Paul Hughes

The evolving story of a hopeful skeptic.

August 30, 2013 Miscellaneous, Science , By Paul Hughes

Victim Card? Go Fish.

Hello, everyone! It has been a while since last I posted, mostly because I’ve had an insanely busy summer (luckily I haven’t lost my touch for silly post titles!). Amongst my busy schedule this summer, I’ve been doing a lot of observational “research,” if not actual data synthesis. One of the things I noticed (and then began actively watching for) is people’s inclination toward finding (and talking about) ways in which they are or have become victims. Now, I would like to say right off the bat, that in almost every single case, a given person is a victim in some way, whether it be due to sexism, racial discrimination, or a restaurant that got a bunch of bad reviews on Yelp—indeed, I believe that all of us are victims in one way or another, and some people more than other people. The point of this post is not to invalidate anyone’s status as a victim; let us take for granted that everyone is, in fact, a victim every time he (or she1) claims to be, and ignore any false claims that may exist.

I Am Not A Victim

Image taken from:

I feel it is important to note that I have come from a background where I was relatively ignorant to such things as racism, sexism, and religious persecution. It was a “privileged” background. Even with that said, in my privileged formative years, would see ways in which I was the victim, even though my victimization was nothing compared to what many people deal with. Seeing that in myself, and watching others during my “summer of observation,” I’ve come to the conclusion that from our earliest years, we innately have the predisposition to be a victim. You can observe this behavior even in young children, when they fight over who has had it worse. A conversation generally will go something like this:

“My summer was really terrible! I broke my arm when I fell out of a tree and had to wear a cast for two months!”

“Oh yeah? Well I broke my leg when I fell off my scooter doing a jump and couldn’t walk for almost THREE months!”

And so on until they both realize futility of the debate, and both quarrelers give up their attempt to be the bigger victim and decide to play a different game (in a best case scenario). What is it about these children that makes them try to be the bigger victim? At first glance, I assumed that the children are simply making an empathetic appeal for the sympathy of the other. However, I realized that that explanation doesn’t quite make sense, evolutionarily speaking, because looking for sympathy would simply make oneself appear weak. That is, a person who needs sympathy to exist will likely not survive as long as someone more independent, and he certainly will be less attractive than someone projecting confidence, and therefore would be less likely to reproduce and pass on his genes. This is, of course, simply a guess, but it seems to make sense; therefore I decided to search for a better explanation.

After looking around the internet, I found a surprising lack of literature regarding the evolutionary benefit of having the tendency to “play the victim.” There must, however, be one (or more) reasons, otherwise that tendency would not be as universal as it is. I did find one interesting paragraph regarding the topic from M.Farouk Radwan (the man who started the successful e-business Regardless of his questionable credentials, a paragraph on his website reads:

“One of the primary goals of the subconscious mind of a person is to protect his ego and make him feel good about himself. Whenever something threatens the person’s self worth his ego protection mechanisms fire to prevent any damage from happening.”

He goes on to say that if a person fails to reach his goals, his subconscious will often use the “victim card” mechanism to help himself to excuse the failure. Of course, the validation of that victimhood will help to protect his ego, and so he appeals to others to help support that excuse.

Can his theory be applied to the children in the example above? If weakness is not the goal (and why would it be?), but rather the goal is the simple personal validation of “I am actually great, I was just existing with a bit of a handicap,” it can help to strengthen the ego and move forward with independence and confidence. So with the children, perhaps it is less of a, “give me sympathy,” but rather a, “I’m amazing, right? I was able to exist even though my arm was broken!” As soon as the other person validates that, the “victim” can, rather than feeling like a victim, feel victorious over his difficult situation. And then, continuing with the example, the other child competes for the greater victory, “I made it through even harder trials!” We suddenly realize that it is less about receiving sympathy as simply competing to be better than the other person—which falls right in line with evolutionary need to compete and survive.

If we continue this theory, and apply it to adults, it would seem to yield a similar conclusion. Victimhood is not about weakness, but about strength. It is not about being a victim, but about being a victor. The problem I have with this tendency is that if you tell people enough times when “failing” that you were playing with a handicap but now “am able to be amazing, for I have been victorious over that ordeal,” eventually people are going to simply believe you are permanently handicapped. To be more blatant, they will believe that you are weak rather than strong—far from a victory. This falls in line as an example of the classic “boy who cried wolf” story.

What is the solution? We must fight our natural will to be a victim—it is instinctual, which means we all have to deal with it; we all have to fight it. Otherwise, we run the risk of being a victim all too frequently and simply looking like we can’t cope the hardships of existence. I’ll quote Steve Maraboli with words from one of his books3,

“You are not a victim. No matter what you have been through, you’re still here. You may have been challenged, hurt, betrayed, beaten, and discouraged, but nothing has defeated you. You are still here! You have been delayed but not denied. You are not a victim, you are a victor. You have a history of victory.”

Don’t fall victim to the instinctual predisposition to be victimized, but rather triumph over it. Let’s triumph over our victimhood and become something far greater: victorious.

  1. I won’t use both for the entire post, but just insert that everywhere I use masculine pronouns.

4 to “Victim Card? Go Fish.”

  1. Katherine Bolger Hyde says...

    I agree with your conclusion that we should avoid playing the victim card. I agree with the Radwan quote. I do not agree that all this has anything to do with evolution. Humans engage in all kinds of self-destructive behaviors that fly in the face of natural selection. What you call “instinctual” I call “the result of the Fall.”

    Playing the victim is a way of avoiding responsibility for whatever is wrong with us. “Someone else did it to me–it’s that person’s fault. I couldn’t possibly be any better a person than I am, given all that’s been done to me.” It’s a copout, pure and simple. And that is not an attitude that will improve the species.

    This is a rather different thing, however, from the one-upsmanship of misfortunes you describe among kids. I remember the college manifestation of this: “I have two papers to write this weekend.” “Yeah? I have three papers and an exam on Monday.” “Well, I have five papers, three exams, and I haven’t slept for a week!”

    • paul says...

      No, but see, that’s my point! If we take someone “playing the race card,” as people call it, or playing the “religious persecution card” (is that a thing?), most (if not all) of the time it is valid. And so this next bit is not to argue whether racism and creedism exist or not. They do. But my point is, I don’t think they’re copping out on “something wrong with them” as you say, because obviously race/creed isn’t “something wrong” with anyone. I do believe it is not a “pity me, and I’m not taking responsibility” but rather a call for “I’m great BECAUSE I deal with this hardship,” and it is taking a stand for solidarity and validation—on the most *instinctual* level, because it gives the person strength (and therefore gives a person an edge in the natural selection competition).

      I agree with everything you said, basically, but I think OTHERS see it as a copout (which is the risk), but the actual victimized individual is trying to bolster themselves through validation of their hardships.

      – P

  2. Katherine Bolger Hyde says...

    I think both can be true in different situations. Your interpretation is valid for the example you gave (the kids and their injuries); but that’s not what first comes to mind when I think of playing the victim card. I think of people who say they do x horrible behavior because their parents did it to them, or something along those lines. That’s the kind of victim card I had in mind.

    Yay! We both get to be right!

  3. Inara says...

    Victim hood I have observed is still very much a live in the media culture. But i feel like with our own evolutionary consciousness we are witnessing a dynamic shift. We have a choice. What i feel will make a difference especially as an educator Paul, working with children is that you will be able to help others see that they have a choice in what to believe and what to feed their young brains with;~)

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