Tuesday, June 14

Modern Victimhood: A Convenient Evasion of Personal Accountability

Is personal accountability dead? Joseph Epstein’s “The Joys of Victimhood” is a thought-provoking observation of an American cultural evolution regarding what he terms, “victimhood” or the exploitation and acceptance of false victimization. He calls the bluff of opportunistic groups or individuals who would rush to wield victim identity as both an avenue towards political influence and particularly as a convenient avoidance of personal responsibility. The fact that he wrote this article in 1989 at the birth of political correctness does not date his comments but amplifies the relevance of them. Today’s society is reeling from the fall-out of accountability avoidance. An examination of Epstein’s claim that people who pretend to be victims wield viable political and social power directs attention to the issue of victimhood’s side effect: the relinquishing of personal integrity. Society can not survive the abandonment of individual integrity in the process of entertaining false victims.

The article describes a variety of scenarios in which the association of victimhood profits people in specific ways. Epstein offers the example of Gandhi as a precedent-setting case of a real victim who patiently makes his cause public. His non-violent protest inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., and his quest for black equality in America. Epstein reminds us that both these causes were successful because they appealed “. . . not to guilt but to the conscience of the nation.” Both causes in other words, were noble and correct and drew attention to the need for societal change by appealing to the public’s sense of justice.

Epstein illustrates the difference between righteous appeal as with the American civil rights movement, and the cheap-shot of laying blame, as with the violent American black militant movement. It’s one thing to reach out for what is morally right and another thing to angrily posture, demand and threaten others to make a point. Black militants openly called for a race war to the death and punctuated their agenda with bloody conflicts with police, an armed appearance at the State Assembly Chamber in Sacramento and incendiary marxist ideology and public statements.

Epstein asserts personal responsibility and even grace under pressure are the hallmarks of a healthy, functioning society. The bigger the impact of a particular social movement, the more flexible the ticket to opportunistic rewards and privileges as a companion complaint. In other words, Epstein describes worthy causes for redress such as the civil rights movement as the impetus for victim-wannabe advocacy (as in American black militancy), which has neither the moral or practical weight as civil rights but eventually wields considerable power through the phenomenon of imposing a sort of collective guilt. If the rest of society can be persuaded to feel responsible for someone else’s loud complaint,Epstein suggests a welcome mat is extended to practically anyone who might promote a new cause they feel will further themselves.

According to Epstein, an extremely persuasive element of modern victimhood is the art of declaring yourself one. He discusses the natural consequence of the human thought process: if someone is persistent enough in telling himself and everyone else he is a victim, he eventually becomes one. The pseudo-victim or pretend victim is motivated by the status victimhood generates. A victim must stand out from everyone else and receive “sympathy, special treatment even victory.” The modern victim-wannabes also defers responsibility for their own situation to others. In the process, they often assume a position of “moral superiority,” a move which lends a certain justification to their cause and excuses them from personal accountability for their circumstances.

Epstein’s analysis of the negative effects of manipulated guilt via modern victim mentality is difficult to ignore. He proposes a common sense rebuttal to those who posture the angry, offended and morally superior victim for personal or political reward: a mirror. His challenge to examine our core motivations is simply good old-fashioned advice. His conclusion that legitimate victims do not emotionally bludgeon others into accepting responsibility for their condition is spot on. Justice is legitimately served when those who falsely accuse and selfishly manipulate are exposed for the cowardice that inspires them.

The Archangel Michael by Guido Reni

The title of the article sets the scene for Epstein’s exposition of the self-serving theatrics that go with the territory of popular victim-making. The author points out the new guiltless, or the “privileged” and “morally superior” oppressed are shallowly and happily devoted to a party of one - themselves. The article strikes a nerve and the proverbial yawn at the same time when speaking here of basic human nature; if individuals are not responsible for themselves, “. . . they therefore have to find enemies.” This is unfortunately an iconic truth. Turn the pages of history and there is enough harsh evidence of man’s quest for power and resources back to the dawn of time with bloody and appalling results. There has always been a thirst for dominance, for personal advantage without conscience, the practice of seeking and engaging the enemy. Arbitrarily blaming large segments of society, the government, world history or whatever for current personal circumstances is a tawdry deflection of individual responsibility. Assigning adversarial status to the same is a gross narcissistic binge.

Successful societies safeguard the core values which promote and protect the viability of the society. A core value of

any social organization is an expectation of personal integrity and accountability by each member of the society. The more we accept blame for something we shouldn’t, the more license for irresponsibility we give to those who should. It’s more convenient for pretend victims to accuse everyone who does not agree with their cause or their claim to being a victim. They do this by slinging sloppy accusations of “homophobe,” “hater,” “bigot” or “racist.” Language such as this is never a successful dialogue-opener. They are, however, ever-present weapons of choice in the competition for pretend victimhood and its companion influence of attempted guilt transference. Neither tactic would carry much clout if the accuser assumed more personal responsibility for his own circumstances.

Recent examples of the accountability denial epidemic in American society range from defrauded fortunes on Wall Street to predictable chaos in the lives of Hollywood celebrities. The banking crisis of 2007 did not, for instance, generate faulty balance sheets, failed financial institutions, a massive corporate bail-out and a global financial fall-out of estimated trillions because of an inanimate computer-glitch. A critical domino-effect of individual people facilitated bad lending practices that eventually influenced the entire U.S. housing market. The classic primal appetite of human greed powered a movement of illicit practices on all levels, including the imprudent homebuyer who responded to the lure of a bigger and better house. The chain-reaction of relinquishing personal accountability and crying victim at the same time followed foreclosed home-owners who said they were taken advantage of, to the bank loan officers who said they were only following standard guidelines, to the parent financial institutions who blamed federal regulations. The government essentially accepted blame for the bad results and made new victims of conscientious Americans who were responsible with their finances by issuing the infamous bail-out with tax-payer money.

The public melt-down of one of television’s top earning sitcom stars, Charlie Sheen, is a bizarre and pathetic tutorial on the consequences of personal irresponsibility. Fired from his winning show for erratic behavior, Sheen responded by

filing suit against the studio. He then immediately grabbed as many interview opportunities as possible to get the word out: there was a new victim in town, and he was it. Sheen refused culpability for any of his outrageous actions which ranged from drug and sex orgies to threatening to gut his wife with a knife. Virtually in the same breath as his denial, he boasted that his drug use was “more than anybody could survive.” In spite of a string of incredibly bad behaviors, the actor’s popularity appears to be at an all-time high. He launched a very successful web series and a line of Sheen tee shirts. Record ticket sales accompany a series of his scheduled live performances. His continual claim that he was a victim had no real basis in fact. However, it carried influence in his favor the longer he simply said it was so. In Sheen’s case, there definitely are rewards for victimhood.

Public figures like Sheen may generate millions of “hits” on Youtube, but flamboyance or bizarre utterances are more than entertainment in America. The extremes of human behavior tolerated for morbid curiosity’s sake are often a reflection of a deeper, wide-spread sickness in the national patient. In such an environment, victimhood is one of the irresponsible human behaviors that naturally flourishes. Guilt and victimhood are dark and defeatist companion mind-sets, and as such are precarious standards to live by. Anything that alters the national consciousness to the point that it becomes a new cultural reality is truly a powerful trend. Analyzing how that change or “shift” gains common acceptance is a fascinating journey. Epstein’s readers might not agree with him, but they will certainly respond to his thought process. Epstein’s thoughts serve as a springboard for somber reflection on just what core value we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of political or personal convenience.

In this case, it appears that the integrity and value of personal accountability is on the altar and at a terrible cost. Individual dismissal of personal accountability is at the root of virtually every social ill. It is a contributing force behind sky-rocketing costs from healthcare to social programs and judicial dockets packed for months in advance. Abandoned personal integrity results in crime, substance abuse, domestic violence, divorce and illegitimacy. A denial of personal accountability powerfully motivates shamefully selfish choices. Several examples include the shockingly egregious proliferation of addictive and compulsive behaviors such as online drug, pornography and gaming addictions. Individuals who indulge in these behaviors do so exclusively because it feeds a self-centered gratification. Once the addictive aspect of what were originally behaviors of choice takes over, the person is overwhelmed physically, psychologically and spiritually in the never satisfied quest to gratify themselves to the sad exclusion of virtually all else. This “me” culture swirls the drain sweeping broken promises and devastated families along with it for a hell of a ride.

Pandemonium by John Martin

scene from Paradise Lost

Society’s acquiescence to the bullying “victim” also interrupts and side-lines in a profane way the righteous process of nurturing those who ought to be nurtured, the real victims among us. Real victims are those who have experienced something that is an act of nature, those who are born with a physical infirmity or acquire one later, or suffer affliction because of the unjust actions of another. Life has enough real victims and real social issues to seriously address. There should be less time devoted pandering in false guilt or fear of reprisal to pretend and opportunistic victims. The tipping point is really a single decision that is generated by our sense of personal integrity. Which course to follow? A decision to act or be is only a seed thought that is watered and cultivated until it is finally acted upon. Choosing which thought we want to honor or nourish defines our moral character. This article by Epstein challenges us to honestly examine our own thought process, and in effect, our own sense of integrity and personal accountability. Any sales, self-help or religious revival seminar will champion this simple truth as if it were a profound, alien discovery. If we consistently act the part, we become.

Proverbs 23, verse 7 reads: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Epstein would whole-heartedly concur.


“Bad Bank”. This American Life WBEZ/NPR Chicago Public Media. Episode 375 27 February 2009 Web

Baker, Gerald. “Banking Crisis: Spectre of 1930s haunts America as financial turmoil worsens”. The Sunday Times. 1 Oct. 2009 Web

Black Panther Party. Encyclopedia Britannica Web

Charlie Sheen Sues Over Show. CNN Entertainment. 10 March 2011 Web

Good Morning America ABC News Exclusive: Charlie Sheen says He’s ‘Not Bi-polar’ but ‘Bi-Winning’. 28 February 2011 Web

Jeffries, Judson L., et al. “Militancy Transcends Race: A Comparative Analysis of the American Indian Movement, the Black Panther Party, and the Young Lords”. Black Diaspora Review. 1 (2) Spring 2010 Web

Proverbs 23 Verse 7. Holy Bible, The King James Version

Winning?! Charlie Sheen Reportedly Offered Job Back”. KBOI ABC News Radio. 21 March 2011 Web

1 comment:

Philip W. Sarsons said...

Love this article and your blog!