emotional trauma suffered by victims, the victim’s perceptions tend to govern what counts as “blaming”. For rape victims more than for Ryan’s victims, “blaming the victim” is not merely futile and wrong; it is downright harmful. Furthermore, rape victims’ tendency to blame themselves, regardless of their actual causal contribution, augments the damage incurred by “blaming the rape victim”.

Feminists’ concern with the direct psychological effects of blaming rape victims departs from Ryan’s analysis. While I’ve suggested that Ryan provided a psychological reading of the victim blamer’s frame of mind, he did not consider the impact blaming the victim might have on the victim’s emotional state. The shift from the psyche of the victim blamer to that of the victim entailed a different therapeutic approach. In the case of rape victims, one step involved shielding victims from critical judgment, even their own.

Victim precipitation

The idea that rape victims are complicit in their victimization was fundamental to the inception of victimology. While the term is often misused today in popular discussions as another way to ridicule “victim politics”, victimology is an academic discipline, often considered a branch of criminology. In the late 1930s, the French-Israeli barrister Benjamin Mendelsohn examined the records of his raped female clients, and concluded that a new scientific field was needed to uncover and aggregate the “whole of the socio-bio-psychological traits common to all victims”. As the first step in this grand endeavour, Mendelsohn classified and calibrated the scope of victim responsibility by generating a scale ranging from “complete innocence”, to “ignorant guilt” and “false victimization”.

The field expanded in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the emergence of new categories of crime — such as “crimes against humanity”– and the consequent renewed interest in victims. German researcher, Hans Von Hentig, credited as another founder of the field, wrote that, “If there are born criminals it is evident that there are born victims, self-loathing and self-destroying through the medium of the pliable outsider.” Accordingly, he proposed that victimologists study what he called “victim precipitation”. Victim precipitation, as applied in these early projects, presupposed that the criminal picks his victim based on particular traits or clues, certain “dispositional factors”, in addition to “physical or social characteristics”. The victim was, in a sense, always already a victim. As Von Hentig put it, the victim is “perceived by the offender to be performing the role of victim, and is therefore an appropriate target.”

The idea that victims and criminals are partners in crime or, in Mendelsohn’s words, a “penal couple”, guided research for the following decades. This paradigm enhanced the perception that victimologists engaged — diligently and unabashedly — in blaming the victim, at least according to the feminist understanding of the expression. Indeed, in the mid-1970s, feminists and others condemned victimologists for focusing their professional gaze on victims’ culpability, and encouraged a radical shift in emphasis. Stripped of its former claim to scientific neutrality, victimology was now recruited for the purpose of victim-advocacy; what one victimologist calls “victim-defending”, and another provocatively characterizes as “affirmative action for victims”.


In the 1990s, “blaming the victim” became for many a prescription, which required neither an apology nor the pretence of science. The campaign against the “nation of victims”, the “victims’ revolution”, “victim politics”, “victimists”, “victicrats”, “victimism” — and other derisive expressions constructed around the word “victim” — has been waged in the daily press, journals, films, television documentaries and talk shows, as well as dozens upon dozens of books. A recent addition is Walter Benn Michael’s bestselling diatribe, The Trouble With Diversity (2006), which devotes an entire chapter to formulating that trouble as caused by our attentiveness to those he mockingly calls “Our Favourite Victims”.

In the tradition of the American jeremiad, writers such as Dinesh D’Souza, Shelby Steele, Charles Sykes, Allan Dershowitz, Camille Paglia and Naomi Wolf bemoan the supposed decline of America into a pitiful and self-pitying nation of victims. These popular writers may be simply repackaging familiar conservative causes, such as the drive against the welfare state or affirmative action. However, I think their common attachment to the victim vocabulary and its collateral moral reasoning is significant. They certainly all employ the term “victim”, as against previous uses of the concept, pejoratively. “Victim” is deployed to dismiss, ridicule, and condemn, rather than to evoke sympathy, empathy, or even pity. Individuals and groups who claim to have been victimized are portrayed as impotent, manipulative, self-indulgent, helpless, hopeless dependents, and still, somehow, an immense threat to society.

Though forged during debates over domestic policy, in the wake of 9/11 President Bush applied this same conception of victimhood to characterize terrorism. Speaking at the National Endowment for Democracy in the fall of 2007, he declared “Defeating the militant network is difficult, because it thrives, like a parasite, on the suffering and frustration of others. The radicals exploit local conflicts to build a culture of victimization, in which someone else is always to blame and violence is always the solution.” In other words, America’s former president maintains that the Middle East “blame game” gave rise to the ultimate victimists who, under the victim mantle, now victimize us.

Anti-victimists develop a gradual line of attack. They maintain, first, that most who claim to be victims are impostors. They do not experience discrimination, nor are they deprived by any sensible standard. Second, those who are disadvantaged in some way, exploit their victim status to achieve gains incommensurate with their actual circumstances. Third, apart from the veracity or proportionality of the victim’s claim, making victimization a central theme of group or individual identity undermines the victim’s character and is otherwise harmful to society. Indeed, anti-victimists expose victimists not by their self-designation as “victims”, but by their tendency to blame others (often society as a whole) for their plight.

The anti-victimists are particularly interested in the psychological dimensions of what they call “victim politics”. They view it as a state of mind, a mental affliction bordering on neurosis. The boundaries of this pathology may shift from victim groups to encompass society at large, since society’s alleged eagerness to acknowledge victims may also be explained as a collective psychological defect. At times, their diagnoses resemble watered down versions of the Nietzsche’s critique of slave morality, especially his discussion of ressentiment in The Genealogy of Morals.

Recall that Nietzsche regards ressentiment as an unhealthy reaction, a state of mind in which individuals are incapable of acting on the basis of positive values, and are instead confined to “imaginary revenge” and other such negative compensations. Sufferers discover or invent some external cause of their misery, a “guilty agent” to blame. Nietzsche writes, “The suffering […] enjoy being mistrustful and dwelling on nasty deeds and imaginary slights; they scour the entrails of their past and present for obscure and questionable occurrences that offer them the opportunity to revel in tormenting suspicions […] ‘I suffer: someone must be to blame for it’.”

In the same vein, Steele identifies what he calls “race-holding” as a mental entrapment that prevents African Americans from making progress, offering them only the possibilities of complaint or revenge. Race holding is a dependency on a victimization that no longer exists. Steele elaborates: “The race-holder whines […] indiscriminately, not because he seeks redress, but because he seeks the status of a victim, a status that excuses him from what he fears.”

Much of the anti-victimist literature is written as though in response to the legacy of the expression “blaming the victim.” Charles Sykes explicitly charges Ryan with having elaborated the doctrine that victims should not be held responsible for their conduct or their choices. He claims that Ryan created a penumbra of protections that allows victims to commit offences, including actual crimes, without being punished. Sykes explains, “For Ryan, being a victim […] meant never having to say you’re sorry or suffering the consequences of your misdeed […] there was always someone else to blame.” According to Sykes, Ryan’s work encouraged a dramatic transformation in sensibilities from sympathizing with victims to shielding victims from any sort of critical judgment, moral or otherwise.

While the anti-victimists positioned themselves in stark opposition to Ryan, the extent to which their respective analyses share basic formulations and tactics is rather remarkable. As has probably by now become apparent, the victimist is the mirror image of Ryan’s victim blamer. Where the victim blamer cleanses himself of his responsibility to engage in radical change to end inequality, the victimist exempts herself from responsibility for her own misfortunes. Victim blamers and victimists appear to suffer from the same psychological malfunction — a distorted perception of reality that results in deflecting responsibility onto others.

As a solution to endemic victimism, the critics endeavour to invert the imperative against blaming the victim. Writing about date rape, Camille Paglia declares, in her carefully cultivated over-the-top style: “Blaming the victim makes perfect sense, if the victim has behaved stupidly.” Unlike the victim blamers Ryan criticized, anti-victimists actually do blame victims, for they render judgments about moral rectitude, or, as in the quote above, the victim’s street savvy. These critics seek to repair individuals, rather than to adjudicate their claims of injustice. Thus, the anti-victimists, like Ryan, employ the term “victim” as a tool to incite, with a therapeutic purpose in mind.

The crusade to shame victims has been so successful that even those whose victim position would be readily acknowledged under the most stringent criteria, perform linguistic gymnastics to disavow the designation. Consider, for example, the case of Nicole Barrett. A deranged stranger smashed in her skull with a 6-pound paving stone in the middle of the day, in midtown Manhattan. Barrett’s head presently bears four major scars, a crater-like dent, as well as two metal plates held in place by screws; and she suffers from severe short and long term memory loss, chronic depression and frequent “sensory jumbles”. Nonetheless, she now proudly tells the New York Times that she is “not a victim” because she “does not want to dwell on the past”.

While it is rare to find many self-designated victims these days, there are legions of “survivors.” Professional victim advocates encourage this trend of renouncing victimhood. A study published in National Law Journal, for instance, found that social workers recommend renaming victims’ services — such as battered women’s shelters — “survivors’ agencies”. This new classification, proponents explains is “less passive, negative and disempowering”.

To add to the irony, the anti-victimists participate in the phenomenon they wish to curb. While the authors lament the proliferation of victim claims, they themselves introduce new groups of victims — often these are victims of victimism. Victimists may turn to victimize members of their own groups, those who refuse to comply with the supposedly rigid and repressive protocol of the collective. Symptomatically, several of the writers also include themselves as actual or potential victims of victimism. In this way, the anti-victimist literature adopts the same Manichean worldview that it attributes to victimists; viewing society as profoundly, and irreconcilably, divided between victims and victimizers. But in the critics’ depiction roles are often reversed: the victim is revealed to be the victimizer, and the alleged victimizer, the real victim.

Victims’ rights

Other groups of real victims include victims of affirmative action, taxpayers (as victims of the welfare state), and victims of crime. In the Victims’ Rights Movement, however, the sensibilities of both the anti-victimists and the anti-victim-blamers converge. Frequently viewed as an integral part of conservatives’ “war against crime,” the political roots of this movement are actually an amalgam. Certainly feminists’ efforts on behalf of victims of sexual abuse were a pioneering force in raising public awareness about the need to establish support programs for victims, and to amend laws and criminal proceedings to incorporate victims’ needs.

The Victims’ Rights Movement sponsors, among other things, securing victims a greater part in the prosecution of criminals. The movement’s major triumph to date, in this context, is the Victim Impact Statement. These statements provide a formal context in criminal trials — after the defendant has been found guilty and before sentencing — for victims or their families (defined by the movement and courts as “secondary victims”) to describe in detail the pain and suffering they endured.

Victim Impact Statements are justified, in part, by a therapeutic logic. The victim’s public testimony to her pain and suffering, as well as her opportunity to blame her victimizer, are meant to empower her psychologically, to help her overcome her trauma. The therapeutic underpinnings of the victim’s public testimony are also at the core of extra-judicial activities, such as victim impact panels (sponsored by groups such as “Mothers Against Drunk Drivers”) and “Take Back the Night” gatherings (where victims of sexual abuse are encouraged to testify about their experiences). The prevalence of such forums as well as the admission of Victim Impact Statements in criminal proceedings suggest a transformation in victim advocacy over the course of the last thirty years or so — from sheltering victims from blame, to the therapeutics of victims-as-blamers.

The designation “victims’ rights movement” emulates the model set by civil rights groups in the 1960s, though it is unclear whether this particular movement is meant to supplement or supplant its predecessors–a rights movement to end all other rights movements. After all, oppositional politics is unquestionably a primary target of anti-victimism. As we’ve seen, in contrast to the collectivism of progressive politics, anti-victimism functions as an individuating, atomizing discourse that hails or, as Althusser might have put it, “interpellates”, its subjects by calling into question their personal innocence, moral stature, and strength of character; while ignoring their common condition and history. When the startled subject turns back and replies “I am not a victim I am […] something else,” she too is ensnared by discourse.

“Victim” serves as such a sharp insult today because anti-victimists transformed discussions of social obligations, compensations, and remedial or restorative procedures into criticisms of the alleged propensity of self-described victims to engage in objectionable conduct. Anti-victimists habitually conflate groups and individuals, usually reducing the former to the latter. To a degree, this is also true of the language of “blaming the victim” in that this potent slogan employs a proverbial single victim to describe fundamental social inequalities.

However, while Ryan adopted the term “victim” to designate the poor, and thus shifted the locus of attention from the productive class to those outside it (in Marx’s terminology, the Lumpenproletariat), he is still attached to the old Marxian solution. For Ryan, victim status is a class status. Indeed, in a recent interview he revealed his concern and discomfort with the many appropriations of his charge to apply to individual victims, including victims of rape. Perhaps, he confessed, he had chosen his words poorly and coined “an unfortunate phrase”.

The victim idiom, whether in the form of anti-victimism or in the phrase “blaming the victim,” also seems to be the discursive venue through which therapeutics enters politics. First employed to evaluate individuals, therapeutic thinking then colonizes public debates about matters of social policy. In this radical neoliberal inversion of the “personal as political,” political demands are belittled, by casting them as matters of personal attitudes or feelings, as individual defects or faults, thereby delegitmizing collective, political solutions. After all, no one need be a “victim”, because each of us could be self-determining if we have the right character. It thus becomes extremely difficult to address institutional forms of hierarchy or privilege, systemic kinds of domination, pervasive forms of social injustice that advantage some by subordinating others.

Anti-victimism also superimposes a highly rigid juridical model of victimhood on all types of victimization. In doing so, it stifles the majority of victim claims, radically narrows the scope of those who might rightfully seek victim status, and confines redress to retributive actions by the State. When charges of social injustice are recast within notions of blamelessness and guilt that emanate from the courtroom, members of marginal groups must provide the equivalent of forensic evidence to demonstrate that they are in fact disadvantaged.

Rhetorical revolt

At the conclusion of this rather swift survey of the curious career of the phrase “blaming the victim” we may make several observations. First, the present use of the expression owes less to its author, than to its interpretation and application by feminist victim advocates. Second, their employment of Ryan’s phrase reflected a new conception of the effects of victimization, especially for victims of crime. Victimhood is no longer thought of as primarily, or even necessarily, in terms of injustice or even bodies in pain, but instead in terms of psychological damage. Third, the anti-victimist challenge ultimately aims more at the feminists’ variant of “blaming the victim” than at Ryan’s. They undermine the privileging of the victim’s perspective, especially the demand to shield victims from judgment. Fourth, the anti-victimists have also, in turn, invested victimhood with new meaning, by rendering it shameful. They seem to forget that, as the political theorist Judith Shklar remarked, “victimhood happens to us, it is not a quality”.

As we have seen, anti-victimists strive to knock victims off their holy mantle with one hand. With the other hand, however, they place victims on an even higher pedestal by advancing what I call “cult of true victimhood”, in which victims’ status is predicated on complete helplessness and absolute innocence. But, of course, the anti-victimists’ Virtuous Victim doesn’t gripe or fuss; he struggles stoically against all odds, never expecting any assistance. The good victim, in other words, the victim who deserves our concern and assistance — is the victim who refuses to be a victim.


Benn Michael, Walter, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, Metropolitan Books, 2006
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Published 9 February 2011

Original in English
First published in Glänta 3-4/2010 (Swedish version); Eurozine (English version)

© Alyson M. Cole / Glänta Eurozine