Challenging the ‘victim-in-chief’

There is a choice, in the US election, that goes beyond politics, it seems to me. And it seems to me that the choice is between two styles of approaching issues, challenges, and problems – from a place of ‘victimization’ or from a place of ‘empowerment’.

If you are a victim, your focus is on whoever or whatever you think victimized you.  That victim identity can give you a lot of energetic power, and make it difficult for others to respond to you in a way that would help you to actually change that identity.

If you choose empowerment, even if you are at the bottom of a system, you can make changes – although you may well attract a lot of resentment from those who chose the victim identify.

Unfortunately, these terms push buttons for many of us – as one can see in the US campaign.

The victimization/empowerment choice doesn’t break down by party lines. It is, as anyone who has read the work of Barry Oshry knows, a bigger issue than political party affiliation. It is a choice in how one wants to regard the world in which one lives.

But there are echoes of these two identities in the two main parties contesting the election.

Many Trump supporters, whose sense of victimization has been stoked over a long time by talk show hosts who have become millionaires in the process, see him as the person who is going to revenge them on the establishment that they see as having made them victims. To do so, they have to disregard news coverage (because it is the product of a ‘liberal media’) of the stories of how Trump has victimized hundreds of small businesspeople as part of his rise to apparent billionaire status.

Trump himself, who – in the views of some conservative radio commentators is likely to lose the election badly – has taken to stoking the narrative of victimization in recent days. He claims that the election is going to be rigged by a corrupt establishment, and thus, that he also will be a victim of ‘the system’

‘Dance of blind reflex’

In my experience of social change, victimization – while it can generate powerful energy – does not create meaningful change. People who see themselves as being victims of any system can empower others in the sense of helping them to also claim an identify as victims – but they cannot help them see themselves as people who individually hold the power to make the kind of changes they want, in their own lives or in the society in which they live.

They find themselves in what Oshry calls the ‘dance of blind reflex’ – in which they end up victimizing others, and not changing their own status.

Empowerment, in its truest sense, is not easy. It requires one to examine one’s values and beliefs and ideas, and to take responsibility for how one acts and thus how one is treated by others around you. It requires you to go beyond blind reflex, to go beyond instinctively lashing out at others. It requires us to recognize, and name, what we are doing and what others are doing. None of this is comfortable.

It is especially uncomfortable, I think, in a world in which so many of us have conflated ‘anger’ and ‘violence’. Many of us feel extremely uncomfortable with anger, and don’t recognize that it is a sign of health – that someone has crossed our boundaries, has done something that is not acceptable to us. And because we don’t know how to express anger in a healthy fashion, especially in a political setting, we often swallow the anger, leaving it to seethe below conscious awareness, until something happens that pushes that button and we flare up in rage.

Rage and revenge

Via the internet, I’ve seen a lot of rage being expressed at Trump rallies, which seem to validate and even encourage expressions of rage. Many people seem to see Trump as the one who is going to revenge them on the system that has failed them – a system which they feel they had no part in creating or sustaining. ‘The worm has turned’ might well be their slogan.

Even Trump’s geopolitical commentary is cast in the tone of ‘victimizer’. He talks often about how others are talking advantage of America, of how it is time to stand up to them and take America’s power back. This sense, that America is losing its power and authority in the world, is – as some commentators have noted, akin to Russia’s perspective on the west.

But I think it is bigger than that, and it echoes something I heard Gwynne Dyer say a long time ago – that the biggest challenge of the 21st century, for Canada, would be to deal with a superpower neighbour that was losing its superpower status.

It seems to me that the 21st century story, for America, is that it is no longer the ‘city on the hill’, isolated from the world around it as if the experiences of the rest of the world are not shared by the US. The 21st century, I think, is when America begins to realize it is not exceptional, and that it shares the problems that the rest of the world has been experiencing for a long time.

Trump would have Americans build walls and turn America into a gated community that keeps out the rest of the world. But that is a narrative that goes nowhere in an interconnected, inter-related world – even if it was achievable.

The other choice

There is another choice, I believe. America can choose – as many of its citizens have – to act from an empowered narrative, even if they feel they are at the bottom of the system. They can identify the changes that they want to make, to solve the problems of joblessness, homelessness, crime, urban blight, and poverty in their communities. They can do it in relationship with the rest of the world, not in isolation. There are many examples of exactly how Americans are doing this, both at home and in the world.

It is not a narrative they are likely to hear from the conservative talk radio hosts, who – at least one of them suggests – are promoting Trump because it is good for ratings and thus good for their own bottom line. It is a quieter narrative, and sometimes it takes work to find these stories. But the examples are there, and they are powerful, of how individuals and communities are creating change. It is a narrative that Americans share with many other countries, in which people have created social change individual by individual, action by action, project by project.

That change is not coming just from one political narrative or party. Utah, for example, has done an extraordinary job of addressing homelessness in an effective way that is sustainable and saves money for the public purse. Other American cities and states also have taken action, and it is not a blue or red question – it is a question of what works, and to me, that is in fact the essence of conservatism.

No future in ‘being a victim’

I don’t believe, myself, that most Americans buy into that victimization narrative, but I can imagine it is hard to rise above it when it is blasted so relentlessly by talk radio hosts and cable tv shows. There is comfort in seeing that somebody else has caused the problems that we face, that we ourselves don’t have any responsibility for contributing to them. Acting powerfully to create change is difficult, and learning how to do it – and finding others who will support you as you do it – can be challenging.

But what I have learned over my lifetime is that there is no future in always seeing oneself as a victim, or in banding together with others to bemoan that victimization. It may feel good for a while, but it doesn’t change anything. Often, in many societies, that narrative has led to terrible conflict and war. Only when people come together to hear their stories, to resolve differences between individuals and groups, and find ways to work together – difficult as that may be at first – can they build or rebuild the peace that allows them all to live well together.

So, even as Trump promotes his gospel of victimization, I want to celebrate all the Americans who – even if they might feel that they are at the bottom of a system they don’t like – are choosing to act powerfully to create change around them. They are the future of America.

We as observers in the ‘world outside America’ can support them by a strategy of ‘accompaniment’. We can share stories of how people – inside and outside the USA – are acting powerfully to create change. We can respect those – in the US and elsewhere – who are struggling with how to express their values in a confusing time, even if we don’t share their views of how those values should be expressed in society. And we can name the kind of behaviour we see (bullying, for example), even when it isn’t comfortable to do so. Naming it clearly, without responding in kind, is the first step towards changing it.