Against Victimhood

post by Jacobian · 2020-09-18T01:58:31.041Z · LW · GW · 15 comments

Cross-posted, as always, from Putanumonit.


I have written many posts in the shape of giving life advice. I hear back from readers who take it and those who refuse it. Either is good — I’m just a guy on the internet, to be consumed as part of a balanced diet of opinions.

But occasionally I hear: who are you to give life advice, your own life is so perfect! This sounds strange at first. If you think I’ve got life figured out, wouldn’t you want my advice? I think what they mean is that I haven’t had to overcome the hardships they have, hostile people and adverse circumstances.

I talk quite often about things that are going poorly for me, but only from the point of view of how I fucked up. I avoid talking about being wronged, oppressed, attacked, discriminated against, or victimized. If you assume that it’s because I live a charmed life where none of these things happen, you may need a refresher on the base rate fallacy.

The reason I never talk about being a victim is that I’m extremely averse to victim mentality. It’s an insidious mindset, one that’s self-reinforcing both internally and by outside feedback. I’ve seen it claim people, groups, entire nations. On the flip side, I’ve noticed that the less often I think of myself as a victim the less I am victimized, which in turn makes that mindset even rarer. If I do feel on occasion that I have been harmed through no fault of my own by hostile actors I keep it to myself. This is a bad time to be a victim on the internet.


What’s bad about victim mentality? Most obviously, inhabiting a narrative where the world has committed a great injustice against which you are helpless against is extremely distressing. Whether the narrative is justified or not, it causes suffering.

See yourself as a victim prevents you from improving your situation by your own power, since doing so will contradict the story of your own helplessness. In particular that’s true of the story you tell yourself. That story is your identity, how your mind predicts your future actions. If your story is helpless victimhood your mind will refuse to help — it wants to be vindicated more than it wants to do better.

When I was young I was a weird nerd, and while that maybe hasn’t changed much I do find myself in social circles where weird nerdiness is welcome. In school it was not very welcome, and people weren’t nice to me. But I never really fell into thinking that I was singled out for abuse, mostly because I reasoned that if my classmates really wanted to abuse me they could do so much more than they have. I could come up with very creative ways to bully someone, and no one in my school seemed equally creative. I learned to avoid the worst people and slowly make friends with the rest.

Avoiding bad things is a usually a great tactic, but it’s not available to victims. Avoiding the victimizer makes it hard to sustain the story of victimhood. It also leaves behind the lingering residue of injustice, knowing that the culprit did not get their comeuppance. That sense of injustice often haunts the victim long after they’re safe from the original source of harm.

Most importantly, victim mentality leaves no room for empathy. Victims can’t see anyone else’s struggles or suffering, especially those of their perceived victimizers.

When I write about dating I get replies from young men who feel maligned and victimized by women. They complain about impossible standards, ambiguous behavior, and dating norms as if these were setup on purpose to immiserate them. When I was younger and finally managed to reject this line of thinking for myself I started understanding women’s own difficulties, fears, and frustrations with dating, the real issues behind their seemingly-unfair complaints about men. That’s when my dating life improved dramatically.

People in general don’t like victims, and they certainly don’t want to date them.


Why do people claim victimhood despite the drawbacks? It makes sense in a small group where people know each other and reputations are tracked. The group will band to punish the perpetrator and offer the victim restitution, knowing that this will redound to them in turn.

But in the world at large, and especially on the internet of beefs, there are a lot more punishers than restitutionists. Claiming publicly that you’ve been victimized by X will immediately attract everyone with an axe to grind against X. Any pure souls trying to help will get swallowed up by the sheer number and energy of anti-Xers.

The anti-Xers have a vested interest in your continued victimization by X. Nothing is more detrimental to their cause than X’s victims making peace with X on their own terms. Victimhood-mongering provides purpose and gainful employment to countless individuals. The victims end up doubly helpless and doubly beholden: both to their oppressors and their “liberators”.


Global recognition of one’s victimhood is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to anyone. It happened to the Palestinians.

The United Nations agrees that Palestinians are victims. That’s why in addition to UNHCR, the UN agency to support refugees worldwide, it has a special agency dedicated to Palestinian refugees: UNRWA. UNRWA differs from UNHCR in two main ways:

  1. It does not share UNHCR’s mandate to “assist refugees in eliminating their refugee status by local integration in the current country, resettlement in a third country or repatriation”, thus keeping Palestinianss and their descendants in refugee status for perpetuity.
  2. It employs twice the number of staff.

Muslim leaders from Tunis to Kuala Lumpur agree that Palestinians are victims. They need to because it plays well for public opinion and allows them to maintain an anti-Israel stance in the absence, for most of them, of any actual conflict with Israel. Until there’s something serious at stake like foreign investments or a weapons deal, that is, and then they sign a deal with Israel and tell the Palestinians to shut up and stop complaining.

Many Americans agree that Palestinians are victims, especially those on college campuses. Shortly after I arrived on campus in the US I was invited to a “conversation” about the ongoing operation in Gaza with a left-leaning Jewish student group.

I asked them whether they though the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari, which set off the operation, was justified. None of the 15 students in attendance knew who he was. Most of them couldn’t tell Hamas from the PLO, conflated the situation in Gaza with the settlements in the West Bank, and had little knowledge or interest in actual matters of Palestinian life and governance such as elections, security arrangements, water and energy supply, etc.

I realized that the vast majority of them joined this organization to establish their progressive bona fides and differentiate themselves from Jewish conservatives. Israel-Palestine is the biggest game in town, but it probably could just as well be male circumcision or female rabbis.

I want to make it clear — I don’t particularly disagree that Palestinians are victims in many senses and that their ability to help themselves is constrained by outside forces, chief among which is Israel. I have real compassion for them. I just want to note that decades of global recognition of Palestinian victimhood have been a boon for UN staffers, Muslim politicians, and American progressives, along with many others. Surely such a broad and powerful coalition would bring Palestine peace and prosperity and an end to victimhood?

Shockingly, it hasn’t.

These situations apply mostly to identifiable groups, examples of which are abundant, but it can happen to individuals too. In families, schools, organizations there are people who like playing the savior role, and they have a sharp nose for victims in need.


Isn’t this all victim blaming? This is a reasonable objection, although I have some issues with the concept itself and its provenance. Here’s the headline of the Wikipedia article on victim blaming:

Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially at fault for the harm that befell them. The study of victimology seeks to mitigate the prejudice against victims, and the perception that victims are in any way responsible for the actions of offenders.

Equating the perception that victims have even a modicum of responsibility with prejudice gives up the game before it started. With this axiom in place “victimology” is not a field of inquiry, it’s a tool of advocacy to be used in competitions for victimhood status. These competitions have many losers and no winners.

But the concept of victim blaming as it’s naively understood still has value and needs to be addressed. To do so we need to clarify two distinctions.

The first difference is between being a victim in a particular instance and victimhood as an ongoing story. When you are the target of a crime you are a victim — you can appeal to an authority for help. You tell mom your older sister stole your toy and mom makes her return it.

This is entirely different from saying decades later that your career failures are a result of being victimized by your sister as a child. Even if the causal effect of your sister’s depredation is not literally zero, it has probably done less harm than the narrative of victimhood itself.

When I arrived in New York with little money I promptly lost $3,000 to a rental scam. If the cops had apprehended the scammer I would have confirmed that yes, I was their victim, and would have demanded the full amount back. But my main reaction was to analyze the situation, read up on similar scams, and build a plan for the future that will prevent me from falling for those again. I don’t even see it as an injustice — $3,000 is a fair price to pay for a class in scam resilience.

The second, related distinction is between public status and individual mindset. Blame is at its core a social concept, used to coordinate how we allocate responsibility and demand atonement as a group. We could very want for society to direct those at the perpetrator, and simultaneously advise the victim to hold themselves privately accountable at least in part.

The problem here is that every public discussion of the issue is perceived as mostly an attempt to shape the reaction of society, rather than the attitude of the victim. I care more about the latter, which is why this entire essay avoided talking about individual victims and how they could improve. The main way to change individual mindset it to talk about your own experience, which is also what I would encourage you to do in the comments. (I will heavily moderate less-than-perfectly-charitable discussion of the behavior of actual victims and all sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict.)


In conclusion we must address privilege. It’s sure easy for someone who is safe from oppression to talk about the pitfalls of victim mentality; not so for the victim!

My first answer is that there is a strong bias in favor of overstating victimhood that needs to be corrected. This bias is caused by all people I discussed who benefit from being seen as protectors of victims. This bias is especially powerful in the United States, where victimhood is more and more allocated on the basis of group identity (which is enduring and political) instead of individual circumstance (which can be helped and overcome). If we lived in ancient Sparta, I would be giving the reverse advice instead.

Victim mentality is manufactured en masse by the American education system. It can only be resisted by individual efforts to reject it for yourself, in the privacy of your own blog-browsing.

But yes — I am privileged. In my nationality, my social and professional status, and more. But for all of those I, or the group that I’m part of, decided not to be victims and to take responsibility even when the former option was on the table. Again, I will not go into detail about how the option of victimhood was available, since merely talking about it is claiming it.

I don’t care if I miss out on the desirable status of having overcome great adversity™. It’s a currency that certainly has its value. But it’s not worth the price it demands.

Victimhood is a vicious cycle. It leads to helplessness which leads to victimization which leads to external recognition of victimhood which in turn leads to helplessness and so on down the spiral. Rejecting victimhood works the same way, small decisions that compound until one reaches escape velocity.

Not being a victim is indeed a privilege. With time and a change of mindset, this privilege can be yours too.

15 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Viliam · 2020-09-18T22:44:53.609Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

EDIT: Moved this comment to my shortform [LW(p) · GW(p)], because it was nitpicking mostly irrelevant to the article. Sorry about that.

comment by lionhearted · 2020-09-19T20:34:43.076Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Respectfully — and I do mean this respectfully — I think you're talking completely past Jacob and missed his point.

You comment starts:

How much your life is determined by your actions, and how much by forces beyond your control, that is an empirical question. You seem to believe it's mostly your actions.

But Jacob didn't say that.

You're inferring something he didn't say — actually, you're inferring something that he explicitly disclaimed against.

Here's the opening of his piece right after the preface; it's more-or-less his thesis:

What’s bad about victim mentality? Most obviously, inhabiting a narrative where the world has committed a great injustice against which you are helpless against is extremely distressing. Whether the narrative is justified or not, it causes suffering.

(Emphasis added.)

You made some other interesting points, but I don't think he was trying to ascribe macro-causality to internal or external factors. 

He was saying, simply, in 2020-USA he thinks you'll get both (1) better practical outcomes and (2) better wellbeing if you eschew what he calls victim mentality. 

He says it doesn't apply universally (eg, Ancient Sparta). 

And he might be right or he might be mistaken.

But that's broadly what his point was.

You're inferring something for whatever reason that isn't what he said, and actually pretty much said he didn't believe, and then you went from there.

comment by Viliam · 2020-09-19T21:42:24.448Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yep, I was just nitpicking about literally two lines from the entire article. Guess they triggered me somehow.

Humbled by your niceness when pointing this out, I moved the comment away. Thank you!

comment by Ericf · 2020-09-20T01:11:13.835Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think as a meta level the relocated comment is still important. People who are systematically oppressed, might have a different perspective than Jacob, who has been transiently hurt. For example, I have seen several different black people with an audience support contextual victim-hood, but the stance from white men is almost all in agreement with Jacob. As someone with neither history, I won't further speculate.

comment by Viliam · 2020-09-20T15:29:43.340Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A systematically oppressed group can still be wrong. Being oppressed gives you an experience other people don't have, but doesn't give you epistemic superpowers. You can still derive wrong conclusions, despite having access to special data.

Anecdote time: When I was a kid, I was bullied by someone who did lots of sport. As a result, I developed an unconscious aversion to sport. (Because I didn't want to be like him, and I didn't want to participate in things that reminded me of him.) Obviously, this only further reduced the quality of my life. Years later, I found some great friends, who also did lots of sport. Soon, the aversion disappeared. My unconsciousness decided it was actually okay to be like them.

Maybe I am generalizing my experience too much, but looking at some groups, it seems like they follow the same algorithm (sometimes except for the happy ending, yet). At some moment in history, your group happens to be at the bottom of the social ladder. Others -- the bad guys -- have the money, the education, the institutions, etc. Your group starts associating money, education, and institutions with the bad things that were done to them. The difference is that when this happens on a group level, the belief gets reinforced culturally, because your friends and family all had the same experience.

A few decades or centuries later, your group also gets an access to education, money, and institutions. (And I am not necessarily talking about equal access here; just about some access, as opposed to your ancestors who had none.) But now everyone knows that these are things your people traditionally don't have, and whoever aspires to get them is perceived as a traitor, as someone who wants to join the bad guys. You cannot discuss rationally whether getting more education, more money, and more of your people in institutions is actually a good thing for your group, because it increases your individual and collective power. The group as a whole is flinching away from the painful experience in the collective memory, and the individuals who go against the grain get punished.

(An example would be black people policing each other against "acting white", but a similar mechanism applies in situations where one group of white people was historically oppressed by another group of white people, because of different language or religion or whatever.)

But of course, there may be also legitimate reasons to distrust strategies that work for other people. For example, education means acquiring debt in return for higher expected income in the future. If you know that the "higher income" is not going to happen, e.g. because of racism, then education is not as profitable for you as it would be for the majority.

comment by lionhearted · 2020-09-20T11:42:34.764Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I have first-pass intuitions but I genuinely don't know.

In a era with both more trustworthy scholarship (replication crisis, etc) and less polarization, I think this would actually be an amazing topic for a variety of longitudinal studies. 

Alas, probably not possible right now.

comment by romeostevensit · 2020-09-18T04:42:39.305Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In Buddhist psychology, the realm whose primary flavor is victimhood is referred to as either the hell realm or the demon realm and it is the lowest of the 6 realms. This is both because of how terrible it is for the people who live there and how hard it is to escape. To illustrate this, one of the things said of the hell realm is that none of the gates are actually locked. It's the way the hell realm shapes attention away from the gates or convinces you that they're a trick that keeps you in. Trying to help people who are deep in this can be extremely difficult due to this self sealing nature. For more I highly recommend the relevant chapter (4 or 5 IIRC) from Opening the Heart of Compassion (pdf).

comment by wolajacy · 2020-09-18T09:50:44.173Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On the exactly the same phenomenon, but from a different perspective - C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce goes to explain the Christian Hell as the place that people are stuck in because they choose to wallow in despair/grief/anger/victimhood, instead of just forgiving and letting go.

For example, he talks about a mother that lost her child, and is now stuck on anger of this child being unfairly treated by the word/God. The crucial fact is that she is indulging in that anger as a way of signalling her own self-rightioussness, not for any productive purpose.

Quite interesting, how all these different worldviews converge on that one :)

comment by Viliam · 2020-09-18T21:55:08.231Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Quite interesting, how all these different worldviews converge on that one :)

Maybe a religion that wants to appeal to people with modern sense of justice (i.e. those not satisfied with "the ingroup goes to heaven, the outgroup goes to hell, exactly as you would wish, right?") has no better option than take the just-world hypothesis and dress it up in religious terms.

comment by AllAmericanBreakfast · 2020-09-18T15:40:44.685Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My favorite part of this post is your comment on how rejection of your own victim mentality helped you develop empathy for the difficult dating experiences of women. I experienced the same thing, and it strikes me as both true and counterintuitive.

My hesitancy is around weaving together so many areas of life under the title “victimhood.” I’m not ready to accept that Palestine’s problems are due to millions of Palestinians refusing to cast off their victim mentality. Their experience is structurally different from that of a man having a tough time dating, or a person falling for a scam. It’s totally fair to critique left wing activists for not having an in depth understanding of the issue.

Although I’m no longer a leftist, I was in college. I don’t think it’s quite fair to say they’re all in it to burnish their radical credentials. Instead, I’d say that their collective anxiety about acceptance by the others is part of what inhibits them from that in-depth research. It’s all too easy to cast victimology as the new oppressor, and I fear that this post teeters on the verge of that.

But I do like this post. The victim narrative is about demanding empathy from others, and people who support it fear that if people reject the narrative, then they are rejecting empathy. Not so. Empathy can be two-fold: acknowledging the unique external difficulties another person faces, while also feeling compassion for the ways in which their attitude and actions may compound those problems.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-09-18T20:24:58.655Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like this post, but can't help but to notice that I expect it to be unhelpful to the people who would most need it. For someone deeply mired in victim mentality, they won't be convinced by an intellectual argument for why victim mentality is bad, since to them their victimhood feels like just how things are.

On the other hand, I guess it's unavoidable that the people who would most need to hear a particular advice are incapable of hearing it, and this post can still be helpful to people who might otherwise slightly lean that way. (Personally seeing some people's victim mentality has given me a strong incentive to never be like that myself, and it has felt helpful, so I expect that this post will also be helpful to some.)

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-09-20T10:53:51.196Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that victim mentality is useless, but reminding oneself that you were a victim of certain things isn't.

Outside of, maybe, a pure objectivist, reminding yourself that a certain system or group is against you can serve as a good driver of rational actions, i.e. you can use it to tone down your empathy and act in a more self-interested way towards that group.

Of course, the key word here is "self-interest", the problems you rightfully point out with victim mentality is that people often act upon it in ways that aren't self-interested, where they go into depressive or aggressive spirals that are of not help to themselves and at most (though seldom) just serve to hurt their victimizer, though often at greater personal cost.

comment by cousin_it · 2020-09-19T11:34:07.831Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I mostly agree. Though it can be hard for a person to tell when this advice applies, as it's a bit absolutist, like "drink more water". Some kind of reasonable-person criterion could work here, like "if you say this is causing you X worth of problems, but you aren't taking reasonable steps that cost less than X and could help with these problems, then maybe stop complaining so much."

comment by Linch · 2020-09-23T06:13:26.454Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right now it's very hard to determine whether I agree or disagree with the article.

I think there are a lot of verbal claims here, and it feels almost entirely like a question of mood affiliation to determine how in-alignment I am with the central thesis/which direction of claims do I agree with/how much do I agree with them. 

Not telling you how to live your life, but I'd personally benefit from more numerical claims/quantified uncertainty.