In this video, Fr Mark looks at one of the most significant aspects of our society: our concern for victims.
by Fr Mark Baumgarten
When I was ten years old, I was playing barefoot in the backyard one day, when I accidentally knocked over a large pile of concrete slabs, which subsequently fell on my right foot. This led to many tears, a trip to the hospital, and ultimately the need for me to use crutches for the next few weeks. Thankfully this took place near the start of the school term, so I wouldn’t have to waste precious holiday time on crutches.
However, I began to notice something unexpected happening at school. People were treating me differently. I was suddenly the recipient of ongoing sympathy. I was getting special treatment. And part of me really liked this! I never said anything about this, in part because it seemed a bit wrong to be enjoying the consequences of my little tragedy so much – and in part out of fear that such an admission would upset the apple-cart.
However, I did make a crucial mistake – I tried to keep this good thing going a little too long. I kept using the crutches for probably a week longer than I really needed to, and my teacher eventually called me out for it in front of the whole class. This was unfortunate for at least a couple of reasons. For one, it forced me to dispense with my precious crutches right away. But another problem was that the accusation of fakery not only undid much of the goodwill that had accumulated to that point, it would also make any subsequent claims for sympathy more difficult.
And here’s the remarkable thing – on some level I understood all this, even as a ten-year-old! I had already figured out—as we all do pretty quickly—that our society has a special concern for victims. In my case, I was just a victim of my own clumsiness, yet this phenomenon is particularly noticeable if someone has been the victim of violence or injustice.
And it must be said at the outset that this concern for victims is a tremendously good thing. In times past, the outcasts and scapegoats of society were often treated far worse than they are today, and so the fact that we tend to have more concern for victims these days represents a significant moral improvement. However, like most good things, it’s also open to manipulation.
So for instance, my episode with the crutches was a fairly clumsy attempt on my part to try to manipulate my little injury to my own advantage. But this game is not limited to ten-year-olds – indeed, it’s become one of the most common games in town. Because, on some level, we all know that to have been a victim of something is—socially speaking—tremendously advantageous.
No-one likes to be victimised, but having been a victim bestows a powerful social status. Think about it – all social causes these days are couched in the language of defending victims. It’s the only way they can get off the ground. And to have been a victim—either individually in some way, or by being part of a historically victimised group—grants people a profound kind of influence, and even immunity. People that don’t have recognised victim status often clamour for it, and those that do have it are extremely reluctant to give it up, even if things have objectively improved for them. This helps explain the whole culture of outrage—in which people take offence so easily, even when no offence was intended—because it’s a way of obtaining this precious victim status.
One side-effect of all this is that we can mistakenly think that standing up for victims means that we have to go along with the things that may have led them to be victimised in the first place. So for instance, I remember once hearing a rather disturbing account of a man in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan who’d had his hand chopped off as punishment for stealing a pack of cigarettes. We see this punishment as horrible—and rightly so—but in opposing such cruelty, we can be tempted to think that it therefore must be okay to steal cigarettes.
Now I can’t tell you how bizarre all this would seem to people in ancient times! For them, if someone was a victim, they obviously deserved it. A lot of people these days think that our concern for victims is a naturally-occurring thing, but for most of human history things have been very different. We hear “victim” nowadays, and we automatically think “innocent”. But if the ancients heard “victim”, they’d think “guilty”.
As the acclaimed French-American thinker René Girard has highlighted, since the dawn of human culture, one of the most reliable ways we’ve had of bringing people together has been to have a common enemy – to unite ourselves against a common scapegoat. Societies have always been most united during times of war, when there is an agreed-upon enemy. But any group of people—as they start to rub against each other and tension emerges—will tend to find one person in the group to pick on as the supposed source of all the trouble. Think of a high-stress workplace – most of the staff will have someone they complain about—maybe it’s the boss, or maybe it’s an annoying co-worker—someone that the group unites against in their loathing.
Most ancient cultures had this at the heart of their religion – they would unite the people by ritually taking things out on a common scapegoat. It helps explain the strange but almost universal phenomenon of animal sacrifice—and even human sacrifice—in ancient times. It was crude and violent, but it served a social function – it united the community against a common victim.
And if that sounds bizarre, know that we still resort to sanitised versions of this. Think of every action movie you’ve ever seen. The hideousness of the bad guy is established throughout the entire movie, then right at the climax he gets it, often in gratuitous slow-motion so we can savour it. Then the final act shows that—after the death of the bad guy—everything is now wonderful.
But here’s the thing – our growing concern for victims means that this scapegoating process doesn’t bring people together as well as it once did. We still get the urge to scapegoat, but now the only people we can hope to do it to are other scapegoaters.
So for instance, if we pick on a defenceless kid, people will turn on us pretty quickly. But if we see someone else pick on a defenceless kid, we think we can attack them and get away with it. We also see this in the whole “Cancel Culture” phenomenon – if someone has done something bad enough in the eyes of the woke police, they will try to “cancel” them, essentially harassing them out of existence. These are all modern attempts at scapegoating, but even these don’t really bring people together like they did in times past.
So where has this growing concern for victims come from? Girard emphasised that it’s not the result of our own efforts – indeed, we’ve tended to resist it every step of the way. Instead, Girard argued that the most significant factor in our growing concern for victims has been the spread of Christianity. The Hebrew prophets spoke up for the plight of victims in ways never before seen. When Jesus saw people gathering to stone an adulterous woman, he challenged the one without sin to cast the first stone. And it all culminated in the crucifixion of Christ, when God-made-man became the victim of the sacrificial mob himself. For two-thousand years we’ve prayed before the image of a bleeding, dying man on a cross who forgave his executioners, and this has had the effect of messing with our conscience. Now, whenever we see a victim of violence—even if they’re objectively guilty of something—we can’t help but see a reflection of our crucified Lord. We still try to scapegoat, but like St Peter, we eventually hear the cock crow and realise what we have been complicit in. It doesn’t work like it once did, and so now we have to learn to live without it.
And as I say, there’s not much point in congratulating ourselves for our society’s growing concern for victims, because we spend much of our time tyring to manipulate it to our own advantage.
The violent nature of so much of human history is becoming clear to us, and so we try our best to align ourselves with the victims and to distance ourselves from the victimisers. Violence is all men’s fault, or white people’s fault, or capitalists’ fault, or straight people’s fault, and if I’m not one of those then it must make me exempt. Indeed, all modern ideologies are based upon this illusion that we can somehow exempt ourselves from the problem of human violence. But this is just the same game in another form, trying to make new victims out of those evil people over there. The lesson of the Cross is that all of us—all of us—are complicit in this.
All this politically-correct manipulation of victim status can put people off—and understandably so—but it remains that our growing empathy for victims and wariness of scapegoating is fundamentally a good thing. Our task now is to learn to live without scapegoating—which is a lot harder than it sounds. But thankfully, Jesus not only undercut the scapegoating process by how he died, he also showed us how to live without it by how he lived.
Well, this video has gone on long enough, even though there’s much more to it than I’ve had time to get into. But if you’d like to hear more about all this, I once gave a public lecture about these themes and the work of René Girard, and you can find the link to this talk in the description below.
Thanks for watching, and until next time, be a saint.