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Deconstructing a Dichotomy: Victimhood Vs. Responsibility

Note: This post is part of my "philosophy bites" series that expands my social media posts about philosophical topics into blog form. These are not academic essays with a plethora of footnotes and agonizingly constructed arguments, but I do hope they spark conversation. Please remember to share, like, and comment! The original instagram post can be found here.

On one side, liberal politicians often employ a condescending pity towards underprivileged people, playing on the “victim” sentiment in order to win elections. On the other side, conservative politicians make “personal responsibility” a cruel excuse for empowering the rich and privileged and refusing to change a broken system. Which one is right? I believe that BOTH are right from a particular perspective.

Here is the difficulty: there are two basic sides to reality: the public and the private, (or the political and the personal, the objective and the subjective). These two sides encompass different kinds of knowing and being. Not understanding these separate epistemological and ethical spheres has led to all kinds of irrational and harmful beliefs (I will explore other kinds of irrationalities in later posts).

A focus on personal responsibility is quite popular among American conservatives, New Age believers, and self-help circles. Though ostensibly very different ideologies, all tend to balk at the very idea of a “victim.” For conservatives, it’s “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and the belief that the “American dream” is available to anyone. If you don’t succeed, you are likely lazy or unvirtuous (note how “virtue” is very entangled with capitalist requirements).

In New Age and self-help circles (and both of these are often deeply and invisibly influenced by capitalist ideals), many use ideas like the law of attraction to imply your personal responsibility for everything that happens to you—yes, even rape, car accidents, cancer. Positive psychology can also be weaponized in this personal responsibility debate, as when Mcdonald’s refused worker protests for higher wages, but instead offered free mindfulness classes (poverty is all in your head, people!).

“Don’t make yourself a victim,” they say. And they are right, in the private world of the individual. But, this sentiment does not apply to the public realm. The public realm exists to set right social relationships. This “setting right” is the role of justice, which must designate certain individuals as “victims” and others as “perpetrators.” The world is full of victims: of rabidly manipulative corporations, homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, victims of a broken healthcare system, of abusive parents or partners, of rape, of drunk drivers, etc. etc. We need our citizens to concern themselves with these issues! We need to care for the public realm by seeking justice.

And yet, we also need to care for the private realm, remembering that in the psyche of the individual, choosing “victim” as an identity will never be healthy. We can recognize people as being victims in a public, objective sense, just as we recognize perpetrators. But on an existential level, each human must act as if they have full control of their destinies, even while fighting for the world to be a more just and equal place in the public sphere. Both these things can be true simultaneously!

Harmful beliefs ensue only when we place beliefs belonging to one side on the side of another. This requires intellectual subtlety, but we need this kind of critical thinking if we are to navigate an increasingly complex and polarized world.

Have you ever felt gaslit by the self-help/ new age/ conservative ideology of personal responsibility? Have you ever felt the opposite, that society has encouraged you to identify as a victim on an existential level that hindered your psychological health?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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