The word victim gets thrown around a lot. Sometimes it’s a description. Other times it’s a criticism.
People are victims, in a technical sense, when they’re the target of a crime; and in a more colloquial sense whenever they’re treated unjustly. This is situational. But certain groups encounter injustice far more often than others, and some say they’re oppressed in a pervasive way due to race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, social class, and so on.
Others collect grievances, including seemingly minor offenses, or microaggressions, such an Asian-American being asked where they’re from. This can lead to the accusation that some people think of themselves as victims in a generalized sense, though the accused usually deny this.
Whether someone is playing the victim is not for me to say. But there is a red flag I often see: the desire we’ve all experienced to blame others for our dissatisfaction in life.
Tribalism is a feature of every human culture. Even toddlers form cliques. It may be biologically hardwired. But that doesn’t mean it’s our destiny. We’re intelligent creatures, and we’re capable of taking steps to mitigate tribalism.
Still, us vs. them is a compelling narrative. It’s all too easy to find an enemy—real or imagined—whom we blame for our difficulties in life. Some ideologies even find a scapegoat for everything that is wrong with the world.
Some Christians blame atheists. Some Muslims blame infidels. Atheists often blame religion. Conservatives and progressives blame each other. Libertarians and anarchists blame the government. Feminists blame the patriarchy. Men’s rights activists blame feminists. And so on ad nauseum.
There’s a failure to realize that while someone may have done something to us, and while we did not choose this situation, how we react to it is up to us.
Epictetus observed that “an ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.”
He isn’t saying that the situations we find ourselves in are our fault. Circumstances, according to Epictetus, lie outside our sphere of control. But whether circumstances lead us to become dissatisfied with life and resentful of others is up to us.
In other words, instead of thinking that they’re out to get me I can decide what action I’m going to take. It’s the difference between learned helplessness and being proactive.
But blaming others has its incentives. Being persecuted puts us at the center of attention. It gives us a feeling of moral superiority. And blaming others absolves us of any responsibility for acting to resolve things.
This phenomenon is magnified when we belong to an ideological group with a defined enemy. But we should be skeptical of all ideologies. None have it all figured out, and all have their weak points. But we should be especially distrustful of ideologies that blame a particular group or person for what’s wrong with the world.
Challenging our group’s orthodoxy is much harder than criticizing an outside group. It takes no courage for a political party to criticize its opponents, but it takes great courage for a party member to stand up and say, “You know, we’re not really morally superior to our opponents.”
I like the fact that Stoicism has no external enemy—not even Epicureanism. Though the two philosophies disagree, neither thinks the other is out to get them. Stoicism teaches that if I’m unhappy then it’s up to me to change that. The obstacle is the way, as Ryan Holiday puts it.
To be more direct, if I have an enemy then the enemy is me. So it’s my responsibility to change my own behavior.