The Victim Mentality Versus Individual Responsibility
This is a compare and contrast of two seemingly opposing ideas. What I hope to show is that actually they are just two ways of talking about the same thing. I hope to find some common ground between left and right ideology. One is often referred to as “the victim mentality” and the other is what I call “individual responsibility fetishism”.
The Victim Mentality
In the United States, the extreme political left is seen as propping up this mindset. The victim mentality is when a person has the mentality that they are not “responsible” for anything that is happening or has happened to them. Said person feels completely and utterly a victim of circumstance. This can either take the form of collective victimhood or individual victimhood. In the individual case, a person may feel that they cannot succeed because some circumstance in their life prevents success. For example, a person may feel that they were not adequately educated in their poor high school and therefore that is preventing them from succeeding in college due to the catching up they have to do. So it is the “fault” of their high school or the teachers that taught at their high school. Their high school teachers may give the explanation that they don’t get paid enough and so their motivation is low, or they have so much else going on in life that they couldn’t properly focus on teaching, or that they were also educated poorly and their culture perpetuated bad memes which ultimately made them become a failure at their job. There are several problems with the idea of blame. As Jordan Peterson has pointed out, one problem with this mentality is that it invites an infinite regress. Everyone can blame their parents for how they are. And parents can blame grandparents and so on all the way back to Adam and Eve. I use “Adam and Eve” metaphorically. Of course Adam and Eve never actually existed and we know this because we know Darwinian evolution occurred. But the point is that a regression of causes can be traced back to the very beginning, where we find whatever or whoever is ultimately responsible for all the evil mess in the world.
Besides the infinite temporal regression of blaming that can happen leaving no one and nothing ultimately responsible, there is also the possibility of the circularity of blame which also leaves no one ultimately responsible. Imagine a group of ten employees sitting at a round table meeting. The boss asks who is responsible for some financial mishap and everyone points to the person on their left, similar to how computer processes can enter a circular deadlock. Each process can blame the process it’s waiting on for being stuck, but the processes are waiting in a circular fashion preventing progress from being made. I like to see these two different scenarios of regression and circularity as part of “the blame game”, related to “playing the victim” or “the victim card”. It’s not my fault, it’s someone else’s. I’m the victim here. I don’t “do” anything. Things simply “happen” to me.
With collective victimhood, entire groups of people feel marginalized, mistreated, underrepresented, or discriminated against. Economic and social inequality and treatment of minorities are a focus of the left. Leftists are concerned about groups of people that are disadvantaged relative to others groups of people. Leftists might be apt to say that marginalized groups are not responsible for what happens to them. For example, black people were historically barred from voting. Black schools weren’t given the same resources as white schools. Segregation in public places instilled the idea that black and white people were meant to be separate and that black people were, rightly, second class citizens. It was pointed out that one problem with collective victimhood taken to the extreme is that it takes away all “agency” from the marginalized group. If a group is victimized, they have no responsibility for where they are at and no agency to direct where they want to go. They are powerless. So one criticism of collective victimhood is that seeing yourself as a victim or in a group of victims is disempowering. It basically is saying that you can’t “direct your own destiny”. Your life is simply completely subject to “fate” as is everyone in your marginalized group. It is up to people not in the marginalized group, those with the agency, to fix things. Talking about agency starts to get into the idea of free will. Free will is an incoherent concept. I recommend Sam Harris’ book The Illusion of Free Will on the subject, although I plan on dedicating an entirely separate post to it.
Ultimately, what we have to realize is that the victim mentality is a way of talking about events. To paint a clearer picture of what’s going on, I want to iterate through a few things. First, having a victim mentality can be disempowering to the person or group that has it. No doubt about that. It can create a feeling of helplessness, a sense of not having agency and control over your own life. I think that agency and control are complex subjects and loaded words, but I’m just talking about how the victim mentality can make people feel. It can create a feeling that the world or other people owe you something. It can be very devastating I think to the sense of control over your own life. If taken to the extreme, it can get you stuck in a place in life you don’t like, and you can keep yourself there for a long time by telling yourself there’s nothing you can do to improve your circumstances. And I do think this is a real thought pattern that drives self-pity and keeps people stuck in a bad situation. This is my primary concern with the victim mentality way of talking to yourself about things. And it is just a way of talking to yourself. That’s the most important thing to keep in mind, because blame is really an abstraction made up by people to figure out who we need to help or punish. You might say the abstraction of blame comes in useful sometimes to figure out who is responsible for some mistake so that person can be singled out and given whatever treatment they need so that the mistake doesn’t reoccur. But oftentimes, time is wasted figuring out who to blame. The desire to place blame can become so strong that you make up a sort of blame calculus and when all the tabulations are over, you realize the whole exercise was pointless. Because after the “blame units” have been tabulated and you know who to assign them to, the tabulation is functionally useless because despite the fact you know who to blame and how much, you did nothing with the tabulation. In that case, the abstraction of blame can become not so useful. A lot of time can be wasted playing the blame game to no useful end. That’s also something I see happen in the real world all the time.
Individual Responsibility Fetishism
This is the opposite side of the same coin propped up by extreme right. It involves talking to yourself as if you are a demigod. That is to say, you are directly personally responsible for everything in your life. It is just yet another way of talking to yourself, nothing more. The idea is, take “responsibility” for as much as you find it coherent to take responsibility for. Obviously, the weather affects your life. But, I don’t think even the most extreme right wing “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” personality would argue that you are responsible for the weather. Although they might argue that you are responsible for how the weather makes you feel or how you are affected by the rain because you could bring an umbrella. When people talk to themselves in this way, they don’t tend to make themselves responsible for every single event that happens, just as much as it makes sense to. Interestingly, this individual responsibility fetishism occasionally shadows other people’s responsibility. I’ve seen this mindset among members of the military. It is my fault, not the person under my supervision. It’s the opposite of the victim mentality. I’m at “fault” for the failure of anyone I’m in charge of. It’s my failure, not theirs. I obviously failed to adequately train them, so blame me, not them for their failure to perform. In other words, bear the greatest burden you can bear and no more than that.
I find that many people who have this mindset and believe it firmly are competent and successful people and it’s not hard to see why this kind of mindset would correlate with success. Talking to yourself this way can be very useful. I’m responsible for my own happiness. I’m not the victim. I am oppressed by my genes, childhood, past bullying, bad habits, or whatever, but it is my responsibility now to overcome those things. I “do” almost everything. Things don’t “happen to me”. I take ownership over what happens in my life because the results of my life are my own doing. Motivational videos often talk to people this way. It doesn’t matter if there is any truth to it or if the abstraction of individual responsibility makes sense given the lack of free will. For people with this mentality, they just recognize it’s a useful way to talk to themselves inside their head because it has helped them succeed personally.
One issue with this abstraction of individual responsibility and this mindset is that it can be hard to draw a line between what you do and what happens to you. As a concrete example, you feel that you are reading this sentence right now. But are you beating your heart? The fact that the phrase “I beat my heart” doesn’t exist in English indicates that people feel the beating of their heart isn’t something they do. It is something that happens on its own. We say, “my heart beats”. With breathing, you can say to someone “you are now manually breathing” and they will become aware of their breath. They will go from feeling as if breathing is just happening, to feeling that they are now consciously doing the breathing. This is why the breath is often used as an object of meditation. You can feel as if you are doing it or as if it is happening all on its own. Back to individual responsibility. Where should one draw this distinction between what you do and what happens to you? You have billions of cells in your body that operate, but you don’t feel like you are doing that. That is something that is happening. Well, if you’re going to take the attitude that you’re responsible in your life, you better be able to say what the difference is between what happens to you and what you are doing. And there seems to be no hard and fast rule to do that.
Individual responsibility in the popular conception depends on other abstractions. It depends on free will which is incoherent. This is easy to see because there is an infinite regress of prior causes that lead up to this moment for which you couldn’t have had any control by definition. As Sam Harris puts it, “the buck has to stop somewhere”. There is also the abstraction of self and other. This is a big topic worthy of its own post. But in short, where do you draw the boundaries between what is you and what is not you? Are you your brain? Surely not. You aren’t aware of plenty of things your brain is doing such processing your visual field (unless you’re looking at an optical illusion) or interpreting words you’re reading right now or muscle memory. That happens without you thinking about it, automatically. You don’t feel you are doing it. So if you are aware of your brain, does that mean you are just a passenger, a silent observer? If so, how can you be personally responsible for anything? There is also the whole issue of separate events. What is an event? When does an event start and end? If we are going to be responsible for an event that we caused, then we need to be able to define when that event started and when it ended and what it was that was contained in that event. Or we could define everything as just one happening. We can play the game of not talking about causes and effects, but just one singular happening that is the whole cosmos. That’s another way of talking about the world that makes one wonder where individual responsibility could fit in. How can you be responsible if the universe is described as a singular going on and not separate events which you could individually claim responsibility for? If we’re going to play this game of talking about responsibility, it might be trickier than we thought.
I see several dangers of the total individual responsibility way of viewing the world. By far the most common danger I see is the downplaying or complete disregard for societal, systemic issues. I met a member of the military that was willing to take responsibility for the mistakes of others he was in charge of. He felt his responsibility extended to others in that case. But when it came to the poor, he completely changed his tune. The poor were completely responsible for where they were at. He believed there was absolutely nothing society could do to help them and we all might as well not try. They’ll just have to pick themselves up by their bootstraps on their own. One could have said the same thing about black people during the civil rights era. If they want rights, they will just have to fight for them on their own. I have no responsibility to help them do that. That’s their individual responsibility, not mine. This is absurd. Surely, as a society we can agree that even if you want to view things with the “total individual responsibility” lens there are still actions others can take and policies that can be written into law that make the probability of success greater for everyone looking at society as a whole system. You can still play the game of seeing things through the “total individual responsibility” lens while admitting that society has systemic issues that no one individual can solve. These are not actually opposing sides. Doing things like making college tuition free, providing healthcare to all citizens, and ending the war on drugs would make it easier for individuals to take responsibility in their lives. As it turns out, if you take those undue burdens off people, they will find it easier to improve their lives and take responsibility, not get lazy and complacent.
So what am I really getting at with all this? These two ways of talking to yourself have their respective benefits and pitfalls. If you feel like you’re in control, you can make a fetish out of individual responsibility and go around telling people they control their own destiny and it’s all up to them and all they have to do is try. If you don’t, you can go around saying everyone is powerless and there is nothing they can do to change the way their life is. But I want to make the point that the confusion really does come along from the way we talk to ourselves about things and the abstractions we build. This is obvious because as a matter of physics, there is no confusion about what is going on in the universe, physically. It is our language that gets us all mixed up, not the goings-on of the universe. But with our limited human brains we need abstractions to simplify the goings-on. We need approximations. I am not advocating we get rid of the idea of individual responsibility or victimization. It may be useful to refine the ideas or replace them with better abstractions or reinterpret them. In software development, there is a saying about abstractions. All abstractions are leaky. We make abstractions and then rely on their infallibility. But abstractions aren’t perfect representations of what they’re abstracting, or else they wouldn’t be called abstractions. What that means is we need to recognize when our abstractions begin to break down and where they don’t apply.
At the risk of oversimplifying, it doesn’t do us any good to play the blame game so much so that we end up feeling like we have no power to create change in our lives and the lives of others. We end up disempowering ourselves that way and wasting mental energy feeling sorry for ourselves. Everyone reading this has probably met someone that has done that at some point in our lives. It also doesn’t do any good to fetishize individual responsibility to the point where we become callous and blind to systemic injustice and inequality or insist that existing social hierarchy is inevitable. This is the mistake that PragerU and Jordan Peterson make in my view.