The ‘culture of victimhood’: a highly effective way to manipulate reality and spread fake news

A consistent trend is emerging in today's world: the ‘culture of victimhood’ is rampant.

Victimhood is the belief that life depends entirely on external forces such as fate, luck, or the sympathy of others. This perceived lack of control affects various areas of life, such as relationships, work, and health. Victimhood therefore lies at the very heart of a person's identity; it fuels the logic that one cannot be held accountable for one’s actions. So, we shift the blame for our failures onto others.

The buzz on social media is a perfect illustration of this mentality. Whenever victimhood is associated with a sense of entitlement, the discourse calling for a change in the social, cultural or political order is expressed with ever greater virulence, disparagement and condescension, conducive to the spread of "fake news".

NB: We are not talking about victimization as a result of severe trauma.

What is a mentality of victimhood?

In a nutshell, a victim mentality refers to a dysfunctional mindset, often the result of a poorly developed coping mechanism, in which a person seeks to pose as a victim in an attempt to attract attention and sympathy. Victimhood implies some kind of power: tricking others into feeling sorry for you is a way of coercing them into fulfilling your needs and desires. Also, this mindset often leads people to rewrite the facts to their advantage, creating "fake news".

At the same time, those who suffer from a victim mentality persuade themselves that life is unfair and that there's nothing they can do about it, and therefore they can't be held accountable for their actions. End result: they constantly blame others for their shortcomings.

Narcissism often develops in this context, with even more detrimental effects on the individual. Exaggerated victimhood is a common feature of narcissistic grandiosity. Narcissists pretend to be victims in an attempt to win support for their abusive behaviors.

What are the features of victimhood?

According to Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, victimhood consists mainly of 4 dimensions:

1.     Constantly seeking recognition for one’s victimhood: the recognition by others helps reaffirm the individual’s basic assumptions about their situation and this implies that offenders recognize their wrongdoing.

2.     A sense of moral elitism which consists in a binary vision of perceiving oneself as having an immaculate morality (the good) while viewing everyone else as being immoral (the bad). It often develops as a defense mechanism and as a way to maintain a positive self-image.  

3.     While having a lack of empathy for others they feel entitled to behave aggressively and selfishly, ignoring the suffering of others.

4.     Frequent rumination about past victimization. They have a tendency to focus their attention on their distress and its causes rather than solutions.

An example of victimhood in the workplace: the case of Joe

In the past, I've struggled to find the best way to deal with Joe, one of my direct reports. Though gifted with many qualities, he was extremely high maintenance. A real drama king, he'd lash out whenever things didn't go his way. And it didn't take much to make him feel wronged (seeking recognition for his victimhood).

I couldn't understand why this highly competent professional always needed to play the role of victim. Every time Joe was in trouble, he blamed management and especially me (moral elitism). Meetings with Joe were like walking on eggshells. Going through his annual performance report was a highly unpleasant experience. Telling him how he could have handled a given situation more effectively was a diplomatic exercise of the highest order. He would then get into a heated debate about my intervention, denying any accountability for the way the situation had gotten out of hand. For him, whenever there was a problem, it was always someone else's fault.

The worst ploy he ever pulled was to hold me and the company hostage, by vanishing for 4 days without anyone knowing his whereabouts; he carried along the company computer containing the final document of the dossier that was to be filed with authorities worldwide in the coming weeks. Preoccupied by his victim status, he felt entitled to behave aggressively and shamelessly, with no concern for the damage caused to others (lack of empathy).

The Olympics of historical victimhood

Victimhood is a widely employed ideological tool, used by populist leaders to justify and glorify atrocities. If you look hard enough, you will find the victim narrative behind almost every terrible act of violence. Several examples illustrate just how dangerous such a mindset can be for a state.

1.    The case of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany, notorious for its "victim" stance towards its problems, focused its blame on Jewish immigrants, holding them collectively responsible for the financial crisis and the deterioration of moral standards. A society convinced of its victim status is always on the lookout for a convenient scapegoat.

2.    The case of Vladimir Putin

The idea that Russia is an innocent, pure nation that has repeatedly suffered armed invasion and ideological interference from foreign nations is deeply rooted in the country's history. This vision was first formulated by the Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954). It provides a moral justification for the creation of an authoritarian state of the kind Putin is currently seeking.

According to the Kremlin, Russia is currently fighting a noble battle against the "fascists" in Ukraine and NATO aggression, casting the United States as the main villain in its version of history. Looking at the startling images of Russian forces bombing neighborhoods, murdering civilians and destroying Ukrainian infrastructure, this narrative is clearly absurd and infuriating.

3.    The case of Ercyp Erdogan

The Turkish president also happens to be a populist leader who transformed a weak democracy into an illiberal, authoritarian state. In 2019, freedom of speech was severely repressed: more than 120 journalists were imprisoned and 700 academics faced criminal charges. According to Erdogan, Turkey's population, which was pious in the days of the Ottoman Empire, fell victim to a dark international elite from the West.

4.    The case of Donald Trump

Back in 2016, Donald Trump kicked off his campaign on the theme "make America great again", thus hinting at a comeback to some unknown period in history when all was well – a comeback that only he was capable of pulling off. Furthermore, "I'm going to tell you that I'm a victim", he declared in his speech.

Whenever things don't go his way, he claims to be treated unfairly or conspired against:

·      Multiple women accuse him of sexual assault? It's a political plot.

·      A federal judge might rule against him? The judge is biased.

·      The polls show him way down? The polls are a scam.

·      He lost the election? The election was rigged.

Portraying himself as a victim is consistent with Trump's populist ethos; he has a tendency to empathize closely with his supporters, who have also allegedly been treated unfairly by powerful economic and social forces. "We will be attacked," he told his fans at his announcement. "We will be slandered. We will be persecuted just as I have been".

He is a victim because the system is rigged against him and anyone who contests it. He has long argued that the elections were ‘rigged’ against him, by state officials who insist on letting people vote and then count the ballots, and by the media who stubbornly continue to confront him on things he has said and done.

He is accountable for virtually nothing, and his status as a victim justifies his transition to dictatorship. He recently mentioned that he would be a dictator from day one after his re-election in 2024, and promises to launch criminal actions against his opponents, Republicans and Democrats alike. American democracy will be the first victim of his actions.

Final thoughts

We live in a culture where a large number of individuals as well as political and cultural groups actively claim their identity as victims.

Time and again, experience has shown that victimhood, particularly when applied to national governance, leads to disaster.

The world doesn't need victims. It needs leaders. What the world needs are professionals who accept accountability for their actions and who are committed to solving emerging problems, rather than creating ‘new fake ones’.

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