When did the word “victim” become synonymous with “moral failure”?
The longer the conversation about Mitt Romney’s 47% goes on, the more worried I become. I am concerned because embedded in Romney’s speech to millionaires is a dangerous premise that if left unchallenged will have serious consequences for all Americans, but especially for women. That unstated assumption—the truth he assumes that we all agree with—is that people who think of themselves as victims are immoral. The assumption is that acknowledging the negative impact of the harm done to you compromises your morality making you unable to take personal responsibility. To put it more bluntly, people who are abused, exploited, or oppressed become immoral when they acknowledge to themselves and others that they have been abused, exploited, or oppressed and we should shame them for that.
Unfortunately, Romney is not alone in making the claim that acknowledging that you have been harmed makes you immoral. Our society seems to be in the process of perverting the meaning of the word “victim,” turning it into a pejorative. We are making it taboo for victims to call others to bear witness to the harm done to them. We are using the coded and loaded phrase of “taking personal responsibility” to transfer the responsibility for undoing the consequences of abuse and oppression off of the abusers and oppressors and onto the abused and oppressed.
We have allowed the word “victim” to be co-opted. Take for example what President Obama said at a rally last Friday: “I don’t see a lot of victims in this crowd today. I see hard-working Virginians.” Implicit in his statement is the idea that being victimized and being a hard worker are mutually exclusive. But what is also clear is that he has accepted the perverted definition of victim. With all due respect to the President, whom I have loved and supported more than any President in my lifetime, if he did not see many victims in that crowd the man is blind. The crowd was filled with victims. For starters, there were a lot of women at the rally who have not only been victims of systemic inequality, a third of them are likely to have suffered sexual abuse. Also in the crowd were veterans who as a group are being victimized by our government’s refusal to provide the resources promised to them, the ones they need to rebuild their lives as civilians.
Victim is the new “bitter,” a slur frequently hurled at women when I was growing up. The women called bitter in our community had suffered everything from spousal abuse and betrayal to being raped by their pastors. And all that they were asking for was justice or at least to have someone bear witness to their suffering. Instead they were accused of having a spiritual disease called “bitterness” that could only be alleviated through forgiveness. Conveniently, forgiveness also meant shutting up. Even now we talk about bitterness as a moral failing or emotional problem. What we are actually saying is that there is a maximum amount of time that victims are allowed to be angry, that there is an expiration date on moral outrage.
But making victim a pejorative goes one step further: It says that there is a limit to how much blame a perpetrator can be assigned for the consequences of his or her actions, and that the surplus blame must be absorbed by the victim. It says that victims of abuse have a moral responsibility to recover fully and victims of oppression have a social obligation to surmount the obstacles deliberately placed in their way. Those who fail are morally defective.
Taken to its extreme, this redistribution of blame from perpetrator to victim means that if you stab a person, your victim is still personally responsible for staying alive. You can make the case that your victim did not fight for his or her life hard enough, that if the person had been good enough or strong enough she could have stopped you or that your victim should have used the medical care provided to help her take personal responsibility for making a full recovery.
Last month we were shown the invariable consequences that women face if we allow our society to continue defining victimhood as a moral failing. A woman who had been sexually assaulted in an Arizona bar by a police officer made the brave choice to press charges. It cost her dearly to do so. She lost friends and was vilified by a community that rallied in support of her offender. A jury found the police officer guilty of sexual abuse, for which he could have been sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Instead the judge gave the officer probation and lectured the victim, holding her accountable for the crime committed against her. The judge’s reasoning was that had the woman not been in the bar she would not have been victimized. Of course, the judge’s logic is flawed on several points. First, women have the right to expect safety in all public spaces. Second, evidence from the case suggests if she had not been in the bar he would have just assaulted another woman.
The judge went on to suggest that if the woman did not want to be sexually abused in the future, she should stay out of bars. She told the victim: “When you blame others, you give up your power to change.” Nothing could be further from the truth. When the woman blamed her attacker, that is to say pressed charges against him, she created change. She made the world a little safer for herself and for other women.
The sad thing is that the judge was simply acting on the two assumptions embedded in the new definition of the word victim. First, a person becomes a victim not when they are harmed but when they acknowledge the impact that being victimized has had on their lives. And second, they become completely powerless if they acknowledge the truth that someone else caused the pain and suffering they are experiencing. These assumptions are not just wrong, they are morally outrageous and a perversion of justice.
The story illustrates perfectly what is by far the biggest problem with the growing taboo against people identifying themselves as victims and our society’s insistence that we all must take sole responsibility for our lives. When we convince abused or subjugated people that their pain and suffering is not the consequence of the harm that has and is being done to them, but is a personal failing, and when we shame them for even publicly identifying themselves as someone who has been harmed, we are creating victims that will not seek justice or demand social change. In fact, we are making the reprehensible statement that seeking justice is immoral.
This subject reminds me of a shocking message I heard while doing research at a retreat for Evangelical women. A speaker claimed that a wife should make her husband feel good about his domination over her. I was stunned and outraged. How, in the name of all that is good and holy, could they not only instruct women to “meekly” submit to their husbands, but also insist that they make husbands feel good about committing acts of oppression.
But isn’t that exactly what we are asking victims in our society to do? We are asking them to keep silent and to undo the damage done to them so that their abusers can not only escape justice, but also avoid having their consciences pricked.
We need to quit debating the facts associated with Mitt Romney’s speech. Instead we need to use his stunning admission to spark a discussion about the social and moral implications of making the word victim a pejorative. We can use this opportunity to reassert the proper definition of the word victim, one that acknowledges that being harmed is not immoral or a crime but harming other people is.