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Culture of Victims:

Reflections on a Culture of Victims & How Psychotherapy Fuels the Victim Industry

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.      
 

 

Introduction

We have become a nation of victims, where everyone is leapfrogging over each other, competing for the status of victim, where most people define themselves as some sort of survivor. We live in a culture where more and more people are claiming their own holocaust. While some victims are truly innocent (i.e., the child who is being molested, a victim in the other car in a drunk driving accident), most violence involves some knowledge, familiarity or intimacy between victims and victimizers. Charles Sykes, author of the widely acclaimed A Nation of Victims (1992), points out that if you add up all the groups that consider themselves to be victims or oppressed, their number adds up to almost 400 percent of the population. Exploring the psychology or the dynamic of victimhood has been suppressed and censored because it has been equated with "victim blaming". As the article Rethinking 'Don't Blame The Victim' illuminates, the victim stance is a powerful one.

 

The victim's basic stance is that he or she:

  • Is not responsible for what happened.
  • Is always morally right.
  • Is not accountable.
  • Is forever entitled to sympathy.
  • Is justified in feeling moral indignation for being wronged.
     

 

"It is not my fault!", "I have been wronged!" and "I am owed!" are the essential victim's stance. The victim claim is not limited to the traditionally, truly abused and exploited underprivileged classes. It is also often claimed by the privileged middle class and the wealthy of our society. The victim's stance of "Don't blame me!" is often accompanied with "I deserve this, this and this!" the "rights industry" or the "rights movement" goes hand in hand with the victim industry. 'It is not my fault!', 'I have been wronged!' and 'I am owed!' are the essential victim's stance.The incessant cry for empathy and justice by the victim industry reduces our capacity to deal with genuine victims, such as children who are molested, women who are raped and beaten, immigrants who are mistreated, etc. The victim culture creates a compassion fatigue, which interferes with helping those who truly need and deserve our help. Shelby Steel (1992), similarly analyzed the victimization ideology and how tragically it affected African- Americans' identity and their relationships with white Americans. Like Dershowitz (1994), Kaminer (1992) describes the outrageous notion of self-described victims and the prevalence of irresponsibility and blame in our culture.

It has yet to be widely understood that by alleviating all women, minorities, inmates, or any victim, of any and all responsibility to predict, prevent or even, unconsciously, invite abuse, is to reduce them to helpless, incapable creatures, and in-fact, re-victimizes them. This three-part web page invites the reader to go beyond the politically correct thinking on victimization and develop a more comprehensive and complex understanding of the dynamic of victimhood. The hope is for healing the hurt and injury of victims and for increasing the effectiveness of prediction and prevention of future violence.

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The Stella Awards For Frivolous Lawsuits

This section is based on the 2002 Stella Awards web page. This section is a humorous illustration of our victim and entitled culture, and how this culture is being perpetuated by attorneys and the legal system. The Stella Awards are named after 81-year-old Stella Liebeck who spilled coffee on herself and successfully sued McDonalds. This case inspired the Stella Awards for the most frivolous, successful lawsuits in the United States. (The StellaAwards.com has been heavily criticized and some have claimed that there no evidence to support these stories. For more information go to Snopes.com or http://www.StellaAwards.com/bogus.html)

The following is a partial list of 2002 candidates, appearing in the above web page:

  1. Kathleen Robertson of Austin, Texas, was awarded $780,000 by a jury of her peers after breaking her ankle, tripping over a toddler who was running inside a furniture store. The owners of the store were understandably surprised at the verdict, considering the misbehaving little toddler was Ms. Robertson's son.
  2. 19-year-old Carl Truman of Los Angeles won $74,000 and medical expenses when his neighbor ran over his hand with a Honda Accord. Mr. Truman apparently didn't notice there was someone at the wheel of the car when he was trying to steal his neighbor's hubcaps.
  3. Terrence Dickson of Bristol, Pennsylvania, was leaving a house he had just finished robbing by way of the garage. He was not able to get the garage door to go up since the automatic door opener was malfunctioning. He couldn't re-enter the house because the door connecting the house and garage locked when he pulled it shut. The family was on vacation, and Mr. Dickson found himself locked in the garage for eight days. He subsisted on a case of Pepsi and a large bag of dry dog food that he found there. He sued the homeowner's insurance company, claiming the situation caused him undue mental anguish. The jury agreed to the tune of $500,000.
  4. A Philadelphia restaurant was ordered to pay Amber Carson of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, $113,500 after she slipped on a soft drink and broke her coccyx (tailbone). The beverage was on the floor because Ms. Carson had thrown it at her boyfriend also 30 seconds earlier during an argument.

More outrageous examples are presented in Rethinking 'Don't Blame the Victim'.

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Psychotherapists Manufacturing Victims: A Self-Serving Industry

Two professions have been reaping the benefits of victim culture. Attorneys and psychotherapists have perpetuated the rights industry and the culture of victims, partly for their own financial and professional gain. While anxiety, borderline personality disorder and multiple personality were some of the most popular psychiatric diagnosis of the past, the nineties have introduced us to the new fad: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The prevalence of PTSD as a diagnosis on therapy insurance claims, as book and seminar titles is unprecedented. One must ask why so many of our patients within a span of a few years, suddenly and in such high numbers, have been labeled as traumatized. One must also wonder why in an age where technology, medicine, environmental concerns and diet have reached new peaks, Americans feel a heighten sense of vulnerability and are buying into the new psychiatric diagnosis. The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy.The repressed memory syndrome, and the numerous court battles around this issue, has also been part of the psychological industry's recent obsession with victimhood. While repressed memories may play a part in some instances, the sudden and large number of reporting reflects primarily on the industry's focus on victimhood. Increasingly, Americans are told that they are traumatized, victimized and in need of a psychotherapist or personal injury attorney. Those who do not feel victimized have been accused of being in denial.

In her book Manufacturing Victims, (1996) Tana Dineen details how the victim industry has been fueled by psychotherapists and outlines the direct economic and professional benefits that psychotherapists derive from perpetuating the idea of victimology. Dineen articulates well the idea that therapists need patients, so they create disorders with which to label prospective customers. Most recently it has been PTSD. Dineen appropriately differentiates between scientific and research based psychology versus the more dogmatic and self-serving field of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy sees many normal life events as trauma in need of healing rather than as enriching experiences. This has political consequences. Individuals are freed from moral responsibility for what they do or what happened to them and therefore are no longer citizens, but patients or victims.

Psychologists, Dineen (1996), Zilbergeld (1983) and others assert, have turned every form of discontent into a syndrome or disease requiring treatment. They systematically underestimate the capacity of humans to overcome adversity. All unpleasant events-such as a fall, car accident or the death of a pet-are assumed to leave an emotional residue that, unless dealt with professionally, will cripple the sufferer. Unfortunately, therapists have had considerable success in peddling this view to society.

The psychotherapeutic community adopted the blame approach back in the beginning of the 20th century with the birth of psychoanalysis. While originally the blaming finger was pointed primarily at mothers, later on it came to be pointed at men, racism, sexism, militarism, consumerism, the upper class, immigration, etc. The myth of the psychotherapeutic community is that somehow if one can identify a person or an event that supposedly caused the shortcoming, anxiety or depression, the condition will be improved. This is the premise of analysis and its emphasis on insight. The result has been a huge waste of time, money and life in search of someone or something to blame rather than finding a way to improve life now and in the future. Resilience and strength (Greene, 2002) seem to be ignored and are dominated by the psychologizing of all aspects of life.

Victim means good business for attorneys and psychotherapists. The search for the cause and the person or circumstances to blame helps support hundreds of thousands of therapists. Of course the victim industry is not a sheer artifact of the therapeutic community. It functions within the culture of victims and entitlement and is fueled for its own professional and economic interests.

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September 11th: An Added Perspective

The atrocities and traumatic events of September 11, 2001, have illuminated the importance of understanding the dynamics of trauma and victims. Psychologists, counselors, social workers and other mental health workers rushed to the New York area and provided important support for the traumatized people of the area. A lot of physically injured and psychologically traumatized people have, indeed, benefited from these important services (Zimbardo, 2002). There seems to be very little understanding that some, if not many, people may benefit from being left alone and that some people impact negatively by repeatedly regurgitating their thoughts and feelings.Therapists around the country reported traumatic reaction to the World Trade Center suicide mission and outlined strategies to "reach" the traumatized multitudes. Before long the entire United States was viewed by many therapists as a country of victims where nightmares, fears and PTSD diagnoses were as common as the water we drink. Not much later, therapists started treating other therapists for what has been labeled "secondary traumatization".

There seems to be very little understanding that some, if not many, people may benefit from being left alone and that some people impact negatively by repeatedly regurgitating their thoughts and feelings (Slater, 2003). If self-interest and professional identity had not blinded psychologists to this coping mechanism, they would have probably remembered the lessons from Psych. 101 on individual differences and how psychological intervention must be tailored to each individual rather than one solution fits all.

While therapists focus almost exclusively on the importance of helping Americans deal with their reaction to the trauma, there are three important aspects that seem to be generally overlooked:

  1. Most people on the planet are regularly exposed to traumatic events of much bigger magnitude than September 11th. These events include famines, deadly epidemics, wars and genocide, as well as earthquakes, floods, fires, heat waves and subfreezing temperatures.
  2. The events of September 11th did not take place in a vacuum. Related is the thought, detailed in the paper below, that the United States is not necessarily an innocent victim and may need to examine some of its past and present actions and attitudes that may have led to these atrocious behaviors. Such a realization may lead to effective ways of dealing with the trauma, as occurred with American soldiers who realized what they did in Vietnam and went back to do good rather than feeling victimized and making their PTSD diagnosis their permanent identity.
  3. A huge part of American's response to these events is derived from its lack of psychological preparedness. This un-preparedness is tied to the American myth of superiority and a false sense safety, derived from the belief that technology, above all, but also two wide oceans and two friendly countries, can provide us with protection against such unpredicted assaults.
  4. Psychotherapists, primarily out of professional and economic self-serving beliefs, seem to systematically ignore the fact that some people benefit from being left alone after they experience a traumatic event. These people impacted negatively by expressing their negative thoughts and depressive feelings to others. (Slater, 2003).

It seems that most psychotherapists and professional organizations responded to the trauma in NYC with a knee jerk respond of wanting to help. They seemed to fail to realize the bigger picture and, instead, focused on their narrow training, professional pride, ideology and practice, which was likely to benefit them most.

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The Challenge

The challenge that this page is presenting is to move from the blame approach to a more complex understanding of violent systems, the perpetuation of these systems and the role victims play in these systems. In order to be able to help a victim, one must understand the dynamic between victims and victimizers and the social, economic, political and cultural context in which the violence occurred. If we comprehend all this, we will have better tools to predict and prevent further victimization.

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References

Darshowitz, A.M. (1994). The Abuse Excuse and other Cop-Outs Sob Stories, and evasions of Responsibility. New York: Little, Brown & Comp.

Green, R. (Ed.) (2002). Resiliency.Washington DC: NASW Press

Kaminer, W. (1992). I'm Dysfunctional You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions. New York: Vintage Books.

Slater, L. (2003). Repress Yourself. New York Times Magazine, February 23, pp. 48-53.

Steele S. (1990). The Content of Our Character. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Sykes, C. J. (1992). A Nation Of Victims: The Decay Of The American Character. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Zilbergeld, B. (1983). Shrinking of America: Myths of Psychological Change. New York: Little Brown & Company.

Zimbardo, P. (2002). Ground Zero, Looking Up and Beyond. Monitor on Psychology, February, pp. 5-6.

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Main Points

  • The US has become a nation of victims, where many people compete for the victim status.
  • The growing 'rights industry' or 'rights movement' is a collective term for those who fight for rights of a variety of groups from women, minorities and the handicapped to smokers, gun owners and pornographers.
  • The victim stance is a powerful one: The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy.
  • Exploring the psychology of victims has become synonymous with blaming the victim.
  • Victims' healing lies not only in empathy and support but also, when appropriate, in helping them assume appropriate and realistic responsibility for what has happened to them.
  • Therapists benefit from the tidal wave of victims as it fills the consulting room, and therefore, it is good for therapists' pocket books.
  • Therapists have been a leading force in perpetuating the sense of victimization, as it enhances their professional and economic status.
  • Many psychotherapists, for professional and economic reasons, seem to focus on pathology rather than resilience and strength.
  • Many psychotherapists ignore the data which outlines that some people do better without talking about traumatic events, rather than rehashing it for years on end.
  • Victimization, like violence, is not genetically programmed.
  • Victimization, as discussed in this paper, happens within a context of relationship and a certain environment or culture. Hence, each participant's behavior must be understood within the context of the relationship and its legal, economic, political and social context.
  • Participants in the victims-victimizers-bystanders dynamic assume, mainly unconsciously, mutually dependant and complementary roles.
  • Intervention or change in the system can be initiated at any time by any participant. Any change in behavior by one of the participants is likely to affect the others' behavior and may lead to a different outcome.
  • The interaction within the victimizer-victim environment can lead to violence or to other options, such as non-violent or peaceful resolution. The non-violent options will alter the victim and victimizer roles and may include termination of the relationship.
  • Cultures can promote victim-victimizer, violent or blame systems, or they can promote respectful relationships among its members who, in turn, make a sound commitment to resolve conflicts non-violently.
  • At least 88% of murder victims in the U.S. had an ongoing active relationship with their murderers.
  • 1.5 million children are abducted each year, and most of these children (80-90%) are abducted by a parent in a custody dispute and not by a stranger.
  • In summary: The victim culture and the blame approach have resulted in further victimization and hurt. Psychotherapists, like attorneys, seem to benefit from the victim culture and have been perpetuating the sentiment of victimhood, often for their own professional and economic benefits. We must learn to differentiate between normal, hurtful life events and serious trauma; between individuals who need support and those who resiliently overcome difficulties without help; and between normal painful life events and so called traumas. Finally we must differentiate between the types of victim and, when appropriate, help the victim assume responsibility for his or her part. If we do all this, I believe we can offer more health and dignity to victims and the culture at large.

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Recommended Readings

Primary Books On The Topic:

Dineen, T. (1996). Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry is Doing to People. Westmount, Canada: Robert Davies Multimedia Publishing.

Sykes, C. J. (1992). A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character. New York: St. Martin's Press.

 
Additional Important Readings:

Darshowitz, A.M. (1994). The Abuse Excuse and other Cop-Outs Sob Stories, and evasions of Responsibility. New York: Little, Brown & Comp.

Etzioni, A. (1987). A Responsive Society. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Inc.

Gelles, R. J. & Straus, M.A. (1988). Intimate Violence. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Green, R. (Ed.) (2002). Resiliency. Washington DC: NASW Press

Kaminer, W. (1992). I'm Dysfunctional You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions. New York: Vintage Books.

Keen, S. (1986). Faces of the Enemy. New York: Harper and Row.

Laszlo, E. (1976). The System View of the World. New York: George Braziller.

McWhorter, J. (2000). Losing the Race: Black Self-Sabotage in America. New York: Harper Perennial.

Slater, L (2003). Repress Yourself. New York Times Magazine, February 23, pp 48-53. )

Steele S. (1990). The Content of Our Character. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Tavris, C. (1993, January). Beware the Incest Survivor Machine. New York Times, Book Review, pp. 1,16-18.

Walker, E. (1979). The Battered Woman. New York: Harper & Row.

Wolfgang, M. E. and Ferracuti, F. (1967). The Subculture of Violence. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Zilbergeld, B. (1983). Shrinking of America: Myths of Psychological Change. New York: Little Brown & Company.

 
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