The Trap of the “Angry Victim”: How Social Change Advocates Can Be Their Own Worst Enemies

In a previous article I wrote about how the ultimately all-too-similar populist beliefs of the Right and the Left today put us at real risk. (See A Very Disturbing, and Dangerous, Situation—Political Polarization and Populism Run Amok.) A red flag for the presence of such beliefs is worth noting. We see people taking the posture of the angry victim. We must take some care with using this recognition as a marker as it can result in conclusions that only reinforce old bigotries. And many people on both the Right and the Left, at least initially, will not at all like what I have to say here. But the recognition helps bring a nuance to understanding that becomes increasingly important in our highly polarized times. 

I’ve written extensively about the importance of acknowledging real limits. In the face of complex circumstances it is important to be as clear-eyed as we can not just about what is possible, but also about limits to what may be possible. Acknowledging the fact of limits when they are real is central to engaging choices in ways that can work going forward.  A common response when we deny limits—one that all too frequently gets in the way of efforts to effect change—highlights the importance of this kind of acknowledgement. Frequently in the face of real limits we end up defining ourselves as victims, and often angry victims.

The “offending” limit may be to how quickly some change can happen or simply how complex realities often in fact are. When appropriate, anger can serve to drive change. And often real victimization has taken place. But identifying as the angry victim is a specific kind of response with ultimately unhelpful consequences. The person ends up coming not from themselves, but from a reactive part of their psychology. Certainly then any degree of mature engagement becomes impossible. But effecting any meaningful kind of change also becomes very difficult. People who identify as victims tend to project aspects of themselves onto the world and see others only as oppressors. In doing so, they give away their own real power. And often the people who become demonized are exactly those a person claims to be wanting to convince or effect. At the extreme, as any good psychologist recognizes, people who view themselves as victims are some of the most vulnerable to themselves becoming victimizers.

We tend not to appreciate the degree holding to a victim narrative undermines one’s own authority. And certainly there is little willingness to question victim narratives today, on either the Right and the Left. Why is this the case? Partly it is just how far along we are in our development as humans. In my recent book Rethinking How We Think, I described how we need a fundamental kind of “growing up” in how we understand to readily recognize how victim thinking ultimately fails to benefit us. On both the Right and the Left, we are dealing, historically, with real discrimination and oppression. It should not surprise us that people might think in victim terms, and feel empowered in doing so. 

There may also be another dynamic involved that is important to at least consider. I am not at all sure it plays a major role today, but if it does, the implications are significant for effective advocacy. It points toward the importance of some quite different change strategies than people today tend to assume will be most effective.  

I’ve noticed something unexpected in my years doing therapy with individuals and also in training leaders. We would expect people to most identify as victims when oppression is most severe and the oppressor is obvious. In fact people then tend to fight and struggle to improve their circumstances as they can. Instead we most find a victim narrative when the larger part of the oppression has resolved. In an odd way, then, the victim narrative serves to protect the person from inherent vulnerabilities that come with the necessary next steps in growth. Previously seeing the offending force as outside themselves helped produce needed changes. But when the needed change processes reach their later stages, needed change tends to depend as much on recognizing one’s own responsibilities in the tasks that remain. Repeatedly I have noticed that the point in change processes when people tend most easily to get polarized is when the most powerful levers for change are shifting from needed changes in outside forces (even though significant outside oppression may remain) to changes that can best come about only through the collective efforts of everyone involved, including those to whom harm has been done. 

Could our current unwillingness to challenge victim narratives broadly in culture have similar origins? I do know that in spite of being in the trenches of social change throughout my life, I find myself disappointed with much of current advocacy. As far as issues that might be identified with the Left, I’m someone who has marched in the streets for major social concerns (including leading marches during the Viet Nam War) and been a strong advocate for gender and minority rights (including working against Apartheid in South Africa). But I find the larger number of people on the Left today who claim to somehow be “woke” espousing simple-minded reactive beliefs and being impossible to talk to about concerns that require any complexity of perspective. I have also written extensively about the importance of addressing circumstances that create loss of jobs among blue collar workers and poverty in rural communities, the kind of issue that commonly underlies populism on the Right. Similarly, I see little willingness on the Right to address questions with the nuance needed to engage them effectively. 

Again, I don’t know for sure if the kind of dynamic I’m pointing toward with these observations is playing a role in what we see today. I’ve written about how what we find could also be a product simply of regression and backsliding in our thinking and policies. But if this dynamic is playing any significant role, that is important to recognize and acknowledge. Understanding it could be key to getting beyond the ideological warfare that tends to consume the evening news and help us actually address the issues that underlie populist concerns. 

There is evidence for this interpretation. While people who identify with a victim narrative prefer not to acknowledge it, in fact we have made major progress with most of the oppression-related issues that today inform identity politics. And where we have not, frequently the contributors to inequities that remain are factors other than oppression. With most all of these concerns, there is further work yet to be done—often major work. And significant pieces of that work in most instances involve broad societal changes that address remaining discrimination. But difficult realities are also often products of limits no one can do anything about. And when I bring perspective from my years of working with these kinds of issues, it seems the case that the actions that are most likely to result in real change at this point are ones that will need to happen through a sharing of responsibility and initiative by everyone, including those who have defined themselves as victims. 

There are also some common indicators when change processes reach this point, ones that we find becoming increasingly acceptable parts of the social conversation. We then tend to find people identifying micro-aggressions, holding onto images of trauma (and often trauma from times well past), and competing with others who feel victimized to see who has suffered the most. We witness all of these things today with populist thinking on both the Right and the Left. A friend and colleague offered a useful metaphor for the kind of trap the angry victim narrative represents. It is like picking at a scab. There is the illusion that it accomplishes something when in fact it only makes healing more difficult. 

I need to reemphasize that I am wholly supportive of calls for equal rights and equal opportunity as they take expression from both the Left and the Right. That support is precisely why I write an article such as this. But real change is not advanced by an atmosphere in which ideological tripwires make any depth of conversation impossible and in which simplistic-conceived strategies get in the way of more systemic solutions that can in fact take us forward. In our times of increasing political and social division, warring victim narratives from the Right and the Left can only put us at ever greater risk. I am reminded of Nelson Mandela’s observation that “Having a grievance or resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill the enemy.” 

Neither those on the populist Right or those on the populist Left are likely to appreciate these thoughts. And again, we need to be careful that we don’t use questions I am raising in ways that could have us only fall into old traps that could make circumstances worse. Oppression and victimization of every sort need to be confronted. When we hear the voice of the angry victim, we need to do a couple of things. We need to note where it may in fact be alerting us to needed systemic changes. But we also need to be willing to step back and recognize when simplistic underlying assumptions may be protecting us from larger complexities we may not want to look at—and ultimately getting in the way of real change.