A Nation of Victims
Social scientist Charles Sykes tells the story of an FBI agent who embezzled $2,000 and used it for gambling. When he was fired for his crime, the agent did what a lot of folks do today: He began looking around to see whom he could blame.
After he was fired, the FBI agent went to court. He successfully argued that his gambling behavior was a handicap, protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And the FBI was forced to reinstate him. It's a classic example of how deeply victim psychology has permeated our culture. How did a country known for its rugged individualism turn into a nation of professional victims? Psychologist Paul Vitz says we can thank the rise of what he calls "selfist psychology."
In his book Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, Vitz argues that modern psychology has embraced narcissism and self-worship -- or selfism. Selfism's fixation on personal rights has led to a citizenry who pledge allegiance not to family, church, or community, but to "actualizing" themselves.
In view of the many rights Americans now presume themselves to have, Vitz writes, it's inevitable that one of them will eventually be violated. When that happens, too many of us enroll ourselves into the victim-of-the-month club.
There's no shortage of categories: We're victims of racism, sexism, looks-ism, size-ism and age-ism. We're victims of cigarette, alcohol, sex, and gambling addictions. And some people claim to be victims of compulsive gossiping, shopping, eating, and chronic lateness syndrome.
What's happening here? Are these folks being abducted by a deranged shopping cart -- one that snarls: "Take me to Wal-Mart, and nobody gets hurt!"? Do roving gangs of Hershey bars fling themselves into the mouths of helpless victims? It's ridiculous.
As Vitz puts it, "America has become one huge circle in which everyone is pointing the finger of blame at someone else . . . We now have so many addictions that the total accounts for well over 100 percent of the American population."
It would be funny if it weren't so serious. Selfist psychology has deeply infiltrated the political realm as well. Politicians routinely assign Americans to one victim group or another, and pit them against each other. The result is that election campaigns now look more like dogfights than democracy in action.
The obsession with individual rights reveals how deeply selfist psychology conflicts with Christian teachings. Where selfism demands rights, Christianity encourages duty. The selfist says, "What's in it for me?" The Christian wonders, "How can I serve others?" The selfist whines, "I'm a victim." The Christian acknowledges, "I'm a sinner."
One way to fight the temptation to seek our identity in a victim group is to consciously deepen our commitment to communities that selfism has done much to destroy: family, church, and neighborhood. Selfist psychology has sunk deep roots into our culture. And this means we need to be constantly alert to the temptation to play the blame game.
If you catch yourself venturing into the land of victimhood, remind yourself that our commitment should be, not to avoid responsibility, but to responsibly serve the One who became a sacrificial victim for us all.
For further reading:
Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (Eerdmans, 1994). You can read an excerpt here.
William Kilpatrick, "Faith & Therapy," First Things, February 1999, 21-26.
Anne Morse, "I Pledge Allegiance to Myself," BreakPoint Online, 19 August 2002.