The Perils of Protagonism

I’d like to clarify my ideas on victimization now. What do I mean when I say that people want to make themselves victims? How do these “self-described” victims differ from an “actual” victim? Where do you draw the line between the two? How can you discuss this without pissing everyone off?

I realize I’m getting into a minefield here. In this political climate, it almost never pays off to put your foot down on what something means. Disagreement is bound to arise, and I understand that. If any of you have a different idea on the nature of victimization, I’ll be glad to hear it. I’d love to have a rational, reasonable debate about this. I won’t assume that my argument is infallible, but we have to start somewhere with this, right?

There’s no denying that bad things happen to us all at some point. In fact, with the way things are going it’s quite likely we’re all struggling right now in some way. The truth of the matter is that most of us, no matter how hard we work, won’t get to meet the goals we’ve set for ourselves due to circumstances beyond our control. It’s something that’s difficult to reconcile, but it’s also the state of our society right now. Some of us don’t have the access we need to money, education, a good support network. It’s unfair that we don’t benefit from these things that seem to come so easily to other people.

Each of us in a certain social or economic group struggle in different ways. Stay-at-home moms have to deal with a cultural lack of understanding for how hard they work to raise their children. Poor white people have to deal with the illusion of privilege that surrounds them, just because they’re white. I’m black, gay, and non-Christian. There’s a litany of disadvantages my upbringing, orientation and religious choices get me. I won’t get into them here, but it’s safe to say that life is different for me than it is for a middle-class white man with good connections.

Here’s the thing, though. The unique challenges we face as members of a sub-community don’t make us victims. We all have things we need to deal with, problems that we need to solve, just to make it in today’s world. Just because my problems are different from yours doesn’t necessarily make mine any more important. Even though the system is stacked against most of us in different ways, the fact remains this: the system is stacked against us. And even though we arrive at that fact from all kinds of places, we’re still in this same place together.

A victim, however, is someone who’s endured extraordinary hardship at the hands of someone or something terrible. This leaves them damaged, challenged in a fundamental way that most of us will hopefully never have to overcome. If you’ve been raped or sexually molested, you’re a victim of that experience. If you’ve been the victim of a violent crime, you’re a victim of that experience. If you’ve lived through a hurricane, tornado or earthquake that destroyed your home or community, you’re a victim of that experience.

If a public figure says something disparaging about your demographic, that doesn’t make you a victim. It doesn’t excuse what a celebrity or politician says, but come on — have a sense of perspective. Yes, a comment may point to a lack of respect or understanding about a group you belong to, but it’s hardly the same thing as losing your house to a flood or being nearly beaten to death. It doesn’t compare at all.

So, where does all of this outrage come from? Why do people act as if they’re victimized by a comparatively mild hardship?

One answer is that we live in a culture that encourages us to be self-centered to the point that we see our problems as more important than anyone else’s. This might be misanthropic of me, but I think it’s true. It’s tough to reconcile that view with the need to be empathetic with everyone we meet, but I think it’s important to be honest about the situation *and* believe it can be solved.

Let me put it this way: most of us consider ourselves to be the heroes in our own stories. We construct a narrative of our lives so that our beliefs are objective rather than subjective truths, and that our ideas about good and bad, right or wrong, are not constructs of our moral systems but the way the world actually works. In other words, if we believe it’s wrong to curse in public, it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks — it’s objectively rude to drop f-bombs in a restaurant. If someone believes that homosexuality is a sin, the thought that others believe it’s simply the way some people are born is irrelevant. It’s objectively wrong, a sin, something that should be avoided. The people that agree with the narratives we construct about the world are our allies, our supporting characters. The people who try to get us to challenge or change it are our antagonists. The more tightly you cling to your beliefs, the more entrenched you are in this story you’ve woven for yourself, the more you cling to this paradigm.

It’s natural for us to see the world in this way, I feel I should point out. Our brains are wired to make sense of the world. We need reasons for things being the way they are, after all, and the phenomena we experience have to be categorized somehow in order for us to be comfortable, to have some semblance of consistency in our lives. However, the world exists apart of our perception of it. There is an objective reality out there, something with its own set of rules and influences that we don’t understand or see. When the ‘real world’ reminds us that our stories are really just constructs, it’s uncomfortable. It creates a dissonance that disrupts the order we’ve imposed on our lives. Some of us deal better with that dissonance than others, and those that don’t retreat further into the comfort of their stories.

This is natural too, but it’s also damaging. When we retreat too far into our own stories we start to believe everyone’s living the same one. We think that the stakes for us — what’s important, what’s irrelevant — are the same for everyone else, and we think that the challenges we have trouble facing (and the ones we find easy) have the same level of difficulty for everyone else. So if some of us think homosexuality or sexual permissiveness is causing the downfall of our society, then it legitimately dismays us to find out that other people don’t feel the same way. If we hold the belief that we really need to be paying attention to the environment or eating way healthier than we do, it boggles us when someone says it’s just not that important to them.

These two fundamental beliefs — that everyone should have the same priorities we do, and that every challenge faced carries the same level of difficulty for everyone — lead us to discount the experiences of other people. We force the template of our stories onto the experiences of everyone, and that simply doesn’t work. The more we cling to our experience as some kind of objective truth, the less we’re able to comprehend other perspectives, other ways that people move through life. Anyone outside of our lifestyle is there because of choice, not because of the difficulties of circumstances. It’s these two beliefs that cause us to look at a homeless person or someone on welfare and wonder “Why don’t they just get a job?”.

When we believe that our own lives are what is “normal”, we focus on our problems as the most important ones. Something that offends our beliefs or interferes with our way of life is not only what we need to fight, but what everyone should be fighting. Problems that we’ve never run across — even the ones we see as important or tragic — are easier to diminish because it doesn’t affect us. And if we think a problem is easy to overcome? Those that struggle with it aren’t struggling because the problem is far bigger for them. It’s because they’re lazy.

It’s this dichotomy that has strangled our ability to empathize with people. It’s a fallacy to think that our stories, our priorities and problems are the same for everyone. The stakes in each person’s life is different, and the challenges we face require incredibly varied levels of effort. We cannot assume that because it’s easy for us to make $40K a year or so and live in a good neighborhood, that other people don’t because they don’t want it badly enough. For other people, our lives and the lives of the middle-class, is so impossible it might as well be a dream.

I think most of us don’t realize how automatic filtering everything through that lens has gotten to be. And that has very drastic consequences for how we relate to other people. It makes us selfish and cruel. It also makes us cast ourselves in the role of the victim whenever something goes wrong. For other people, their problems are likely their own fault. For us, it’s the catastrophic effect of a universe that isn’t looking out for us.

One thought on “The Perils of Protagonism

  1. I do love to read your journal posts, they often so elegantly describe problems in modern society. Your arguments about problem perception really reminded me about this article: The only moral abortion is my abortion.
    I recognise a lot of the same issues described there.

    Keep writing, I’ll keep reading.

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