In a Sea Rendered Great

Toss them a rope, or just enjoy the solid ground under your feet?

Toss them a rope, or just enjoy the solid ground under your feet?

Here’s a scenario we may all recognize:  Little Johnny comes home from school with a black eye and a split lip and his parents discover that he’s been in an altercation with the notoriously arrogant and bullying Jim-Bob from the mobile home park across the tracks. Johnny’s wounds are salved with an outpouring of parental sympathy and dire mutterings that “something really has to be done about those people.”

Skip ahead six months: Johnny comes home with similar injuries, except this time they’ve been inflicted by Bubba, the notoriously arrogant and bullying youngest son of the president of the First National Bank. This time, instead of sympathy, Johnny gets a vigorous swabbing of isopropyl alcohol and a lecture. “What did you do to provoke him? You can’t be going around picking fights — you’ve got to learn to get along with people.”

Befuddled, little Johnny goes to his room without supper to contemplate the error of his ways. What happened? In both cases he was attacked by a bully, in both cases he was the wronged party, why the different responses, as if he were two different people?

Welcome to the concept of “worthy victim” and “unworthy victim”.

In Steubenville, Ohio, when a group of boys raped a sixteen-year old girl, much of the public outcry was focused not on the boys but on the victim — she was drunk, she deserved it, she ruined the lives of these promising young athletes by pursuing the charges. The girl became an “unworthy victim”, deserving not sympathy and justice for the appalling crime to which she had been subjected, but censure for the damage she had done to the perpetrators by having presented them with the irresistible opportunity to stray.

Victims like her, by virtue of being victims, are ready targets when assigning blame for the incidents that mar human interaction at almost every level: It’s easier to kick the man who’s down than to face off against the aggressor and risk suffering ignominy in our turn. We attack the victims because they are victims, we want to reassure ourselves that their victimhood is the result of something fundamental, some basic flaw that the rest of us do not share. We don’t think “There, but for the grace of God go I”, but rather, “Thank God I’m too moral, too careful, too savvy for something like that to ever happen to me.” We accept the criminal as something other, something so different from ourselves that to some degree we can forgive the crime, because it has nothing to do with us. We can’t forgive the victim, because he or she reminds us of our own vulnerability.

“It is pleasant to watch from the land the great struggle of someone else in a sea rendered great by turbulent winds”.

— Lucretius

This perception of the degree of difference or similarity between ourselves and the victim, coupled with our capacity for empathy, make a great deal of difference in our reaction to an incident: It seemed strange to many commentators that the most virulent abuse of the Steubenville victim came from other girls her age; in fact, the closer to the victim in age, economic position and social status the other girls were, the more antagonistic their responses seemed to be. The problem here was that when the differences were so slight it became very difficult for the other girls – all potential victims themselves – to find any comfortable degree of separation from the crime. They needed to believe that what happened to her could not happen to them, that there was something about her that made her a victim – more importantly, an “unworthy” victim – that could not be applied equally to them.

And what of the “worthy victim”? He or she is just as much a victim as the other, but here we identify, we sympathize; we perceive the worthy victim as courageous or morally elevated, and we rush to associate ourselves with his plight. The insurgent and the freedom fighter often operate from identical motivations, using identical tools, but we make a distinction, we identify with one but not the other based on our understanding of our own lives. The worthy victim is ourselves, placed in extremis, forced by circumstance to manifest an innate heroism that we want to believe we all share, even if, in our day to day lives, we fail to demonstrate anything of the kind. We “go along to get along”, while all the while clinging to the notion that we, too, could stand up and say “Give me liberty, or give me death”, if circumstances required.

Here again, the way we distinguish between the two extremes is often dictated by our ability to separate ourselves from the critical situation. It’s easy for a middle-class white American to find the necessary distance from a genocide in Rwanda or a massacre in the streets of Cairo because we know that we would never find ourselves in such a position; the environment, the people, the issues are just too alien. We’re more sympathetic with the victims because we’re less empathetic. Similar episodes in Sarajevo or World War II Berlin evoke a more complex response, because the victims look so much like us — they could be us — which means we could, someday, be them, and we hate them for that; we hate them for making us feel our own potential for weakness, for suffering, for victimhood.

So is this morally wrong, this business of “worthy” and “unworthy”? It may not really be a question of morality: in the end, these distinctions have less to do with the victims of suffering than they do with our own insecurities, our ability to place ourselves in the role of victim. Perhaps the most most important moral component of the issue is that our responses, viewed honestly and carefully, can be an opportunity to learn and to grow, to create something positive from that suffering, and through growth, to end it.

Wouldn’t if be fine if, when we stand on the shore and watch our neighbors struggle in turbulent seas, we can learn not just to throw a lifeline when needed, but to calm the waves themselves?