Victimhood culture: Telling genuine and false cases


How many readers can recall working with a colleague who frequently came up with excuses, claimed people were after them, or often pronounced they were the victim of something?

Forty-five years ago, Donald Black developed widely used and since expounded upon theories of conflict incorporating cross-cultural studies of both morality and conflict.

Researchers Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning recently delineated how those oppressed as victims often actively seek the support of others. Humans hold a remarkable capacity for empathy. We can psychologically identify with and share the emotional suffering of others.

The social scientists proclaim in a book that the world is experiencing the rise of global victimhood culture. Part of victimhood often involves signalling to others about the oppression one receives.

Ideally, communities then become aware of injustices and act to correct historical and current wrongs towards building a fairer more egalitarian society.

Victimhood can be signalled due to grievances based on an individual with a given personality or ambition or alternatively because of who they are politically, racially, sexually, culturally, ethnically, socio-economically, philosophically, or religiously, among many other discrimination categories.

Some groups clearly do legitimately suffer from adverse prejudice and profiling coupled with systemic and structural biases.

Look at the treatment of refugees right here in Kenya, xenophobic attacks in South Africa, misogynistic policies in Saudi Arabia, sexual minorities harassment in Uganda, religious and ethnic crackdowns in China, or racist police brutality in the United States, among other examples. Harm can come in many forms including microaggressions, harassment, discrimination, assault, and murder.

Sadly though, fraudsters can too easily manipulate others’ empathy for their own gain. Unscrupulous individuals may take advantage of legitimate or fictitious victim issues and claim false victimhood or exaggerated victimhood so as to benefit from the real or perceived support from others.

Actor Jussie Smollet on the television series previously widely popular in Kenya, Empire, was found guilty late last year of planning a false hate crime attack in Chicago as a way to elicit victim sympathy and support.

One may observe victim claiming in the political space. Look at former US President Donald Trump. Political columnist Conor Friedersdorf states that President Trump claimed victimhood in almost every week of his presidency.

Victimhood is a playbook that often works. Even right now, former American Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, who resigned four years ago among allegations in sex, blackmail, and tampering with computer data scandal, has launched an electoral bid for one of his state’s Senate seats.

His strategy? He claims to be a victim with everyone else lying and out to get him. Further, right here during our election year in Kenya, we also often hear victimhood claims from our candidates.

Researchers Ekin Ok, Yi Qian, Brendan Strejcek, and Karl Aquino’s newly published studies find that those who falsely signal victimhood and virtue correlate with a higher likelihood to hold dark triad personality traits.

As detailed in Business Talk last year, dark triad traits include Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism.

In the new studies, the greater someone’s dark triad traits, the more frequent their victimhood and virtue signalling becomes.

Besides in the entertainment or political spheres discussed above, victimhood also gets expressed within offices. We may know a colleague or two constantly claiming that “the regulators do not like me”, “customers are biased against me”, “colleagues do not understand me” as excuses for non-performance or failures.

But more sinisterly, such individuals become more likely to engage in more difficult-to-detect ethically devious behaviours in the workplace, including exaggerating a sales pipeline to get higher compensation, inflated claims of maltreatment in the company, overstating sicknesses to get extra time-off, and embellishment of family tragedies to benefit from colleague harambee fundraising.

Others are making false moral judgments against co-workers, fake meeting attendance or client visits, purchasing counterfeit products, colluding with suppliers to receive kickbacks, or corruptly skewing procurement committee decisions.

The new studies highlight seven areas to watch out for and use discernment to distinguish from real legitimate victimhood versus overstated or falsified victimhood, with its commensurate sinister results, based on the magnitude and frequency of victimisation claims.

First, claiming that their achievements are often being questioned. Second, frequent discussions about how their concerns and needs are not being heard. Third, recurrent blaming external factors as to why their goals and dreams cannot be pursued.

Fourth, expressions that they do not have strong social support. Fifth, worries that they are not in control of their future. Sixth, often rather than occasionally disclosing their struggles with mental health issues.

Seventh, complaints of identity-based victimiSation based on cultural factors and underrepresentation.

Dr Scott may be reached on [email protected] or on Twitter: @ScottProfessor