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A Society of Victims
How to Whine your way to Sympathy

Copyright © 2006, P. LutusMessage Page

— Revised 12/2006 —

Introduction | Psychology's Fashion Pendulum | An Age of Victimhood | Where's the Science?
Successful Failures | The Professional Victim | Avoiding the Victim Trap | References | Feedback | Footnotes

(double-click any word to see its definition)

During my solo world sail, I visited Sri Lanka, a very pretty but troubled country near India. Despite a seemingly perpetual civil war and widespread poverty, I found most Sri Lankans to be resilient and accepting of their lives. But I remember one man who, in a roundabout way, became the stimulus for this article.

One day while visiting the marketplace in Galle, I saw a man wrapped in apparently bloody bandages, staggering about, whining to himself. Upon the approach of a European tourist, this man would arrange a collision, then fall screaming to the ground. Then, depending on the naïveté of the tourist, some money might change hands — on-the-spot compensation for the victim of the tourist's clumsiness.

The next day, I saw the same drama played out, and the victim would try to avoid colliding with the same people on successive days. This wasn't terribly difficult — after one encounter with the faux victim, people would cross the street to avoid him.

After I sailed away from Sri Lanka, at times I would think about the victim. I realized he represented a pathetic but plausible way to make a living, preying on the generosity (and ignorance) of normal people. And, like so many of my experiences in the Third World, I found his predatory behavior to be a transparent archetype for the more refined versions of that same behavior in the First World.

Nothing in this article should suggest that all victims are phonies — there are genuine victims, and civilized societies must address their needs. But this article analyzes a developing trend toward phony victimization, in which people are taught and encouraged to exploit weaknesses in our social services and gaps in validation and logic, factors that have created a new, tragic social class: professional victims.

Psychology's Fashion Pendulum
Modern-day psychology plays a central role in cultivating professional victims. Because psychology is not a science (for reasons explained here), it has instead become a sort of opinion pendulum, swinging in step with popular fashions and beliefs.

During psychology's relatively short history, the majority of beliefs and practices that have held sway over clinicians' thinking have been abandoned for cause, replaced by new, equally dubious notions. For example, in the 1960s, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim declared that autistic children were produced by "refrigerator moms", mothers who, according to Bettelheim, were not competent to bond emotionally with their children, eventually resulting in a complete incapacity for emotional attachment in the children. It need hardly be added that Bettelheim's position had no supporting evidence whatsoever, a fact which didn't hinder its acceptance at all, more the rule than the exception in psychology.

Apart from a lack of evidence, the "refrigerator moms" idea had some serious, practical defects. By seeming to demonizing motherhood, this idea had the effect of driving a lot of perfectly good clients away from the services offered by psychologists. In the final analysis, psychology is a business, and businesses don't thrive by driving customers away (more on this below). Also, no amount of talk therapy, behavioral modification or drugs, applied to either the mothers or the children, seemed to improve the condition of autism sufferers. Obviously if autism were the result of specific parental behavior, changing parental behavior should have changed the condition, but this isn't what was observed. For these and other reasons, in recent times psychology's fashion pendulum has swung away from Bettelheim's harsh indictment of motherhood and apple pie.

But of all the factors working to change psychology's outlook, none is more important than some widespread changes in society outside the clinic doors. From a baseline attitude that individuals must accept individual responsibility for their actions, an idea that has been gradually eroding away in modern times, we are on the cusp of declaring everyone a victim of something — parents, society, genes, acts of God — and any throwbacks presuming to hold individuals responsible for their own fates and actions are accused of "blaming the victim," an inspired phrase and one perfectly in tune with modern times.

An Age of Victimhood
Continuing the pendulum metaphor and its present swing away from holding people accountable for their personal circumstances, the notion that everyone is a victim seems to have reached its extreme in the 1990s, a time during which a number of dubious practices were accepted, even temporarily in courts of law.

One example was "recovered memory therapy," the idea that people might have memories, entirely suppressed, of terrible crimes that had been committed against them, typically when they were children. In phase one of this practice, a therapist would encourage recall of these memories, the client would recall horrible crimes, and the accused parties would go to jail. In phase two, the client would realize she (these individuals are almost always women) had been taken in, the jailed parties would be released, and the therapist would be sued by the falsely accused, sometimes also by the client. The advantages to this arrangement should be obvious — the client would be able to claim victim status twice: first by the childhood evildoers, then by the therapist.

Here's an example case history. A woman named Holly Ramona entered recovered memory therapy and quickly "remembered" that she had been raped by her father many years before. The father promptly lost his job and was divorced by his wife, the latter having decided the accusations were valid based on maternal intuition (no one seems to have wondered where her intuition was at the time of the supposed crime). The father then vehemently denied the accusation and successfully sued the therapist, a marriage counselor and a hospital for their roles in this affair, winning $500,000.

At this point a thinking reader might look on this story as a case of "He said, she said" — after all, neither side appears to have any concrete evidence. But as it turns out, the daughter was shown to be a virgin at the time she made her accusation, something the psychologists (and the law) had managed to overlook.

In another similar case, during therapy in a formal clinical setting, psychologists used "recovered" memories to persuade Patricia Burgus that she had been part of a satanic cult and had engaged in cannibalism. This fraud was so compelling that, when Burgus' husband arrived with a hamburger one day, the therapists took the hamburger into custody and analyzed it for the presence of human flesh. Finally Ms. Burgus realized she was being had, and in this story's second phase, she was awarded $10.6 million in civil damages.

These two stories are typical of a large class of similar cases, cases that appear to have in common a desperate desire to be a victim of something, anything, even if it's imaginary, and to persecute some imagined evildoers for good measure. As it turns out, in the fallout from the "recovered memory" fad, hundreds of accusers have retracted their "recovered memory" claims, and many have switched from suing their parents to suing their therapists (as usual, no one is suing the lawyers). Another effect of this fad is that, based on dreadful precedents, many courts will no longer hear cases in which "recovered memories" are the primary evidence.

Where's the Science?
At this point, I ask that my readers think about the swings of psychology's fashion pendulum as described above. We have heard Bruno Bettelheim's famous claim that autism resulted from "refrigerator moms," defective mothers unable to bond emotionally with their children. The problems with this belief should have been obvious at the time, and Bettelheim's notions could easily have been tested against reality, but they were not. As a result many dedicated, competent mothers were unfairly demonized.

We have heard that "recovered memory therapy" then became fashionable, and many people were falsely accused, some even jailed for nonexistent crimes on the basis of bogus "expert" psychological testimony in courts of law. Once again, simple tests could have revealed that many of these claims were simple fantasy, for example by the discovery that a woman who accused her father of rape was a virgin at the time of the accusation. But, just as with the "refrigerator moms" belief of the 1960s, even the simplest reality tests were not carried out. As a result many families were torn apart, careers ruined.

How can this happen? Isn't psychology a science? Doesn't mainstream psychological research govern what happens in psychological clinics?

As it happens, contemporary psychology can be compared to the practice of medicine in the late 19th century — a handful of serious, responsible practitioners, a lot of quacks, very poor controls, little accountability, almost no science. It was only by a slow accumulation of painful experience that medicine was dragged, kicking and screaming, into a world of scientific validation, of accountability. In psychology, this process has not even begun.

Many psychologists have responded to my series of articles on the present state of their field. Some argue that serious research is being carried out in the field of psychology, and at first glance this appears to be true. On closer examination the quality of the science seems very poor, and most importantly, the research that is being done is having little impact on clinical practice.

When a present-day medical doctor applies a treatment in a clinical setting, she can simply examine the published literature for proven remedies, remedies that are typically validated in exhaustive scientific studies. If one of these proven remedies turns out to have unanticipated side effects in a clinical setting, alarm bells sound and the entire practice is reëvaluated from top to bottom.

Further, before a particular medical remedy is applied, the client is (or should be) made aware of the purpose and quality of the remedy — its degree of effectiveness and any side effects. The client then gives something called "informed consent" to be treated.

In mainstream medicine, researchers conduct experiments according to strict protocols, those studies are repeated by other laboratories, and only after a complex vetting process are clinics allowed to apply the treatment. The clinics report any unexpected results to the researchers, and researchers keep the clinicians up to date on new results. And clinicians never presume to apply treatments that have no demonstrated effectiveness, at least, not if they expect to practice medicine for more than a few weeks.

The above summarizes the current practice of medicine, but, contrary to popular perception, this model does not remotely apply to psychology. In psychology as it is now practiced, clinicians can do pretty much anything they please, and there is little communication between the worlds of psychological research and practice.

The short form is that psychology is not remotely a science, and psychologists are not medical doctors. Unfortunately, most people don't realize this — psychologists are popularly held to a higher standard than they can possibly live up to (read this article for more detail on why this is so).

This is why present-day psychology is ruled by a fashion pendulum that swings according to popular taste and prejudice. This is why courts of law, impressed by the apparent professional standing of psychological "experts," sometimes give their testimony a weight that it doesn't deserve, to the degree that people are sometimes deprived of their freedom on the basis of fantasies.

At its best, psychology offers services that, in the strictest sense, cannot be reliably distinguished from chatting on a porch with your Aunt Hilda. At its worst, psychology tunes its "theories" to conveniently dovetail with popular social fads like the idea that everyone is a victim. By actively encouraging behaviors in people that compound their mental difficulties, the clinical practice of psychology becomes part of the problem it is supposed to be addressing.

To repeat, psychology is a business. It sinks or swims based on its ability to attract customers, and the customer is always right. If customers believe they are victims, if they believe they can "remember" horrible crimes and by "remembering" put themselves in the position of victims deserving of sympathy, vengeance and monetary reward, some psychologist, somewhere, is poised to reinforce and encourage that belief, for a reasonable fee of course. And science won't throw any obstacles in the way of the process.

I anticipate responses from psychologists who will disagree that psychology is so craven as to adjust its standards to conform to any beliefs a potential group of clients might happen to have. But it is really true. Apart from the unaccountable popularity of "repressed memory therapy" and "facilitated communication", both ideas now discredited for cause, consider the career of the late Professor John Mack, of Harvard Medical School, who decided to accept alien abductee accounts at face value. He articulated his belief that UFOs were real, that alien abductions were real, and he thereby attracted a large constituency of disturbed people who might otherwise have sought competent help. His disregard for normal evidentiary standards didn't seem terribly out of place in the field of psychology.

Successful Failures
If we lived in a time when personal accountability and responsibility were held in high regard, a time during which choosing victimhood from a list of social options would seem utterly stupid, it would suffice to say that successful people aren't victims. But those are not the times we live in, and to some people, perpetual victimhood of one kind or another actually seems an attractive option.

When one examines the lives of successful people, one is impressed by the absence of traits they share in common (which is why self-help books that promise to make you successful don't really deliver). But there is one trait that all successful people have in common — they are not victims. Victims do not inspire confidence, they inspire pity. Seasoned investors don't buy into victimhood, because it is a losing proposition.

Successful people don't become victims for another reason — they know if they won't take responsibility when things go wrong, they lose the right to take credit when things go right. This is a statement, one among many, of the symmetry principle. Perpetual victims are subject to the symmetry principle also, but because of their utterly negative outlook on life, they don't expect anything ever to go right, so being a victim has no downside.

Successful people are able to read positive signs in a bleak landscape, and they can act on what they see in a creative, constructive way. Victims, by contrast, look out at the same landscape and only see opportunities for further victimhood. Successful people and victims both create self-fulfilling narratives.

Here's a case history of success. A young man is diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, thought to be a rather serious condition, but also one that is very controversial, both in deciding who has the condition, and in how to proceed (more on Asperger's here).

There is a lot of latitude in Asperger's, and the more responsible researchers counsel skepticism as to both diagnosis and treatment. An individual could take this diagnosis and use it as an excuse to be a lifelong victim (some have done just that). Or, because those diagnosed with Asperger's tend to be bright, one might choose to take it as a sign of superior ability.

What did our young man do? Did he try for sympathy and start a pattern of self-victimization that might have lasted his entire life? Or did he accept the cards he was dealt and find his place in the world?

Well, he did the latter. He became the richest man in the world: Bill Gates.

Most successful people learn how to be successful, they are not born with an instinct for success. By the same token, perpetual, professional victims are trained, not born. Where do they get this training?
The Professional Victim
This section is broadly based on real events, but it has been rendered as fiction to protect the identities of the participants. Any resemblance to real people, places and events is coincidental and unintended.

I know a joke, and it seems relevant, so here goes. A mother and son are at the beach. The boy gets into trouble in the surf, then mom goes ballistic, yelling, waving her arms. A lifeguard rescues her son and delivers him to mom. "Here's your son, ma'am." But mom, being the kind of person this article is about, says, "You rescued my son, you couldn't rescue his cap?"

When I first heard this joke, I though it was funny, but I also thought it wasn't about reality. I've changed my mind about that.

In a story told more completely here, several years ago I was asked by parents to mentor a bright young man in a family situation that, in due time, turned out to be a prototypical victim training ground.

At first glance, the task the parents asked me to perform seemed trivial — all I had to do was encourage a young man to respect and develop his substantial intellectual gifts. I thought that would be easy — unlike the parents I understood and shared his interests, I felt he deserved to hold his abilities and his future in higher regard than he did, and he was at an age when boys begin to apply their intellectual gifts to the world in a new way.

As I befriended this young man, and as his outlook improved, I noticed the mom interacting with one of her other children in a way I found disturbing — mom would recite current events in a way seemingly calculated to produce terror, and terror was the result. Current events were presented as though the child was a direct victim of those events, and there was ample use of the term "victim," as in "we're all victims." I watched as this child's natural resilience and optimism was stripped away, and what should have been a sunny outlook grew progressively darker and more fearful.

I then (very foolishly) tried to talk the mom out of her terrorizing behavior, a decision that can only show my naïveté and lack of parental insight. I should have realized the behavior I witnessed could only mean mom was severely dysfunctional and wasn't likely to respond to a common-sense appeal to take it easy on her kids, let them fall in love with life before exposing them to someone's highly filtered idea of reality.

Mom's reply was that parents have always terrorized their kids. She added that the child she had terrorized was being put in therapy, so "everything will be all right." I stopped breathing for a second. I realized I was witnessing the birth of a victim, trained at the knee of a professional.

But at that point mom had not made any similar "progress" with my young friend, partly because I was able to lift his spirits through my positive outlook and through my accurately describing him and the world in which he lived. Mom soon realized I had given her son a more positive outlook in a few hours per week than she could hope to produce full-time. And no, dear reader, even though I should have, I didn't see what fruit that tree would bear.

A walk in the park?
Then the father proposed a hike. Great, I thought, these kids don't get out of the house nearly enough, having been made fearful of the outside world through their mother's vigilant efforts. But I made an advance visit to the hike site and discovered it was actually a technical, nearly vertical rock climb, so steep that a rope was needed to ascend and descend.

I took some pictures, one of which appears on this page, and confronted the parents — this was not a family outing, it was only appropriate for skilled adult climbers, not these sheltered kids, it could only increase their fear of the outside world. It was dangerous. The parents seemed not to understand what I was saying, an experience I was becoming familiar with, and the outing went ahead as planned.

I had considered not going on the hike, but I had already aired my concerns to no effect, and by going along I realized I might be able to position myself to catch falling children, a danger the parents had clearly not taken into account. And that's exactly what happened.

The ascent was uneventful, but I knew most climbing accidents happen on the descent, so I passed up the other climbers, descended and braced myself. A short time later my young friend lost his grip on the rope and fell, sliding down a very steep precipice, moving quickly toward a vertical drop that might have killed him. I grabbed the rope, swung out over the precipice and stopped him with my free hand as he sailed past. This boy had little outdoor experience so he couldn't aid in his own rescue — he didn't know to grab my hand, so I grabbed his coat instead. Luckily the coat didn't rip as I stopped his fall.

I haven't been in many circumstances where a life was at stake (apart from my own life during my solo world sail), and I consider it a privilege to be able to save someone. I was glad I decided to attend the outing, I knew what kinds of risks were present, the parents clearly did not, someone had to deal with reality in such a way that the outcome was positive.

To understand the next part, readers should recall that I had warned the parents in advance that the climb was dangerous, I had gone along expecting to catch falling children, and I then caught my friend as he fell. Those readers who think a simple "thank you" would be an appropriate response must remember that mom was a professional victim who saw herself as the blameless protector of children fated to be victims of nameless, evil forces.

After the rescue, oblivious to the fact that my having rescued her son had cast a shadow over mom's private drama, I tried to teach my young friend how to grab someone's hand in an emergency, using what is commonly called a "Boy Scout grip", in case the parents planned any more "family outings." In the meantime, mom tried to think of a way to spin this rescue so she and her children could appear to be victims. I think some readers will now see where this is going, but I must confess I didn't at the time, naïvely assuming the parents would see my friendship for what it was, plain and simple.

Before reading on, I ask that my readers try thinking like a professional victim. A family friend has grabbed your son almost literally out of the air, halting a dangerous fall that could have killed him. How does that make you or your son a victim? Surely there is some way to spin this.

I think only the most cynical readers will guess that mom, after dismissing the idea of thanking me for saving her son and getting on with her life, instead spent months trying to think of a suitably vile interpretation that would preserve her victim status. Eventually mom brightened up and began claiming I had touched her child "inappropriately", using terms I will leave to readers' imaginations. In spite of my age, I learned something new that day — there are people so completely in the grip of fixed beliefs, so utterly dysfunctional, that they will do or say absolutely anything to avoid having to test reality using common sense.

On hearing mom's fantasy recital, on realizing she had dreamt up a way to simultaneously read the rescue as an evil act and terrify her inexperienced son, I reluctantly but quickly ended my friendship. I realized I had been too optimistic about what was a very dysfunctional family situation.

But there are a few more twists in this twisted story. On discovering that I had decided to end my friendship, mom did a quick about face and insisted that I remain involved in her son's life. But, at that point understanding her better than she understood herself, I refused. I saw what she was capable of, even if she didn't.

Two months later, bitter about the outcome and apparently oblivious to what she had said and written before, mom tried to recite her "inappropriate touching" fantasy in a courtroom, with predictable results (she was quickly undone by self-contradictions and irrationality). A background check then revealed she had made similar claims against others who came into contact with her children, so perhaps it wasn't out of character for her to interpret the rescue in that twisted way, or to expect the authorities to listen to her.

My optimism is undiminished. My young friend will sort this all out, he will figure out how not to think like a victim in spite of some expert training, and he will secure a place in the world commensurate with his substantial gifts. Most important of all, he will learn that he is not a victim, but a recipient of nature's bounty.

As for me, I received a valuable lesson in the reality distortion field of the professional victim. In truth, I was there for her son's benefit, not hers, I made choices guided by common sense, and her son is alive and not in a wheelchair because I could test reality using resources not available to either of his parents. I was more than happy to be a real-life Holden Caulfield1 for five very important minutes. Notwithstanding this, it is likely my friend's mother, congenitally unable to accept personal responsibility for anything, will live in denial forever, railing against a judge — a judge who saw through her in seconds.

Avoiding the Victim Trap
Obviously there are some people for whom a lifelong posture of victimhood is not a choice, but I think there are many for whom it is a conscious choice. For those people I suggest they consider the possibility that the practice of psychology may make their condition worse, as it did in the examples listed earlier. This prospect can be made worse yet by the passivity and suggestibility that is typical of those disposed to fall into the victim trap.

The victim posture is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. By wallowing in the passivity and supposed powerlessness of the victim, one becomes blind to all opportunities and outlooks that do not conform to the supine posture of the victim. One might call it "self-victimization," but the point is that it is voluntary.

As I tried to talk the above-described dysfunctional mom out of terrorizing her children, programming them for failure and victimization, I heard her say repeatedly that her child was a victim. I promptly replied that the child was a moral agent, a phrase with which the mom was evidently unfamiliar, one that she rejected.

What is a moral agent? A moral agent is someone who influences the world according to his or her own standards, and that is why mom, the professional victim, rejected the description. One of the keys to the victim posture is the idea that the victim is innocent, ineffectual, has no influence on the world, and therefore cannot possibly victimize anyone else. A victim is powerless, therefore blameless.

But in point of fact, every living person has power, has influence, makes moral choices. A perpetual victim, wrapped up in his or her passivity and illusion of powerlessness, may actually be serving as a model for younger people, changing their outlook on life, without realizing it.

We must all accept the reality that we are moral agents — each and every one of us. The idea that there is a pure victim, subject to the world's effects but not influencing the world in turn, is a fiction. We can't decide whether to have an effect on the world around us and the people in it, we can only choose which effect to have.

Some of my readers may think this talk about moral agents could be a segue into a religious discussion, but no, not from me. In any case, being a moral agent has no essential connection with religion, because religion doesn't have a patent on moral behavior.

Also, as many thoughtful people have said about religion, acting in a moral way out of fear of punishment isn't a particularly noble pursuit. The truth is we choose our own moral standards, then act on them, and the idea that all moral standards are shared and universal is an illusion supported by mass culture (it's only approximately true).

In the final analysis, professional victims like to think of themselves as pure and blameless, but when they teach victimization to others, the students really are being victimized — by their teacher. That is an optional victimization, and the most creative thing the students can do is refuse to accept the description.

Think how easy it would have been for Mahatma Gandhi, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who studied Gandhi's credo of non-violence and put it into practice), to think of themselves as victims while they were being beaten up by their ignorant opponents. Think how easy it would have been for them, or any of their followers, to strike back in a fit of self-righteous victim rage. But they didn't, and consequently they won the good fight. They won because they refused to accept that they were victims.

Each of us owes Gandhi, and Doctor King, and many other like-minded thinkers, a debt of gratitude for the behavior they modeled, and the results they achieved. For the purposes of this article, I ask that you meditate on the lives of these people, and think, "They were not victims."

And you are not a victim.

  1. Holden Caulfield, a character in the novel "Catcher in the Rye" by J. D. Salinger, pictures himself as a protector of children who might otherwise fall from a cliff.

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