Discourse Victimology

The propensity to view yourself as a victim may be a personality trait

Anyone courageous (or foolish) enough to engage in online discourse is likely familiar with the experience of a heated conversation leading to claims of victimhood. Sometimes the claims have merit—people do get victimized by those who mistreat them. But I’m referring to perceptions of victimhood that stem from little more than sharp disagreement. These perceptions lead to claims that a person is being harassed, when what’s happening is more accurately characterizable as uncomfortable and even contentious dissent.

What makes this a dizzying experience is that, on some occasions at least, the claim of victimhood is rhetorically used the way that a knock-dock argument typically is—as a debate-clinching move. But unlike actual substantive support, a claim to being victimized fails to provide anyone with good grounds for believing that the opposing position is wrong.

Take, for example, the now familiar move against author and podcaster Jesse Singal to suggest he is guilty of harassment—against his critics, against transgender people, you name it. Despite third parties offering tens of thousands of dollars for anyone willing to publicize evidence of wrongdoing—i.e., for “receipts,” including allegedly damning ones his detractors assure us they have—none has been provided. On many occasions the charges that Singal has victimized people just refer to instances in which Singal has responded to allegations of a serious nature publicly made against him—such as that he has harassed transwomen. What’s truly backwards is when Singal’s demand for evidence is itself construed as an instrument of victimization.

But perceptions of victimhood aren’t just found in online episodes of this sort. They are more fundamental than that. The experience is felt more broadly than just during encounters with people online. It’s more like a pervasive mindset. Being a member of an aggrieved group, and that group’s aggrieved status being unquestionable and conferring certain epistemic advantages, is for many people a central input in their social experience.

When a deputy editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association denied the existence of structural racism in a podcast interview, he was fired. The editor in chief was also placed on administrative leave. The deputy editor wanted to stress that physicians themselves aren’t personally racist, but conflated this more individual sort of racism with the notion of structural racism. But since his words, whatever his intentions, had suggested structural racism is nonexistent, this carried the implication that there is no pervasive victimization in society. The result was predictable: for thinking that “structural racism” is an unhelpful term, the deputy editor was said by one critic to have “caused an incalculable amount of pain and trauma to Black physicians and patients.”

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a phenomenon exclusive to the left. Arc’s Berny Belvedere has written about how Trumpian populism cultivates a sensibility of oppression in order to power its political aims:

A core element of Trumpism, and of populism more generally, is the incurable conviction that you and your movement are condemned to exist in a kind of permanent outsidership.

You could be utterly ensconced in power, just institutionally entrenched, the jackboot on people’s necks could be yours and yours alone, and yet your self-conception will be of a dispossessed insurgency valiantly opposing Orwellian forces.

In the aftermath of January 6, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) was censured by the Wyoming GOP for voting to impeach Trump. Cheney was taken to task for siding with Democrats in their supposed plot to silence and destroy conservatives. How does this perspective form among people whose political party has recently dominated the levers of power in America? Others on the right have viewed mask mandates as tyranny, not stopping to consider how incomprehensible it is to characterize a minimally intrusive public health response to a once-in-a-century pandemic as an existential power grab by establishment forces.

What is common in these and similar cases is the perception of victimization. The supposed victimizing force can vary: sometimes it’s others’ words, sometimes it’s their actions, sometimes vast conspiracies, or any number of other things. Victimhood is obviously a real thing, but I’m referring to the claims that one’s been victimized (or “harmed,” or “violated”) after a bit of nasty disagreement. I’m also referring to the leveraging of tenuous claims of victimization into a form of social currency.

This latter point is especially interesting: aggrieved individuals seem to have a lot of pull in our society. But it’s worth asking: Who are these people? Why are they the way they are?

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A new research paper published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences attempts to address this question. In a series of studies with thousands of participants, the authors examine the personality trait of tendency for interpersonal victimhood. The authors find that victimhood as a personality trait is related to four underlying issues.

First is need for recognition. People high in victimhood want to be seen as victims. It’s a part of their identity and they want others to affirm it. Second is moral elitism, or the sense that one’s own moral perspective is meticulously right and those who disagree are immoral, evil, or just acting in bad faith. The third facet is lack of empathy. These individuals tend to be preoccupied with their own suffering and indifferent to that of others. And the final characteristic is rumination, or the tendency to focus most intently on the causes of one’s victimhood rather than to seek solutions or try to exit victim status.

I want to stress again the difference between trait victimhood and victimhood more generally. People high in trait victimhood tend to center their identities around victimhood. They may or may not have been actually victimized, and they tend to interpret even minor slights as serious harms. By contrast, many individuals exposed to serious real victimization—whether by crime, injustice, war, or other horrors—don’t necessarily incorporate victimhood into their core identity.

The researchers found that victimhood was associated with a history of anxious attachment to others, namely a fear of abandonment and mistrust of others. Victimhood was associated with revenge motivations, and sense of entitlement to engage in immoral behavior (essentially those perceived as victimizers deserve whatever they get), and low inclinations toward forgiveness (which, if trait victimhood is pervasive, could explain why internet apologies rarely soothe tensions). These individuals were also more likely to engage in revenge behaviors toward others in an experimental setting. So, individuals high in victimhood are quicker to take offense and quicker to lash out against the perceived offense-givers, hoping to punish them severely.

Trait victimhood can’t fully explain the amorphous phenomenon some refer to as “cancel culture,” but it can go some distance toward illuminating its sources. The readiness to take offense, not just from outright hateful speech but from good-faith disagreement, inconvenient data, jokes and satire, and more, is at least partly explainable by a personality trait governed by a view of one’s own righteousness as pure and people with opposing views as offensively immoral.

Of course, morality isn’t really the driving force. The point is revenge. As the researchers put it:

Behaviorally, high-TIV [tendency for interpersonal victimhood] individuals were less willing to forgive others after an offense, and more likely to seek revenge rather than avoidance and behave in a revengeful manner.

This is perhaps why so much of the rhetoric we see in online encounters of the sort we’ve been discussing is couched in the language of harm, supremacy, tyranny, and immorality, only for the response to these putative instances of wrongdoing to be laden with cruelty, maliciousness, a lack of charity, and to be grossly out of proportion to the “crime.”

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Many questions remain about victimhood.

First, how stable is it over time? To be a personality trait, we’d expect a very high stability over long periods. Most personality traits are fairly set, with relatively modest personality changes even over long durations.

Second, how does victimhood relate to mental illness? Is it more common among individuals with certain pathologies such as borderline personality disorder?

Third, to what degree does it predict hostile behaviors in real life? We have some preliminary data that victimhood is associated with revenge, immoral behavior, and decreased empathy. Are individuals high in victimhood more often at the center of the mass flame wars we see online? Are individuals high in victimhood less interested in or perhaps even hostile to empirical data that challenges their worldviews?

We need to better understand the degree to which victimhood is influencing our culture. Certainly, we don’t want to dismiss the experiences of actual victims of injustice. At the same time, we also don’t want to give undue influence to those who use victimhood coercively, to bully or shame or frighten others out of critical thinking. At present, too many of the incentive structures in our society, from right-wing talk radio to the failure of university administrators to take strong stances on free speech and academic freedom, have worked to give oxygen to unearned victimhood. This comes at the expense of cherished liberal values such as due process and free speech.

The difficulty, as ever, is finding the right balance. Historically, and even presently, many injustices have been overlooked, and actual victims deprived of recourse. But a discourse culture that uncritically accepts any claim to victimization as a trump card, or worse, as grounds for ostracizing the alleged offender, is doing a disservice to society.

There is a critical difference between taking accusations of victimization seriously and taking victimhood claims at face value without any attempt to collect evidence, data, or the other side’s perspective. The first is consistent with properly and impartially investigating the merits of individual claims; the second is not. Predictably, it’s the second approach that gives license to, and even incentivizes, the cynical deployment of victimhood. That’s not what we want.

Finally, it’s important that we do not abandon empathy for those high in victimhood. From the data available, many individuals who may have this trait are in pain, and that pain is projected outward as anger and vengefulness. Just because they too readily claim victimization doesn’t mean their experiences are made up. Retaining empathy doesn’t mean enabling tantrums or going along with their unearned sense of aggrievement. But it means seeing this in its proper context.

I don’t believe our culture is well-served by encouraging the antagonism and fragility that persons high in victimhood tend to exhibit. Giving room and space for this, and building it into our discourse norms, is to court catastrophe. The better we understand what’s driving victimhood culture, the more we can help those at the center who are in pain, while also rebalancing our public discourse so it is not at their mercy.