Victimhood And Its Discontents

When my older son was four, as tall as a ten year old and as wide as he was tall, he was cast as an elephant in the kindergarten play. My husband and I – not in front of him – said “It’s type casting.”

You see, we weren’t particularly worried about his weight or his self esteem. Most of the males in my family start out what can be kindly called “hefty” and slim out in adulthood, when they also become be broad shouldered, narrow-hipped and too damn handsome for their own good. We figured a little knowledge of how the other half lives would inoculate Robert against thinking the world existed for his amusement.

He made a good elephant in the circus, with cloth ears and trunk, and he still loves elephants. If he’s depressed a visit to the zoo to look at elephants usually fixes the problem.

So, the other day we were talking about elephants and he said something about the kindergarten play. I said “It was type casting.” He laughed and said, “You know, in retrospect, the teacher looked a little nervous about that role assignment, which the other kids decided. She kept asking me if I was all right with it.” “Were you?” “Oh, yeah. I was much bigger than the other kids, couldn’t get in on the tumbling or other stuff that could hurt them, but I could pretend to be a tame elephant and the girls pretended to be tamers, and everyone applauded.” Then he paused and said something that got my brain going. “You know mom, there are so many things you can’t say and can’t do and can’t think these days that it’s like everyone is watching himself ALL the time. And my classmates? It’s like they came into kindergarten with a long list of things that they could be offended about, or they could misinterpret in order to be offended by. Or that they could be offended by due to some portion of their history no one knew about. I’m glad you and dad never did that to me. I think it must be emotionally exhausting to always feel like you’re a victim.”

And then I thought particularly about two things. My post on Writer Stockholm Syndrome and one of the reactions, from Passive Voice commenters.

The first one is obvious. Did that post come across as though I felt like a victim? Of course it did, I did feel like a victim for… 12? Years. Being paranoid is a perfectly normal reaction to living in hell. Was it emotionally exhausting? Oh, hell yes. I think, honestly, it was part of the reason I kept getting ill – I was living my life on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And I saw no way out of it. But the post was “I’m out of it now, one way or another. They can’t drag me back” which sort of mitigates the whine, I think.

(My commenter yesterday who said that the market would eventually solve the ills of early capitalism was right, of course. What he was wrong about was the several lifetimes it can take for that correction. As someone who was stuck at the tail end of a system where I couldn’t get out and couldn’t win and it had got so dysfunctional there was no good in it – still is, but now doesn’t care so much – I admire the early labor leaders who actually put something on the line to try to get out of untenable situations. In some industries, they’re still doing that. One can’t always count on technology riding to the rescue. The fact that they let their movement be co-opted by one of the most evil regimes ever to mar the face of the world is a separate and later development.)

So, who am I to complain about people who claim victimhood? I’ll point out while there was not a way out, I shut up and took it (in public, at least. My poor friends. What they heard.) and worked on creating escape hatches. Some of them are half-completed and would have worked without the technology change. The other ones were made much easier by the tech rescue. But I didn’t imagine I was special and/or sainted because I was getting screwed to the wall. I knew – writers talk to each other – that as screwing went, mine was fairly gentle, and at least they’d supplied the grease. There are people in much worse straits than I and far more inexplicably. (Let’s talk about my friend whose second book outsold its printrun FOUR TIMES and who was never accepted by the house again. Why? We don’t know. Worse, she wasn’t accepted by the house while in dire financial trouble which the house KNEW about.) And besides, I could see the incentives in the system that created this – it wasn’t personal.

That meant, as bad as it got – and it got very, very bad – after my first disappointment and my first heartbreak, I didn’t even bitch about it every day. What I did do was spend time thinking out ways to break out of it. It was still exhausting, it was still upsetting. But it wasn’t destructive.

Then comes the other side of it. The commenter at the Passive Voice (I’m not picking on the Passive Guy. He wasn’t the commenter and I have a little colleague-crush on PG. He’s good and he’s providing information we desperately need.)

This is something I’ve run into again and again and again. I’d call them the defenders of victimhood. They not only get to be offended on behalf of other people’s victimhood, they get to pick who the true victims are and tell you what you can say and think about them.

Knowing nothing about me other than maybe the – not very representative, I photograph horribly – picture on my site, he immediately decided I didn’t have a right to claim any victimhood, and oh, yeah, I was insulting designated victims. So he posted something like “Is she saying it’s easier for people of color to break into the business? Right!”

Of course, this required a willful misinterpretation of my post. (Or perhaps I’m horribly opaque.) If anyone needs a clarification, I said that if you were white bread and had nothing special about you, you’d get consigned to the midlist. HOWEVER if you had something special about you – and I did. Most people perceive me as “latina” which (rolls eyes) the Feds say I am, though they only say it recently. One of my employees long ago was convinced Portuguese was the same as Mexican. Yeah, he was a dumb *ss. But I had a materially difficult childhood. Yes, I learned English at 14. Yes, my husband and I got engaged when we hadn’t seen each other for 4 years and had never dated. All of these are “special” and “interesting” as far as the publishing establishment is concerned – they will only push you IF you want to write about that. As I said, after my first series crashed, the publisher thought the only way for me to have a career was to write about growing up in Portugal and my marriage as all, as an autobiography.

That is, my path to staying employed was HARDER than the “stereotypical American suburbanite” because they wanted me to “use” parts of my life that were so private as to defy imagination.

Worse, having gone to a very good liberal arts college, I KNEW what type of “autobiography” they wanted. They wanted a “poor me” autobiography, in which I was an heroic victim. For bonus points I should blame the US for anything bad that happened in my country when I was growing up.

They weren’t going to get it.

I know what real victims are. I’ve read stories of people growing up through the cultural revolution. I’ve read stories of Saudi princesses’ (PRINCESSES!) childhood. And I NEVER experienced anything that bad. Besides, I did okay and I managed fine, and memory is a slippery slope. How much of it was the outside imposing on me, and how much of it is the fact that my personality is crosswise to the world?

As for the US being to blame for the insanity in my country? Brother! I’m told by someone who worked for a secret service as a translator at the time that they DID know about some of the things the average American doesn’t know. But the worst the US did was NOT intervene while the USSR (and China, briefly!) made their (often bizarre) power plays.

Now that I’m an American, may I say I completely understand not running off and getting involved in every flare up in the cold war, even if it looks to people here like we did? May I say that as bad as things were they could have got much worse? May I say that Portugal is a grown up country and can pull up its big-boy britches and figure out its own messes? (They seem to be doing so, at any rate. It just takes time. But perhaps Lloyd Biggle Jr. was right and perhaps Democracy Impose From Outside Is The Greatest Tyranny. I think it’s more that if you keep cleaning people’s room for them, they never learn to do it themselves.)

At any rate, and again, my victimhood wasn’t very victimy. I never FELT like a victim. I always gave back as hard as I got, and found ways out of my binds. Yeah, okay, the Portuguese teacher told me she’d not give me an A unless I joined the communist party. It’s been thirty five years, and I’m a successful writer, and she, presumably, is still communist. I don’t think I’m the victim here.

And besides, if I wrote the truth my publishers wouldn’t like it. It wasn’t THEIR version of the truth.

So I bowed and said “no thank you” and instead sent them a proposal for an historical mystery series. And they bought it. And then I started working with Baen and they couldn’t care less about my victimhood creds, so long as I could write a story with a plot. As for the other publishers, I just got relegated to what I think is a special hell called “She has victimhood and refuses to use it.” Which is just below the hell reserved for white bread suburbanites.

(Now, if the commenter had said I was saying it was easier to get published for skinny white girls willing to trade on their looks, DUH. Yes, yes it is. They still need to know how to write, but it’s easier. No matter. It equalizes. Looks don’t last forever. Ditto, people with “contacts” – if they’re not good they don’t last anyway.)

So, why are people so fascinated with victimhood? Why do some people abrogate to themselves the right of defending supposed victims? Why – and I’ve seen this more than once in books – is being a victim considered to make you morally virtuous and worthy?

To an extent this is a very old idea. I think it started with the martyrdom stories back in the middle ages. People went through unimaginable suffering for their faith, and earned paradise forever.

Somewhere along the line, in going from a religious culture to a secular one (not complaining. Americans [born and bred] can’t even understand the stultifyingly religious nature of the middle ages. It was as suffocating as the victim thing is now. Perhaps more so. Even your naughty art had to be couched in religious terms) we forgot that what made the victims virtuous was NOT the suffering, but the fact they refused to give in to their evil torturers. NOT the fact they sat there and took it.

Victims who fight back makes for great literature. Particularly if they’re fighting back not against their being victimized but against SOMEONE ELSE being victimized or both. Victims being pulped and hating everyone who does it to them and complaining for 400 pages just make me nauseated (they also get assigned to my kids to read in school, thereby confusing another generation.) The claimers of victimhood for others aren’t good for my digestion either. If your whole purpose in life is to tell someone that they can’t talk about a victim that way, get over it. If you really think these people are victims DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Something that doesn’t involve talk, and something that costs you something. Talk is cheap and no one is going to believe you’re virtuous just because you’re always riding to the defense of someone suffering under the heartbreak of psoriasis. Oh, wait. YOU’ll believe you’re virtuous. But you’re wrong. You’re just whiny and jealous that you can’t be a “victim” which you think has some sort of spiritual power.

This is not social problems get solved. And they’re never solved if you can’t talk about the other factors involved. Yes, some victims bring it on themselves. I know that’s heresy, but it’s still true. The reason I was stuck in midlist hell was because I was too stubborn to give the editor what she wanted. Yes, what she wanted was unreasonable as far as I was concerned. But I knew what it was, and if I’d given it to her, she’d have made me a bestseller. So, I was in hell because I wasn’t willing to pay the price to get out. And while my position was horrible, someone saying “Listen here, you dumb *ss, I don’t even have that option” would have been PERFECTLY justified.

Other victims are helpless – abused women and children. Women in countries where they’re chattel. People in countries where their skin color or their religion bars them from certain jobs, or can even get them killed.

HOWEVER even while they’re victims, it doesn’t mean it’s because the other side is mean and evil. Only four year olds think that way. Usually there’s something in the system creating it. And you need to talk about it FRANKLY to fix it. You can’t stand in front of the subject yelling “you can’t talk about that. You’re not a victim.”

If you treat victims like some sort of religious symbols and can’t talk about them except in hushed, religious-like tones, you’re not going to look at the situation dispassionately. You’re also going to create incentives for being a victim. You’re going to in fact, keep the victim where he/she is for your own satisfaction. AND you’re going to feel good doing it. Take a good look in the mirror. There you are. That’s what you are. You’re using others suffering for your moral preening. Don’t look away. As long as you keep doing this, you’ll keep others suffering, so you can be virtuous. And you won’t discuss WHAT in the system is keeping people as victims.

For the record what did this in publishing was the winner take all system where to give you publicity and get the reps to distribute your book to the point where it wouldn’t sink out of sight, they needed to have SOMETHING beyond “it’s a good book” – reps by and large didn’t read the books – to make it “hot”.

It could be a tie in to a recent movie, but having something like “the author is…” worked better. And “the author is foreign born and…” worked best. But you have to be able to look at it and go “they give those who are willing to play victims a leg up.” You had to be able to say it. You had to be able to THINK it. You had to be able to realize that those who were victimizing the author were not the ones the author would have to complain about to get the benes.

And then you’d have to think of what was causing it, and that the publisher/editor were not evil – thank you commenter yesterday! – moustache-twirling villains, but just part of a system that worked that way.

And then you could figure out how to get around the system ITSELF.

But to do that, first you needed to have a free mind. You can’t be hemmed in with “I can’t say this. I can’t say that. I have no right to think that.” As Heinlein said (even if he doesn’t mention “peer pressure” read it as being there): When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know, the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, – not anything – you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.

8 responses to “Victimhood And Its Discontents

  1. Amen Sister Sarah!

    One of the “cousins” of Victimhood is “Fill In the Blank Privilage”.

    Somebody who doesn’t fit (like me) into one of the Victim Slots is said to have some sort of “Privilage” because they’re aren’t a Victim.

    Since, I’m male and white, I’m said to have “White Male Privilage”.

    My question is “where do I sign up for it as I don’t seem to have it”. [Very Big Evil Grin]

    • The most discriminated against group in the U.S. today is the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Male. Ironically, we’re also the group least likely to bitch about it, being busy trying to earn a living.

  2. Didn’t you used to banner quote Heinlein’s line about the game being rigged?

    N.B., ALL games are rigged, the House gets its percentage and you can play by the rules, complain about the rules or find loopholes through the rules. Sadly, these days one of the loopholes is to complain about the rules — provided you are one of the folk who the rules designate as entitled to complain. There was a cartoonist who was quadriplegic who drew scathingly funny cartoons about “cripples”, and one of the joys of his work was the whiplash experienced by those caught decrying his “ridiculing the victims” when they discovered HE was a “victim.”

    Good comment on victimhood:
    http://pajamasmedia.com/lifestyle/2011/09/05/does-the-college-essay-suck-the-life-out-of-boys/

  3. Stephen Simmons

    Victimhood exists entirely inside the mind. *Regardless* of circumstances.

    My earliest memories (before my 19-months-younger brother had learned to walk, so well before I was 3) of my parents are crystal-clear: playing in the backyard, seeing their car coming down our little country road, and fleeing in terror. Finding something, *anything* that would keep from being perceived as a target of opportunity if they were in the wrong mood when they walked in the house. As a direct result, I had taught myself to read by the time I turned three, which has permeated every nook and cranny of my life with treasures I can’t even begin to appraise. We might not have been the Cleavers, but the benefits I accrued from that environment will never end as long as I’m alive.
    I am not a “victim”. I’m a person who lived through stuff. So is everyone else I’ve ever met. It’s called being human, in my estimation.

    • exactly. You choose NOT to be a victim, and you become an adult. I refuse to be locked in ANYONE’s definition of victimhood. Even if it were the one they want. Which it ain’t.

  4. I come from a broken home, years with an abusive stepfather. I grew up in poverty, borderline ausbergers, late maturer physically making me the “runt” so I was always the one bullied in school, and on and on and on.

    If I chose to go that route I would have most (pretty much all the non melanin and Y chromosome related) excuses for a lack of financial/academic/other success in life.

    Except, you know, being a moderate success (nice job, nice house, nice wife, nice daughter, nice dogs, and so on) in life is just better than being a “victim”. Only things I use those “victim” problems of my past for is as a counter when someone else plays “victim” (especially victim by proxy–“look at those poor people, they can’t help it….”). “If I can do it you(they) can do it.”

    I have very little sympathy for people whining about their victim status. I have oodles of sympathy, and a hand up (no government required) for folk who aren’t whining but are trying their best to overcome their problems.

    As a result, I am not generally welcome at the “cool” parties.

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