On Victim Narratives

A fantastic piece on being a victim by Andrew Lilico

All of us are influenced by narratives, tales of why our lives are as they are, how other people will act in certain situations and how they will react if we behave thus-and-so.  Religious people may adopt accounts of how they tempted into Sin, but how Truth will be victorious if we persevere.  Feminists and Christians alike criticize the Myth of Love and Marriage.  Terry Pratchett makes a great deal about how our lives can be dominated by perfectness narratives, particularly in his best book, Witches Abroad.

I, however, on this occasion, want to write about victim narratives.  What is a victim narrative?  A victim narrative is a story about the world that I have internalised and act as a character within, according to which my character is a victim.  I believe such narratives are amongst the most destructive forces in our society as well as a key factor limiting development particularly in Africa.

There are many victim narratives.  According to one, the tale of my life goes that I a male from a deprived background.  My father barely knew my mother.  She did her best to look after me and my siblings, but she could not control us properly, had some personal problems of her own, and found it impossible to sustain any spousal relationship.  Because not enough attention was paid to me and because I lacked sufficient guidance from an upright man, I didn’t learn, early, how to sit and be patient and focused, and so benefited little from my schooling.  I started to play truant, and took to idling my time, smoking and drinking and sometimes taking drugs if I could get them.  As the teenage years came in I did as young men do but without advice on restraint, commitment or prudence, and eventually found myself a father with a girl I barely knew and who wanted nothing to do with me.  This may seem a shame, but how else could life go?  I was a victim of a Cycle of Deprivation.

According to another victim narrative, I am from an ethnic minority background.  My parents came to Britain seeking a new life, and found secure though not spectacularly-paid jobs and were grateful to Britain.  They urged me to study hard, and I did my best.  Perhaps I could have become a professional person, perhaps even gone to an elite university to study a hard-core academic subject, but my teachers looked at my skin colour and assumed that the peak of my aspirations would be to do a GNVQ at the local college.  Being a good boy, I did as I was advised, and now have a solid job working for a local small business, but I sometimes feel a bit frustrated and wonder whether life might not have gone differently.  But how could it have done?  I was a victim of Racism.

One last one.  In this, we are a country that used to be part of an empire.  We had been a poor people, but pursuing our own path, when European invaders conquered us.  For many years we were subject to their rule and their development of our mining and other natural resources.  They imposed laws and religions on us, and indeed in some ways these were good, but they were not properly adapted to the needs of our culture.  Eventually we asked the colonial power to withdraw, and it did, but in doing so it left behind a society that had had its natural development disrupted.  The natural tribal structures that embodied our social organisation had been badly damaged, and though we tried subsequently to revive them, it takes a long time.  Meanwhile, the developed world is suspicious of us for our rejection of the colonialists, and is unwilling to trade fully with us or invest money in our projects.  Worse than that, it never really accepted our right to pursue our own path, and sent spies and mercenaries to interfere in our affairs when it seemed we might learn from Communism.  Even after the Cold War ended, this interference has continued, through agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank, who instead of providing us with the aid that we really need and that would contribute to our healing the wounds imposed by the mistakes of the colonial and anti-Communist periods, instead seeks to tell us how to arrange our public services, how to manage our currency, whether we can build defence or power generation projects, whether we can impose tariffs on imports so as to help get proper industries started, and many other kinds of interference.  We remain in poverty, but how could it be otherwise?  We are victims of Imperialism.

Victim narratives disempower, for they tell us that we have no control over our own destinies and no personal responsibility for whether our lives go well or badly.  Victim narratives are encouraged by well-meaning people who want to excuse wickedness by saying “Society made him do it.”  Victim narratives entrench failure by encouraging fatalism.

If you are told that it’s not your fault if you become a stranger-father at 15 or that you didn’t achieve what you could have done or that your country is poor because you are victims, then perhaps that might make you feel better momentarily.  And perhaps it might make the rest of us reflect a little upon the effect our actions have upon others.  But beyond this very limited gain such victim narratives are largely disastrous.  They rob people of their sense of control in their lives.  They rob them of their sense of personal responsibility.  They rob them of their need to act.  They trap people in disastrous circumstances, allowing them to be exploited by the corrupt, and creating sub-cultures in which they dominate and from which few escape.

Of course, victim narratives are terribly old-fashioned things.  Amongst the oldest creation myths are those in which the world is intrinsically wicked because it is made by the bad god, and in which mankind was made to be a slave of the gods.  The implication of these tales was that there is no great mystery if your children die of diseases or other unpleasant things happen.  Since the world is intrinsically wicked, bad things happen.  And it is no surprise if you find yourself treated as a slave by the Pharaoh – the proper place of man is to be a slave.  Modern leftist victim narratives are just a recent manifestation of these oldest of stories.

But there was another tale offered, which has been offered continuously ever since.  According to this tale the world is intrinsically good, and man is made to be a ruler (under the good Creator of the world), not a slave.  In this tale, bad things happen because we or other people make bad choices or allow ourselves to be led astray.  We are not victims of history; we are its makers.  And we are not just victims of the natural world, but its moulders.  We have a responsibility to act well, and to make the most of our talents and our opportunities, and if we do not, then our Maker will hold us to account.

This tale is a bit more new-fangled than the victim narratives (it’s only about 3,500 years old), and as such is quite popular amongst Cameroons, whether thinking about social responsibility, welfare reform, schools, the environment, or just the general sense that we should aspire to a society in which we can get it if we really want it.  But maybe the modernisers don’t have everything wrong…

What I find fascinating about this piece is that it is very similar to the teaching we use on Redeemed Lives / Living Waters, that growth only comes when one moves beyond being a victim and towards understanding that you are responsible in part for how you react to your experiences. This is exactly the same subject the late C S Lewis covers in "Till We Have Faces", a brilliant examination of the unhealthy and healthy uses of the imagination. Here is the wikipedia summary:

The story is a powerful re-telling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, from the point of view of Orual, Psyche’s jealous, ugly sister (as she is seen in the usual telling). The first book begins as the complaint of an old woman, bitter at the pain and injustice of the gods. Although Orual is indeed unattractive, she loves the beautiful Psyche obsessively, and when Psyche is sacrificed to the primitive god symbolizing the Greek Cupid, she feels as if the gods had stolen her sister from her. In an attempt to rescue her sister, she fails to recognize the beautiful castle in which her sister lived, except for a brief moment, and brushes off what she saw by claiming she could have been mistaken. She proceeded to urge her sister to look at her husband for fear that her sister had married a monster, although Cupid had specifically forbidden Psyche to do so. After suffering for years with the consequences of her actions (during which she had become a just and victorious queen — though one clinging and ravenous for affection), she heard a recounting of the tale which depicted her as having deliberately ruined her sister’s life out of envy. In justice, she is recounting her tale in hopes that it will be brought to Greece, where she has heard that men are willing to question even the gods.

Orual begins the second part of the book by declaring that her previous argument was false, that she has no time to revise it properly, but must amend the book before she dies. After at first finishing her book, she considered it time to end her miserable life. However, various mysterious events and occurrences happened to her, including dreams paralleling the tasks given to Psyche in the myth. In the end, she has a dream where she is entitled to present her complaint to the gods. Re-reading her work, she realizes that her love for Psyche was compounded of possessiveness, and that her actual motivation for urging Psyche to look at her husband was jealousy — not of Psyche, but of Cupid (referred to in the story only as ‘the god of the mountain’), who had, in her eyes, stolen Psyche’s love. This realization allows her to meet and reconcile with Psyche.

The text ends in the middle of a sentence: "Long did I hate you. Long did I fear you. I might—", and is followed by a note from another character (Arnom, priest of Aphrodite), who describes that she had been found dead at her writing table, presumably mid-sentence as evidenced by the way the word "might" looked on the page on which her head fell as she expired.

Ultimately, Lewis argues (correctly), we open ourselves up to true divine revelation when we are honest with who we truly are and why we behave the way we do.

How can they (i.e. the gods) meet us face to face till we have faces? The idea was that a human being must become real before it can expect to receive any message from the superhuman; that is, it must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask, veil, or persona.

C. S. Lewis in a letter to Dorothea Conybeare [cited at Constance Babington Smith, Letters to a Sister from Rose Macaulay, 1964, 261; also at Hooper, Companion (see IX) 252]

Or, as one writer put it:

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

which is from Psalm 51. Have a read of all of it, because I think that’s what I’ll write about next.

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