What happens when being injured can move us up a social hierarchy?
Note: All of us have experienced suffering and unfairness in our lives, some of us much more so than others. Many of those stories need to be told and taken seriously if we want to heal old wounds or prevent new ones. This is true for us as individuals—I say this as a former therapist; and it is true for us as collectives—I say this as someone who has spent much of my adult life advocating for progressive change. But personal healing and effective advocacy are not what this article is about. It is about how we, as individuals and collectives, intuitively adapt in a context where victimhood gains us standing and status.
Human beings are hierarchical social animals. So are all of our surviving primate relatives. This has some serious upsides and downsides. Hierarchies allow us and most other social animals to survive and thrive, by fostering efficient organization of community thought, sentiment, and action. But they also, invariably, lead to unequal distribution of power and wealth, even if that wealth—say for chimps—is simply a bounty of grubs and sex for high status chimps while those at the bottom get less.
We humans don’t always like the mixed-bag instincts that we inherited from our ancestors, even if they have had survival value. Think of physical aggression, for example, or our love of sweets, or hoarding, or awkward sexual impulses. Communities of various sorts (religions, societies, etc.) try to divert or even thwart these instincts, and over time many have struggled against our tendency to organize into dominance hierarchies.
But because we are inherently hierarchical animals, and because this has upsides as well as downsides, fixing the problems associated with hierarchy is tough. In the United States in recent years, that has led to an interesting nexus: In many places and institutions, hierarchies that have been around for centuries or millennia still dominate, with white males mostly calling the shots. But simultaneously in other places, like Seattle where I live, whole communities of people working to get rid of old hierarchies have, instead, simply inverted them. This sounds paradoxical, but as social animals, we intuitively seek status, even when our highest and best selves express a desire for something else.
Since animals at the bottom of any pecking order get pecked on—marginalized, abused, deprived and undervalued—these inverted pecking orders base status on victimhood: A history of being marginalized, abused, deprived or undervalued brings more status. This kind of status inversion is nothing new. If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all, said an early Christian writer (Matthew 20:26). Believers have taken this to heart for almost 2000 years, and so one part of Christian culture is competitive humility. Similarly, in geopolitical conflict, competitive victimhood has long been a powerful accelerant.
How does this same impulse work in our current political environment? On the Left, the calculus is pretty clear. Status comes from identifying with or advocating for groups that have historically been marginalized. On the Right, which champions traditional dominance hierarchies, things get a bit more complicated. But because status via victimhood is part of the current cultural zeitgeist, even right-leaning white males often try to gain power by claiming victimhood. This is not as disingenuous as it seems. Changed norms and unfulfilled expectations can make people feel violated even when they may be better off than others. Also, changing hierarchies create genuine losses for some. So, associated claims of victimhood can feel or be very real.
When we, either consciously or unconsciously, are seeking status through victimhood, we want people to focus on our wounds and scars rather than our resilience or successes or the ways we may be flourishing or even advantaged relative to others. All of us have wounds and scars—as I said, some much more than others. But the fact is, anyone reading these words probably has had it better than the majority of our ancestors and the majority of humans alive today. That makes competing for victimhood in the greater scheme of things a bit tricky.
Consequently, sometimes we do it, often instinctively and unawares, by borrowing victimization to augment our own standing and status. It’s not as hard as it sounds. Here are some of the ways it can work.
(As an aside, let me say here that I don’t think suffering is or should be a competition. Somebody else’s pain doesn’t make my migraine hurt less. I shouldn’t need to be in more pain than other people for this to be taken seriously. It is where victimhood intersects with our instinctive quest for status that it becomes competitive.)
Centering Identity on a Marginalized Class or Tribe
Each of us has many dimensions to who we are. I am an Italian-American woman. I am a former Evangelical. I am short and stocky in a culture that values lanky bodies, and an introvert in a culture that values extroverts. I like to tell myself that I’m smarter than the average bear—but I have the memory of a gnat. I am married with kids, a West Coast liberal, a gardener, an environmentalist, a long-time resident of shared housing, a psychologist, a philanthropic penny pincher, a squirrel mom, and a fairly adept handywoman. I could choose to center any of these dimensions of my identity, or a number of others. But from a victimhood standpoint, the one that gains me the most status is that I’m female.
Now, as far as I can tell, I have suffered little disadvantage from being born with two X chromosomes—or maybe the disadvantages and advantages have washed each other out. Yes, I have written about my rape. And no, my father didn’t think girls should go to college. And yes, my Evangelical Christian churches did teach female submission. But mercifully, much of that simply didn’t take: I didn’t feel damaged after the rape; I felt pissed. Mom told Dad emphatically that I was too going away to college, and he acquiesced. And for whatever reason—perhaps sheer narcissism?—I thought the submission thing didn’t apply to me.
These things, all manifestations of patriarchy and sexism, were part of my life trajectory. That said, they didn’t define it. I got a degree and a graduate degree, and the jobs I wanted. I’ve had the privilege of pursuing meaningful vocations and avocations. I have health and financial security and strong opinions that can cow others into believing me even when I’m full of shit. And this is more true for me than it is for most men.
Also, I have had the luxury of being able to step back from my professional work to invest in parenting, with no social censure. And I have been able to pour my energy into unpaid activities that are deeply meaningful to me, again without the social censure that a man might face if he did the same. And I have been able to express my delights and fears and sorrows in healthy ways in part because being female freed me to do so. No, I don’t want to go ice climbing or join the military; I don’t have to be my father’s son. Being born female has advantages as well as disadvantages.
But that didn’t stop me from opening a debate about biblical misogyny with the words “As a woman . . .” in order to derail a male opponent. Nor did it stop me from bringing up my sex right here, right now as a way of saying, “I have some standing to talk about this victimhood stuff because I’m female.” Had you noticed what I’m doing? I’m borrowing from the broader bank account of hardship and injustice that has accrued to my sex to build status, standing and persuasive power here.
Dredging One’s Own Past
From the time my daughters were small, I let them know that if I die they should tell themselves I’ve had a very good life. I said this because I want to minimize any suffering at the loss of a parent. But also, it’s true.
Even so, if I need to, I can call upon my lived experience of sexism to establish credibility as a legitimate voice of my marginalized class: The boy who called me a bitch before I knew what it meant. My young adult battle with bulimia and lifelong residual of distorted body image (thank you, Beauty Myth). The patronizing male contractor who played my gender-based self-doubt to the tune of six figures.
If being female isn’t enough to get me the positionality I want in a given interaction, I can also call up other hardships: the crowded tract home of my childhood, the endless clotheslines full of diapers, the cramped bedroom I shared with two sisters and the mortifying hand-me-down clothes; experiencing free school lunches as an awesome treat; the gut-wrenching feel of lying awake and listening to my parents fight; my mother’s and sister’s mental illnesses; my own suicidal depression . . . We all have experiences that we can move from background to foreground depending on what serves us, including in the quest for anti-status.
It all may be side or backstory at this point in my life, none of it raw, none of it particularly relevant to my present concerns, but all the same, I can borrow against the hurts of my younger hard-scrabble self to bolster my standing. If I center this part of my past enough, if that is what my social milieu demands—again this may or may not be intentional—the psychology of narrative is such that it can in fact become raw again; it can return to define me. This is true even of stories and wounds that are not my own.
(Because what I am saying here is so easily misunderstood or misrepresented, I feel a need to state that for many people hardship is not backstory or side-story. It is present and raw and a powerful barrier to flourishing. Again, that is a different conversation; this one is about anti-status hierarchies and how they may move us to borrow victimhood.)
Blurring Here-and-Now with History
Today, on the Left of the political spectrum, victim status typically accrues based on identity markers that represent historically marginalized tribes or classes of people (gender, skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, immigration history, etc.), rather than just personal lived experience or even the contemporary experience of the tribe. This means that a person can borrow victimhood from their ancestors or even unrelated past humans who belonged to the same tribe.
By talking and writing about the struggles of my immigrant grandmother or even something more abstract, like the European and Puritan witch trials—especially if I use the first person “we,” saying this was done to “us”—I can bring that past into the present, eliciting emotions and shaping priorities. We humans are storytellers, meaning we organize information into stories that we tell ourselves and each other—elevating some parts above others to create a throughline. Stories are powerful, even fictional ones, but especially those we believe to represent some dimension of truth. The power of a historical narrative doesn’t necessarily depend on how representative it was at the time, how much similar events have cascaded into the present, or how they have impacted my own life.
You may have heard the term presentism used to describe imposing our current moral standards and agreements on historical figures: Abraham Lincoln was a bad person because his policies harmed Native Americans. Thomas Aquinas was a bad person because he wrote that females are subhuman. John James Audubon was a bad person because he endorsed slavery. (I guarantee that future generations will look back at you and me from the vantage of history and say some of the things we said or did were unconscionable.) But we also engage in the reverse kind of presentism—pulling injustices and atrocities of the past into the present in order to augment our status as victims. This was a key factor in the Balkan war of the 1990s, where Milosevic elevated grievances that went back hundreds of years, dividing Serbs, Croatians and Muslim Bosniaks along ethnic and religious lines to feed a powerful, visceral sense of outrage that ultimately erupted into armed conflict.
When our own tribes or lived experience don’t provide much anti-status, people sometimes seek to move up a victimhood hierarchy by aligning themselves with those who are higher up. If you think about this, it makes perfect sense: People tend to ally themselves with whoever is at the top of any pecking order, whether it is strongmen like Putin, or the popular mean girls at school, or an inspiring leader like Gandhi, or in this case people who hold identity in more marginalized/victimized groups. Allies can be a lot like stereotypical religious converts—because their position can feel tenuous, they may be even more vocal and emphatic or rigid and unforgiving than the group with whom they seek to ally.
This is not to say that outspoken allies are motivated sheerly by self-interest. It is to say that when status derives from anti-status, vicarious victimhood, aka self-interest, is likely to be part of the subterranean mix of motives for allies. Much of the time our motives are more complicated than the stories we tell ourselves. This is not a matter of either/or. Self-interest can be quite compatible with compassion or altruism or a genuine quest for righteousness or, as the earlier quote from the New Testament book of Matthew described, “servanthood.” Nor do I mean to say the good that people do is inconsequential simply because their motives are mixed. In Singapore, a Confucian cultural ethic means that rich people get extra status by spending money on public works and community projects; those projects benefit the public all the same.
But let me reiterate the main point here: Victimhood hierarchies operate just like any other human hierarchy. People at the top are given more airtime, their ideas are taken more seriously, they are more likely to get resources, they are more able to hurt you. Allyship borrows on the power of those at the top. And this is true even when those at the top are, ironically, those whose identities are the most marginalized.
What about conservative straight white cis men who claim that they are now the victims—Men’s Rights Activists and incels and MAGA hat-wearers who want to take us back in time? Well, for one thing, violated expectations feel like real losses. When it comes to goodies, we tend to confuse is or was with ought to be, meaning we instinctively feel that we ought to have whatever goodies we have become accustomed to, including undue privilege or status. People who grew up expecting the social order to be a certain way can feel violated or demeaned—or personally inadequate—when things change.
Evangelical Christians in the US, despite their disproportionate political power, see themselves as victims—maligned, misunderstood, and marginalized. This is not only because Christianity has a multi-millennial martyr complex, although that is true and has served Christianity well (when you see yourself as a martyr, you can’t see the harm you are doing to others), but also because biblical Christianity is losing ground, both in adherents and in control over our cultural institutions.
But also, remember what I said about pecking orders? “Animals at the bottom of any pecking order get pecked on—marginalized, abused, deprived and undervalued.” All of the labels I used in the first sentence of this section: conservative, straight, white, cis, and men are quite literally used by people on the left as slurs—as a shorthand way of saying that someone is bad and undeserving. In the new inverted identity hierarchies, these words describe the people at the bottom, those whose fears and dreams and ideas count for less (and should, we tell ourselves, because people like them had it too good for too long). But people aren’t interchangeable.
Traditional biblical Christianity teaches the concepts of original sin, meaning we inherit the sins of our ancestors, and substitutionary atonement, meaning you can attain justice by punishing one person for the sins of another. Most progressives, including progressive Christians, would say they don’t ascribe to that kind of theology. The wretched life of a poor white man in the south doesn’t somehow make up for the slaveholding of his ancestor—at least not rationally. But our heads and our guts don’t always align, and the concepts of inherited guilt and proxy punishment run deep in the American psyche, where they meet up with another pesky human instinct—our desire for payback. In the absence of better targets, we don’t mind punishing proxies. And so, progressives are quite literally giving some people the experience of what it feels like to be at the bottom simply because of accidents of birth. To some degree, we provide the reverse prejudice card they are playing.
Why does it matter?
It’s worth being mindful of inverted status hierarchies and borrowed victimhood for a couple of reasons. One has to do with the relationship between victim identity and resilience. The other has to do with competition.
As individuals, competitive victimhood requires that we center the most damaged parts of ourselves and elevate the ugliest parts of our history over our loves, joys, triumphs and accomplishments. The emotions that go along with this likely include some mix of hurt, horror, grief, anger, anxiety, and mistrust. It may further require that a person subsume their unique individualism in order to identify first and foremost as a representative member of an injured tribe. As one young Black commentator discussed, it can make you feel you need to fit stereotypes to be perceived as authentic.
Exploring any or all of this can be part of a process of healing and growth. But centering or cementing victim identity can make a person less resilient, more brittle, more easily traumatized, more reactive, more vindictive, and less able to fully experience whatever goodness life may offer them. Victim identity looks backward, not forward. It is about identifying problems, not solving them. It is about the shape of our wounds, not the shape of our dreams. If the reason for elevating this part of the self is because inverted status hierarchies pull for it, if power and standing require that we convince others of our victimhood, if we are expected to make scars our calling card, then status comes at a psychological price.
At a collective level that price may be measured in loss of what sociologists call social capital. Social capital is made up of shared norms and values, a shared sense of identity, a baseline assumption of good will. In any community, whether that is a nuclear family or a network of global diplomacy, these dynamics make us more benevolent toward each other. Interactions become more efficient because we don’t spend as much energy being wary and defensive. On the other side of the equation, a breakdown of these norms, including a shift toward competitive victimhood, accelerates movement toward divorce or war.
For those on the far left, the competitive part of competitive victimhood is particularly problematic, because on the surface the left shuns hierarchy. This is so true that some progressive political groups have experimented with flat organizational structures and rotating leadership positions. So, just like the Christian seeking status through humility or servanthood, the progressive seeking status through anti-status needs to engage in mental gymnastics. Competitive victimhood for those on the left requires self-deception.
What is to be done?
Wish as we might, human hierarchies are not going to go away. Evolutionary biology literally functions by way of inequality; social animals organize into hierarchies; and human exceptionalism—the idea that we alone are exempt from this kind of social structure—is pure hubris. We need leaders. Differentiation and specialization are the fabric of civilization. Not all ideas are created equal, and human flourishing grows when our ideas and enterprises are freely generated and then subjected to vigorous competition.
But that is only one part of what’s true, and as they say a half-truth is a whole lie. Another part of what’s true is that hierarchies often become abusive. The experience of marginalized groups and individuals throughout history is vile and ugly and demands moral redress. And even if hierarchy and inequality are inevitable, we still have tremendous power (and, I might argue, moral obligation) to minimize abuse, shrink resource differentials, maintain role fluidity, and insist on dignity and respect for all.
Inverting a status hierarchy doesn’t necessarily accomplish these things; it may simply reassign the same old roles. The currency, meaning what buys a person high rank, can get switched up without the dynamics changing much at all. In our ancestral past this happened regularly as clans or tribes took and retook territory, resources, or political dominance from each other.
It takes mindful effort to counter the downside of our competitive status-seeking instinct. One of the best tools at our disposal is narrative that elevates our shared humanity. Yes, we need to talk about harms in order to understand, heal and prevent them. But when we lean away from what we have in common, we inevitably lean toward competition. In that sense, borrowed victimhood is not just a natural behavior but a symptom. It tells us that we have a ways yet to go.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, Quillette, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
It does seem like a race to the bottom lately. LOL Goodness, to act like every white person has it easy because they are white or every straight person has it easy because they are straight, etc. I have been a victim, poor as dirt, a survivor, sexually assaulted, medically challenged and, the older I get, a realist. Life is hard but we must do our best with what we have. To keep saying that women are oppressed when we have it better here than most anywhere in the world seems disingenuous. Personally, I like being at home but I feel fulfilled. I have five acres to work on. But, am I letting down all of womanhood by hubby working and me staying at home? Now, can things still improve? Sure but to do that we do have to somehow find a more positive, affirmative way to do this. Dividing us into little sects of down trodden angry peeps just isn’t working. What do we have in common? Life is hard, for everyone. Even if you don’t see it on the surface. Let’s show one another a little grace and try to be actually inclusive. Why do I even comment when I probably don’t have a coherent viewpoint? LOL I don’t know. I just wish we could all just get along.
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It’s true that some or many of us in the USA do have an easier life than others. Our democratic process helps (though it doesn’t solve all problems). There is major oppression in so many parts of the world.
In some ways, we are also living in an easier age. My father mentioned this to me during my younger years: “You’re lucky to be living in an age when women are treated better. At one time, men treated their wives in the same way they treated their pigs.” In later years, I discovered the following view on how women were treated.
“English common law gave a man permission to discipline his wife and children with a stick or whip no wider than his thumb. This “rule of thumb” prevailed in England and America until the late 19th century.”
The above English common law is cited in a number of cases in the last century.
I doubt that particular common law would be cited in the 21st century.
My opinion about “victimization” involves genetics and its impact.
One can survive a hard scrabble childhood plus sexual assault and with no lifelong effects if one has been gifted with the genetics to do so.
Many individuals are genetically inclined to vulnerabilities not experienced by others (who inherited a genetic “jackpot.”) A genetic vulnerability that is impacted by a traumatic event sometimes results in a mental breakdown. More often, a full-scale breakdown is avoided, while the victim/survivor does experience life-long impact!
Valerie Tarico has written a superb article about victims and status. I don’t mean to undermine her insights. However, I just have to add my two cents about the influence of genetics on traumatic events.
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I certainly have lifelong effects. I simply find ways to cope. I will not succumb although I have come close a few times :) And I don’t know how old you are but I don’t know that I was born in a much easier age than some of the younger people in the USA. I was treated very poorly by the police when my exhusband was dragging me into the house one night. I was told I wouldn’t like welding class and the teacher made sure a girl was not welcome. I don’t know. It’s all kind of relative but here I am. The best revenge is living well despite the bad people in this world [again, relative. Not rich but I have a cozy home. Hubby ain’t perfect but he and I have love, etc.] I hope after all these years I have found some peace and a sense of who I am. I think I have.
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This is very much needed analysis, and very well put! Thank you…. I’ve begun sharing it already; will continue to.
Curious on the intellectual side: Are you leaning some, or maybe heavily, on the work of Rene Girard?
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I don’t know the work of Rene Girad. Thank you for the tip! I will check it out.
A thoughtful essay. I could have written select, small parts of it myself, while lacking the intellectual skill, clarity, incisiveness, and sophistication your writing provides. I suggest that readers of this essay must also read (for balance) another example (essay) regarding your thoughts.
Great analysis. For me, it opened the door to more forward movement as I continue my own healing journey. Claiming my own victimhood was necessary for me. I was lost in the hierarchies of family, church, and society. Finally being able to pull it together and not let my experiences be a misnomer, victimhood helped frame what happened. Without it, I would have still been swirling in a cesspool of craziness. I am not at a point of liminality which is me moving away from the victimhood. I have to remember it, but it doesn’t move me into moving on up in life. I had to go from the bottom up at first, not to top down and am now at a point where I move forward with many possibilities of direction by choice and desire. Thanks again!
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Excellent piece… I’m going to share this!
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Excellent piece of writing…I’m going to share this!
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