To launch Rights! new long-form thematic series Beyond the Pandemic, Luca Bonadiman challenges the widespread reliance on victimhood as a foundation of contemporary political discourse in general and the human rights movement in particular. This first contribution focuses on the need to shift from victimhood to solidarity.
Victimhood is a totalising feature of the contemporary political age (1789-present). In domestic and international affairs alike, the logic of victimhood has been governing each and every major political narrative of the past one and a half centuries. As cultural product of contemporary times, human rights are no exception: the human rights imaginary is one of victimhood, too. The human rights movement should promote a paradigmatic shift by replacing the logic of victimhood with the principle of solidarity.
In recent years, the logic of victimhood has grown further, becoming the underlying strategy of those very political groups that had previously criticised it. Authoritarian leaders and reactionary segments of society have increasingly portrayed themselves as victims to capitalise on the power that comes with victimhood. At the same time, the ongoing pandemic may have turned victimhood into an almost totalising phenomenon: each and every person is somehow victim of COVID-19 and its consequences.
The COVID pandemic and the many political events surrounding it have shown how the logic of victimhood may have become a strategy to marginalise those who are indeed in a position of vulnerability and need in our societies. For this very reason, the human rights movement should reclaim solidarity as foundational principle of contemporary democratic societies in empowering peoples and individuals.
The Age of Victimhood
The contemporary age came about with the luring promise of collective and individual emancipation. Implicit in this view was the idea that people were held somewhat captive. Indeed, behind the many tragic events that taint the pages of contemporary history lies the belief that people were finally becoming masters of their own fate. Hence, at the very roots of the contemporary age there is a sense of oppression and victimhood that has progressively come to permeate every aspect of contemporary life.
The countless crises, turmoil, wars, revolutions, etc. have been punctually accompanied by narratives of victimhood on either side of the fence. One can tirelessly search one conflict of the past 150 years which was not the consequence of some more or less credible sense of victimhood: there is none. This seemingly endless flood of violence has also had the peculiar consequence of realising its very own premises, that is, creating even more and possibly greater victimhood.
The contemporary age starts with revolutions. Depending on one’s favourite side of the Atlantic, the choice is commonly between the American or French Revolutions. In both instances, the revolutionaries appealed on the tradition of natural rights to contest the oppressiveness of the political status quo. In reclaiming their natural rights against the sovereign, the revolutionaries could portray themselves as victims fighting for freedom and justice.
The long and bloody process of European nation-building was also built on victimhood. “The people” were indeed “hostages” of a fragmented political landscape preventing them from becoming one united nation. Few other political phenomena dramatise victimhood as much as nationalism does. One main example of that is revanchism: after engaging war with Prussia in 1870 and suffering a painful defeat, the French developed a national sentiment of humiliation and victimhood.
Revanchism well exposes the perverse logic of victimhood. When Napoleon III decided to leverage war against Prussia, the view was that a war was necessary for preventing Prussia from replacing France as hegemon in the old Continent. In other words, France felt victim of a power-plot aiming at stripping away its status. After losing the war, the sentiment of victimhood incepted a desire for revenge, which culminated into World War I.
Sitting on the winning side of the table, France could take its supposed revenge on the (now former) Prussian state by imposing particularly stringent conditions in the Treaty of Versailles, which in turn became the corner stone of German victimhood in the decades to come. Historians have carefully detailed how such sense of victimhood grew more and more throughout the 1920s, thus offering fertile ground to the Nazi party, which indeed promised to vindicate German pride.
World War II remains one of the most – if not the most – dramatic events of human history. It partly soothed European nationalisms, but it also triggered a new wave of nationalism in the colonies, where peoples sought self-determination. There too, victimhood drenched each and every nationalist narrative. The tragic irony of this piece of history is that the counter-part, that is, the colonial masters equally relied on a narrative of victimhood, for the colonies and their peoples were indeed a “burden”.
The postwar era has elevated victimhood to the default political narrative. On the international plane, the United Nations Charter formally prohibits the use of force in any other context than self-defence; as a consequence, even the most powerful nations in the world act as victims – or, at best, as the defenders of victims. More broadly, virtually every nation situates itself into the world through some narrative of victimhood – a strategy that is more alive than ever.
Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine – if one can define it as such – arises from the sense that the U.S. have been cheated on and taken advantage of by every other country. The U.S. and its people are then victims. Boris Johnson has first advocated for and subsequently leaded the British government through the lengthy process of Brexit. To those supporting Brexit, the UK was victim of the European Union as both unelected system of government and as group of countries seeking British money.
On the other side of the late iron curtain, Vladimir Putin has persistently portrayed the Russian Federation as victim: aside from its defeat in the Cold War, Russia has been humiliated by the U.S. and the NATO alliance, as they aimed at stripping Russia of any influence over its former satellite states. At the same time, Putin misses no opportunity to depict the Russian government as victim of Western paranoias and double standards.
Similarly, Xi Jinping has risen to a position of unprecedented power since the time of Mao by vindicating a sense of national pride. China’s historical grievances are older than Russia’s: Chinese history books tell of the “Century of Humiliation” that began with the First Opium War and ended, unsurprisingly, with the Communist Party taking over the country in 1949. Today’s China shuns international criticism for its oppressive tactics, once again depicting itself as an unfair victim of foreign interference and double standards.
Four of the five members of the UN Security Council act on the global plane as if they were victims. It would be impossible to go through the other 190 or so nations or aspiring nations, but from South East Asia to the Middle East, from Central Africa to South America, the logic of victimhood dominates virtually each and every political narrative. This is certainly not limited to geopolitical issues, as it includes the position of a given country in the political economy of the world.
At the domestic level, victimhood has been the main propeller of social movements. No social group seeking to achieve some political gain can do it without setting forth a narrative of victimhood. This is obviously not to say that their demands were not legitimate, but it is fair to notice that the chosen strategy of advocacy has been one of victimhood. It may be the natural choice for minorities to portray themselves as victims. But the result is that today every social cause builds on the logic of victimhood.
The power of victimhood is such that it has been embraced by unlikely movements. For example, animal rights advocates characterise animals as victims of our contemporary practices; environmental groups regard nature and the planet as victims of human behaviour; and so forth. There is no doubt our contemporary practices involve forms of cruelty and lead to massive pollution, but is victimhood the correct approach to any of these problems?
The logic of victimhood has become so powerful and pervasive that even those political movements and social groups that contested it are now fully embracing victimhood as their own strategy. For example, right-wing, anti-migration movements throughout the West present both nationals and migrants as victims: migrants are victims of human trafficking, whereas nationals are victims of some physical or cultural invasion. In this instance, the narrative also creates equivalence between types of victimhood.
The rampant culture of victimhood can go even further. Take for instance the group of young men who consider themselves victims of women’s emancipation under the unhappy label of “involuntary celibates”. More broadly, the largely unpredicted political success of President Trump in the U.S. has exposed how a wide segment of the population, including low and mid-income white families, conservative and religious groups, and so on, all equally consider themselves victims.
The resulting effect is that on either side of the political spectrum, people regard themselves as victims of society and its practices – blaming their counterparts for it. Unsurprisingly, this situation creates political representatives that, rather than promoting a political discourse about and around these grievances, actually embody victimhood and act themselves as victims. For example, throughout his presidency, Mr Trump constantly lamented being a victim of left-wing resentment, the deep state, etc.
Over the past two decades or so, victimhood has increasingly become a tool for “bullying” authoritarian leaders and government to “bully”. This is particularly problematic for the human rights movement, which has traditionally leveraged victimhood as quintessential strategy to pressure those very authoritarian leaders and government practices they opposed. How can one criticise the Chinese Government if that very Government denounces any such critique as driven by unfair anti-China sentiment?
This is not entirely new or unseen. In the wake of the 9/11, it became nearly impossible to criticise American foreign and domestic policy because the U.S. had been victim of an horrendous terroristic attack. Whether America’s military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its military prison in Guantanamo, can be put on the same moral or legal plane of the current Chinese expansionism and the Communist Party’s use of “re-education” camps is perhaps debatable, but they all build on victimhood.
The Dark Side of Victimhood
There are many people all over the world who have suffered or are currently suffering for great injustices. There are victims. The global pursuit of peace, stability, and prosperity has been an incredibly oppressive and violent endeavour. The issue at hand is not whether victimhood exists or not, but whether it is a viable and effective strategy for the human rights movement moving forward. The argument presented by this article is thus: the human rights movement should reclaim and promote the principle of solidarity instead.
Whether at the national or international level, victimhood builds and therefore also reproduces an adversarial culture that leads to greater and greater polarisation. This translates in identity politics in the domestic sphere and reflects in old and new forms of nationalism on the international plane. As a consequence, victimhood erodes democracy (where present) and emboldens authoritarian leaders and governments, ultimately undermining that very international peace and stability human rights should defend.
The legal fabric of the human rights regime has made victimhood a necessary element: an individual, group of people, or minority of sort ought to be victim of a state or government to trigger the human rights machinery. Whether quasi- or fully juridical, human rights proceedings are inevitably adversarial: it is one side against the other. This may no doubt be necessary in many instances. However, it creates a divide, which becomes quite inevitably a moral divide.
Human rights disputes and litigations are hardly just about right or wrong, they involve a deeper and broader moral dimension that makes it about good and evil. Victimhood is here a crucial tactic because it allows claimants to seize for themselves the side of the “good”. Demonising dictators or oppressive regimes may work, but once it affects broader social groups, this has the effect of either creating or further deepening social divides. In other words, victimhood can lead to greater social conflictuality.
Polarisation is equally undesirable in the domestic and international spheres. In many Western democracies, the prevailing political phenomenon of the past decades has taken the name of “identity politics”, which indeed describes a system that groups-and-divide people on the basis of their respective sense of victimhood. The different groups then collocate themselves along a spectrum that reflects the left/right political dichotomy.
At both the national and international level, these dynamics have the effect of exacerbating polemical tensions and cultural divides, while depriving democracy of its ability of tackling difficult political questions. Everything becomes politicised and yet nothing is actually political. In a system that becomes reliant on greater and greater fragmentation and antagonism, the result is growing conflictuality – a conflictuality that each part will blame on the other, in a hopeless spiral of victimhood and recrimination.
The logic of victimhood is coherent with – if not integrally part of – liberalism. It replaces collective socio-political empowerment with an individualistic surrogate of it. Dividing the world into victims and perpetrators, victimhood reduces each and every struggle into a matter of individual responsibility. This allows avoiding any structural transformation: the anger of victims is channelled against individual “culprits”, as opposed to the system enabling them.
One recent example may be found in the criminal trial against Harvey Weinstein. The disgraced Hollywood producer has become a symbol of the so-called #MeToo movement. However, the criminal trial achieved the somewhat undesirable effect of transforming instances of socio-economic injustice against women into a dispute between private individuals: women alleging rape or other sexual misconducts sought reparation through courts. What happened to the broader social dimension?
Also, what happened to the procedural guarantees and the traditional scepticism of human rights advocates towards the criminal law system? It seems that the human rights movement has indeed made a “turn to criminal law”: at the international level, this has translated into greater support for criminal courts and tribunals in the name of accountability; at the domestic level, there has been greater acceptance for criminal solutions to social problems, especially when it comes to women’s rights.
The turn to criminal law may be seen as a more radical expression of the liberal spirit underpinning the human rights culture as a whole. A main critique against the human rights legal regime is that it de-politicises transformative social instances by reducing them into court or other quasi-juridical proceedings that while occasionally providing some form of satisfaction to the individual victim, fails to address any structural issue. This reflects a well-established liberal fantasy.
The liberal fantasy is that of ensuring overall political stability by diverting social conflictuality and tensions from the sphere of public politics to that of private economic competition and civil litigations. Put differently, the goal is to translate social and political disagreements into narrow legal proceedings in which problems and differences are settled through monetary compensation. In this context, victimhood comes close to what legal realists in the 1930s would call “slot-machine justice”.
Victimhood becomes a coin to play in the attempt of cashing-in a bigger jackpot. The very goal of an increasing number of human rights litigations is indeed that of demanding compensation and inflict punitive monetary sanctions. The trickle-down effect is that of resolving far-reaching social problems, such as labour rights, discrimination, or environmental protection, through individualised pay-outs often sealed by non-disclosure agreements. This way, victimhood simply buys a given person a lottery ticket.
To some extent, the logic of lotteries well-captures our current economic culture: everybody pays to play, but only the winner takes it all. Losers usually accept this radically unequal distribution as an outcome of either fate or luck, whereas winners rationalise their immense fortunes through narratives of either merit or moral virtue. The fact that, in abstract, all have somewhat comparable (rather than equal) chances legitimates fierce competition, while affording “immunity” from redistribution to the winner’s wealth.
The liberal logic of socio-economic lottery is such that victimhood and competition ultimately play one into the other. On the one side, victimhood has become a key element in the political and economic competition. However, this tends to flatten different social instances onto a plane of false equivalence for which the only relevant difference, as for the liberal market economy, is one of price: how much would awarding some compensation cost?
On the other side, there is a growing competition among different types of victimhood: whose victimhood is more legitimate and which one should prevail? Even within the broad human rights movement, the liberal-market scarcity mind-set has been fuelling a competition over attention and resources. As a consequence, instead of defeating injustice, victimhood becomes yet one more feature to discriminate among groups and individuals.
Therefore, the logic of victimhood contributes to a de-politicised culture of individualism, private competition, and – consequently – socio-economic inequality. The latter aspect exposes how the logic of victimhood is ultimately not only false in its sense of empowerment, but actually counter-productive. In a system where gains and losses as well as access and opportunities are unequally distributed, those worse off – “losers” – are compensated with the victim status, only to be shamed for using it.
The logic of victimhood works in pair with that of merit. The liberal system justifies inequalities through fierce competition. In turn, it legitimates competition through the logic of merit. The underlying argument is that, in our contemporary societies, we are all – one way or the other – victims. It is for each individual to decide whether to stagnate in self-pity or do something: “I’m relying on myself to invent my future, as opposed to feeling I’m the victim of a system” – as one person recently put it to the NYT.
In other words, as most people find themselves struggling with a deep sense of powerlessness and injustice, no path towards socio-political transformation is ever envisioned. Instead, people can embrace individual narratives of victimhood, which each person is called to overcome through economic or psychological self-empowerment. The way out is individualistic, never collective. It is personal, never political. It therefore leads to greater self-disciplining, that is, transforming oneself instead of the world.
This way, inequalities are “privatised”. In other words, they depend on the ability of each and every individual to overcome their own sense of victimhood and thus turn every challenge into an opportunity. The divide between “haves” and “have-nots” is one between people unable to get over their self-victimisation and those who turn their victimhood into entrepreneurship. The liberal, capitalist hero is one that pulls himself/herself out of misery, the victim turned hero.
The Way Forward
Victimhood can be an addictive source of power. What makes it particularly luring and intoxicating is that victimhood combines the two forms power traditionally associated with “master and slave”. In other words, victimhood becomes the synthesis of that dialectic. But victimhood remains a deceiving form of power that actually obfuscates the hierarchical structures of our contemporary societies. Victimhood allows concealing injustices behind a false plane of equivalence: if we are all victims, no one is.
It may be tempting for the human rights movement to pursue the dangerous strategy of reclaiming “true” victimhood. There is no doubt merit in that: victimhood should be weighted against the power differentials that characterise our societies. However, the world of today relies on perceptions rather than facts. It regards truth as a personal matter that depends on one’s own sensitivity and identity. In this context, the intellectual exercise of mapping victimhood along power differentials may prove ineffective.
The path ahead is therefore radically different and possibly more challenging. The human rights movement is tasked with leading our contemporary society towards a new paradigm and culture that replaces the false empowerment of victimhood with the effective empowerment of solidarity. This first requires reclaiming the principle of solidarity from alternative narratives in which it is mostly reduced to a moralistic and individualistic exercise of charity.
I acknowledge the invaluable contributions of Ukri Soirila, Elettra Repetto, and Michael Picard in drafting this essay. While they did not always agree with the substantive arguments put forward, their comments, suggestions, and disagreements have been crucial in shaping both ideas and text.
Luca Bonadiman is currently a JD Student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Law. He holds a BA and MA in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Padova. He is an alumni of the E.MA Programme in Human Rights and Democratisation. He completed a PhD in Law at City University of Hong Kong with a Thesis on the Historiographical Turn in Human Rights. He worked as Post-Doctoral Residential Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard Law School from 2017 to 2020, focusing on distributional analysis and the transformations of the human rights regime. Luca is a current member of Rights! editorial board. Follow his work here.