Beyond victims and villains
By Scott Sumner
I’ve always had a visceral distaste for dividing people up into victims and villains. Thus I wasn’t happy to see this analogy by Bryan Caplan (when talking about the Ashley Madison affair.)
Constructing hypotheticals with blameworthy pseudo-victims is easy enough. Imagine someone attacks you with a chainsaw because you failed to kiss his feet. When he misses your head, he accidentally saw offs his own hand. Telling him, “This is your fault” as he clutches his bloody stump is not victim-blaming. Or to take a less egregious case, suppose a worker feigns sickness so he can go to the basketball game. Co-workers spot him on t.v. in the audience and he gets fired. If he decries is fate, “This is all on you” is the bitter truth.
Or, to get a lot less hypothetical: Imagine you swear a solemn vow of fidelity to your alleged one true love. Then you get bored and sign up for an adultery website. Your life seems fine until hackers steal your information and publicly post it. Your spouse discovers your betrayal and divorces you. The obvious victims in this story are the betrayed spouse, children, and other family members who trusted and depended on you. Not you, the adulterer who’s sorry he got caught.
Or let’s take another case; you decide to violate the law by jaywalking, crossing the street in the middle of the block. You are struck and killed by a car. (This happened to a Bentley student a couple years ago.) Are you going to claim this person was a “victim” when she was clearly violating the law? Um, actually yes, I sort of do view her as a victim. Now you might say that my example is quite different from infidelity. Well, pardon my French attitude, but aren’t chainsaws also kind of different?
On a related topic, I’ve always been annoyed by identity politics, which divides whole classes of people into victims and villains. You might be thinking, “He would say that, as he’s an upper class non-gay, non-handicapped white male, so he’s in with the villains, not the victims.” But what makes you think I have an American attitude toward victimization? Maybe I have a Russian or Arab or Chinese or Chilean perspective. Maybe I’d rather say I came from an aristocratic family than a humble log cabin.
I tend to associate this identity politics with the left, but the right also does it. People are labeled “illegal aliens” or “heroin addicts.” “Why give them clean needles, you are just encouraging them to break the law.”
I think we are all victims and villains, although obviously in vastly different proportions. But not as different as it’s now fashionable to assume. There is no level of victimization that precludes one from also being a villain. Read about life in Stalin’s gulags, even among the inmates there were victims and villains. And no life is so charmed that one avoids being a victim (think JFK, or Marie Antoinette.) Historians reduce the people of the past to crude caricatures. They increasingly refuse to give our ancestors the dignity of being considered complex fully rounded human beings, just like us. The proletariat were just “victims.” Actually throughout all of human history almost all humans were extremely poor. At what point in the long evolutionary chain from the apes (who are also poor?) did we magically transform into victims? I suppose you could argue the transformation occurred when “public policy” could have prevented mass poverty. In the sweatshops of 1830? Good luck with that.
Here’s how this shows up in economics. I’ll sometimes say that extended unemployment compensation raises the unemployment rate. Actually, liberal economists used to say the same, until they moved sharply to the left after 2008. Now I get accused of “blaming the victim.” But why can’t it be both? Why can’t someone be the victim of bad monetary policy, and also a villain by coasting on unemployment compensation? (I hope it goes without saying that I am talking about effects at the margin, not claiming all unemployed are “lazy”. And what does the word ‘lazy’ even mean? Prefer not to work? Then I’m lazy.)
I’m not going to even comment on the Ashley Madison case. I’ve found that Americans are so deranged when it comes to matters of gender, race, and sex that it’s almost impossible to have an intelligent conversation on those subjects. So I generally try to avoid those topics. (Actually Bryan is one of the few people I know with whom I could have an intelligent conversation on any topic, if no commenters were listening in.) But I will say that I think the wisest view is usually to regard broad classes of 33 million people as being composed of both victims and villains, in varying proportions.
PS. Suppose you had time to read 33 million 6 volume novels about each of those 33 million lives. Karl Knausgaard or Elena Ferrante-type novels. Do you think that might change the way you regard those 33 million people?