The victim is a romantic figure in Western thought: Gandhi, resisting British imperialism; Mandela, enduring South African apartheid; Aung San Suu Kyi, surviving her house arrest in Burma. We admire victims who are weak in a material sense but have a spiritual strength that helps them to prevail.
One can trace this back to Christ, nailed to the cross, and to the saints the Church revered for centuries. Now, in a post-Christian age, we look for secular saints; people whose nobility and grace, even as they endure oppression and injustice, can inspire us. There are the heroic victims, such as Gandhi and Mandela, who resist victimisation and earn our esteem, and there are the tragic victims who never have the chance, and who inspire our pity and benevolence.
Yet the world rarely offers victims in pure forms and our attachment to the idea often inspires mistakes. The West hoped that the Syrian revolution was an uprising of victims against oppressors yet found the rebels were often Islamists and jihadists of a kind it had been fighting elsewhere in the Middle East. Refugees were allowed to leave the Arabic world for Europe yet some went on to commit acts of abuse and terrorism.
There are numerous historical examples of Western naivete being exploited by “victims” who turn out to be victimisers. The US opened its doors to Cubans exiled by Castro yet found itself the victim of a Floridian crime wave. Hundreds of refugees had been gangsters or thugs, and were soon in jail or being shipped back to Cuba. Americans rallied to the cause of the Mujahideen, envisaged as freedom fighters in Afghanistan, yet some of them went on to create the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
In a sense, of course, such people were victims. Castro was a cruel ideologue and the brutal Soviet puppets of Afghanistan tortured and killed thousands. Yet mankind is not divided between angels and demons. Cruelty can be inflicted on people who are cruel. The Muslim Brotherhood was persecuted viciously in Egypt, yet in power, few people would deny, they would be vicious too. We might think that their treatment is deplorable but that need not make them worthy of our esteem.
Idealising “victims” also blinds us to the discomfiting fact that oppression can make people not more but less righteous. Imagining the aftermath of World War Two, as millions of Hitler’s victims rejoiced in their liberation, we often forget the countless murders, rapes and public shamings that were inflicted on Germans and supposed collaborators. Even victims of the death camps could turn into oppressors. In his memoirs, Christopher Hitchens tells of his fascination with a Jewish man, David Szmulewski, who went on to be a colonel in MO, the “Citizen’s Militia”, which terrorised Poland in its communist years. This does not make their suffering any less real but it does remind us that endurance, wisdom and forgiveness are at least part admirable responses to suffering because it is so rare that people manifest them.
Even in more ambiguous cases, victim narratives can blind us to realities of our more than black and white world. Aung San Suu Kyi, an icon of human rights and liberalism, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has shocked Western admirers with her failure to oppose the oppression of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. The Economist has written, in religious terms, that her “halo has…slipped among foreign human-rights lobbyists”.
To defend the Rohingya, however, would be a great political risk. One might argue that Suu Kyi should take this risk but what this case illuminates is that it is less hard to seem noble, virtuous and courageous when you have no power and are merely the subject of oppression than when you have power and have to deal with the world and its complexities. It is patronising to expect our “victims” to be paragons of virtue and not compromised, conflicted and, of course, imperfect human being.
Sometimes, Westerners are almost comically disappointed when “victims” fail to conform with their romantic expectations. Lech Wałęsa, who founded the Solidarność movement, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, were perhaps the foremost icons of anti-communism in the 1970s and ’80s. Their less than politically correct opinions, however, about gays and Jews respectively, damaged their reputations. What is comical is not that Westerners disliked their opinions but that they were surprised a Polish Catholic and a Russian member of the Orthodox Church were not in tune with liberal Western norms. It reminded me of George Orwell commenting in “Reflections on Gandhi” that it had become fashionable to speak as if the Indian independence activist “[was] not only sympathetic to the Western Left-wing movement, but [was] integrally part of it…ignoring the other-worldly, anti-humanist tendency of his doctrines”.
Counseling scepticism towards “victims” need not entail cynicism. That we are not moral opposites does not imply that we are morally equivalent and there can be better and worse people without there being angels and demons. Nor should scepticism towards international crises make us callous in the face of suffering. There are people who endure real hardship and oppression, and sometimes we can take measures to defend or comfort them.
Yet we should be sceptical. We should restrain those romantic impulses that encourage us to see events as being matters of victims and oppressors, and account for local and historical circumstances before trying to frame events in moral terms. Moreover, we should avoid projecting our assumptions of what people should be onto what people are. At best this can be condescending. At worst it can be catastrophically delusional.