As a kid, I was often told stories by my grandfather about his young life as an Italian American. His stories were full of lessons about family and cultural pride, interwoven with a deep distrust of government and law enforcement officials. He would talk at length about the discrimination Italians and Catholics had faced in the United States. From lynching’s in the South to housing discrimination and police brutality, to the stigmatization of their food and religion, it was clear to him that the story of our culture was one of oppression. The failure of my school or the evening news to recognize that this discrimination remained a critical context for current events was only further demonstration of cultural prejudice.
After a small minority of Italian immigrants were linked to terror attacks and assassinations in the early 1900s, the country began to associate radical ideology with the culture as a whole. In the 1920’s, a travel ban was put in place, barring entry into the U.S. from all individuals attempting to immigrate from Italy.
The ban also categorized China and Russia as “inferior states” and limited entry to their citizens as well. The Chinese were subject to severe restrictions during this time. These contexts did not usually feature in my grandfather’s stories.
The perceptions of discrimination that my grandfather took from these events, as well as from his own experiences, had significantly shaped his views on society and human nature. For my grandfather, nearly every global act of aggression, from Nazism to the assassination of JFK to the Islamic State, has been aimed at something that was deeply his own.
My grandfather’s words were meant to motivate me to rise to a fight against his perceived “them” – but to never be so naïve as to expect the fight to end. Our victimhood was inevitable. Today, this lens is being used across the political spectrum, in the writings of scholars such as Ta-Nahesi Coates and journalists like Rod Dreher, as well as in the rhetoric used by both candidates during the 2016 election.
President Trump continues to use the rhetoric of victimhood to communicate with his base – or when talking about himself.
Increasingly referred to as “identity politics,” utilizing a narrative of victimhood to mobilize public support focuses on achieving justice for one’s own group. This results in, at most, only a secondary concern for the whole. Maintaining such public support requires taking action in this direction, building policy around the interests of identity groups, as opposed to uniting the country around a shared vision of our future.
A dangerous cycle
A narrative of victimhood maintains its own self-fulfilling justification and righteousness. Engaging with this narrative can prove volatile, particularly for those supportive of equity but who find themselves standing outside of the defined “group.” Attempts to challenge this increasingly encompassing identity often results in the delegitimization of the challenger’s value system or even their innate worth as a fellow human being.
Victimhood is isolating – constructing a single story which holds the victimized group’s “truths” above all others. Accepting the binary conditionality of this truth becomes a standard for entry into the group, even for otherwise apparent members. Those who fail to clear this hurdle, regardless of shared principles and common humanity, are, at once, relocated into the “them” position.
It does not seem controversial to suggest that the political sphere in the United States has devolved into this ‘us vs. them,’ winner-take-all arena.
On the left, actors have rushed to create litmus tests of legitimacy that traditional liberal powerhouses like the ACLU are struggling to navigate. While the left’s barricades are built loudly and publicly, the right continues to construct round after round of smoke-screens. As samples of the much-heralded border wall stand like a Bed Bath and Beyond display at the southern border, leaders in the party are rushing to rewrite the rules of the game around environmental protection, women’s healthcare, due process, education, and wealth accumulation.
Independents and centrists in this arena are declared unprincipled. Louder and louder the call goes out – “the world is in flames,” “there is a war against (insert your race, sexual identity, or religion here),” “if you are not with us, you are against us.”
One can spot parallels between the in-group/out-group formation taking hold in the U.S. today with those described in Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism.’
Hannah Arendt is featured left; the photograph was taken in a Paris café in 1935. — Photograph by Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust via The New Yorker.
For those who argue that debates over discrimination are primarily to concerned with “politically correct” culture, it is worth considering that only the perception prejudice is necessary to motivate defensive victimhood group formation. This means that whether or not one believes another’s perceived discrimination to have occurred is irrelevant. The consequences of a victimhood mentality will impact society regardless.
In Kenya, standards for mandatory citizenship documents are disproportionately high for the nation’s border groups. Approximately half of the documented population susceptible to these barriers is Muslim. Although studies have documented the same barriers to entry for Muslim border groups as for non-muslim border groups, Muslim groups are more likely to believe that they are targeted for their religion, as opposed to their ethnicity. In a study examining why individuals join radical groups, the majority of the families of Muslim radicals surveyed cited discrimination of their religion as the primary factor.
Radical groups are known to reinforce and prey on such perceptions of victimhood – and al-Shabab has made use of this strategy in Kenya. The result has been a growing number of individuals turning against communities they had once sought to be a part of. Their own communities become the greatest victims of the violence that follows, invoking further crack-downs by law enforcement. In Kenya, the government has responded by stepping up the unjust barriers to citizenship for border groups, citing national security concerns.
Me & My Group vs. Everyone Else
“My oppression is the most severe, the most urgent and the most important.”
Equality is inherently contradictory to victimhood. While the story of oppression may be valid, the nature of equity – the belief in the equal value of every human life – means that the story and oppression of every individual remain equally as valid as any other. It is natural that an individual’s persecution is the most important to themselves – it does not follow that the government of a society ought to behave as if any one group’s rights take precedence over any other group within the governed population.
So, if all of these stories and agendas are equal, is the federal government the place to be addressing them? How can the executive of the United States represent all constituents equally, if the concerns of demographic groups are increasingly contradictory?
What happens when identity politics wins?
Trump’s presidency has been framed as the rise of one such single agenda. Groups and individuals within the US, who believe they have been told since the 1960’s that their ideas, lifestyle, careers, and culture were inferior to that of the educated, predominantly liberal, population, took the reigns of their own perception of victimhood. Trump offered them nothing short of the dismantling of the agenda put in place by those groups who rendered responsible for their oppression.
Trump did not win over blue-collar voters because he offered solutions to their immediate challenges. Instead, he offered the reinforcement and validation of their victimhood. Many residents of my rural hometown classified Trump’s presidency as “justice” in December 2016. Elsewhere, it may seem like something closer to revenge.
On the left, instead of taking these threats to democratic norms and institutions as a lesson, the Democrats seem to be looking to the success of the GOP’s 2008-2016 strategy as a model.
Where do we go from here?
Has the U.S. surrendered its political field to one in which leaders cyclically reinforce competing narratives of victimhood and condescension towards the ever-solidifying “other” (side)? Such methods reinforce the idea, both within society and within government, that the side with which one stands has been unforgivably wronged and that the only solution is to undo or oppose everything which those on the opposing side hold to be valuable.
Paradigms of victimhood now seem to transverse our society, over-powering such once defining national ideas as responsibility, duty, and unity.
Democracy is a living, breathing, evolving idea which has its real life in its respect for diverse opinions, the dignity it associates with compromise, and its commitment to modeling an ever-advancing “better” way of life to the world.
The success or failure of the democratic experiment in the U.S. has implications far outside its own increasingly tense borderlines that stretch from sea to shining sea. Governments and societies around the world look to established democracies, the U.S. high among them, as a beacon of what could be. The fracture of democracy in the U.S. could well suggest to other nations that such an experiment is not worthwhile. Perhaps autocracy is more stable after all.
A decline in US global leadership leaves space for another leader to define the norms and international playing field for the coming decades. Though many in the U.S. insist that they are “tired” of the U.S. being held responsible for the leadership role, I suspect these groups will like the idea of following ideologies with which they disagree even less. A world with a leader who does not share U.S. norms and values could foreseeably create a playing field increasingly hostile to the U.S. and to democracy.
In such circumstances, will the US.. have a strategy for security and development? Or will the country cast itself in the role of victim?
Victimhood defines oppression as inevitable, finds justice only in revenge, and renders progress a secondary concern.
It is a good thing, then, that as democratic citizens – we are never victims.
As members of a democracy, we have the ability to affect change in our government – abilities that extend far beyond protesting on the weekends or sharing viral memes.
Our first amendment rights, dependable utility systems, and the sense of security that comes from having an independent judiciary, all allow us the time and freedom to build our own complex, individual sense of identity – and to share that identity online like never before.
As members of a country with well-defined and relatively accessible means of starting a business and managing risk, we are able to enter the global economy in ways that many around the world can still only dream of doing.
Our access to credit, banking systems, and near-record low unemployment levels allow us to participate in the economy as powerful consumers, holding enormous influence over global supply chains and market demand.
Each of these area is far from perfect. They need improvements – and always will.
That aching for more, for that ever-evolving sense of “better” – why not choose to let this excite us, rather than scare us?
The goals of the future will be global. The fears of the last generation, the historical battles that continue in the minds of those who prefer victimhood, are all out of place on our path to achieve our potential in tomorrow’s world.
In the U.S., our rural neighbors have lost their jobs, our poor neighbors lack access to dependable banking and utilities, and our minority neighbors too often receive unequal treatment under the law. The U.S. legal system, the growth of suburban areas, and the transition away from the old economic powerhouses of agriculture and extraction have caused very real structural inequities toward these groups. These are challenges that every U.S. citizen ought to be concerned with because they impact the future of our society as a whole.
These are also challenges which we – the people – have the ability to fix because of the nature of our ever-imperfect democratic institutions.
If only we are hungry. If only we stand united and determined to advance the whole of this democratic project we have adopted. If only we are able to put aside our impulse to seek immediate self-interest and the comfort of externalizing responsibility. We can overcome these challenges if we address them with solutions rather than blame and contempt. The U.S. can retain its role in the world if it acts as a house united, steadily marching toward a national agenda once more. Politicians are following public will. It is up to us as a society to point in the direction of long-term national progress.
If your first instinct is something close to “but ‘they’ don’t want progress” – you are still thinking like a victim.