Understanding Victimhood

The journey of learning to give up being a victim is challenging but worthwhile.

District Court Judge, Ian Wylie, in a case of domestic violence, handed down a controversial decision. In doing so, he reminded us of the futility of making a virtue of victimhood.

The judge reduced the compensation awarded to a woman who lost her eye when her defacto husband attacked her with a broomstick on the grounds that the victim “invited” the attack. Many were outraged. Bonnie Robertson, former chairwoman of the ASTI Women’s Taskforce on Domestic Violence, said it is “almost immoral” to suggest that victims contribute to their injuries.

Are attacks ever provoked? Do victims have any responsibility for their part in the dynamic? The victim, in this case, had been drinking heavily and directed obscenities at the perpetrator before the attack.

No one is suggesting that being provoked excuses the use of violence. It doesn’t. The perpetrator in question served six months in jail, and deserved to do so. But when we run to the defence of victims of physical violence without considering the context, we ignore the complex issue of power imbalances personal relationships.

It is simplistic to believe that the only form of power one person can use against another is physical. Power may also be wielded psychologically, in the form of verbal insults and other means. Those inflicting mental cruelty may be weak physically but stronger in intellect or barbarity. Some can twist the metaphorical knife very effectively.

Often, perpetrators of violence are made accountable for their actions while the victim’s behaviour remains unexamined. Victims who take no responsibility for their contribution to the situation can easily get caught in the comfort of being a victim. Make no mistake, there are some definite benefits in seeing yourself as a victim. There are people who will look after you, and speak out on your behalf.

To refuse to be a victim is an act of courage. It enables us to participate more fully in life, but at a cost. Victims often have low expectations of their fellow humans. When we reject the role of victim we expose ourselves to the possibility of further disappointment.

To move out of victim mode, we must first resolve our feelings of hurt. Then we need to gather our learnings from the experience. When we encourage victims to consider how they may have put themselves in harm’s way, we help them. Building a safe refuge, furnished with unmitigated sympathy, does not. It entraps them.

It is much too easy to remain a victim. Even the rich and famous cannot always avoid this trap.

Mary Archer, for example, was many times publicly humiliated by her husband. Jeffrey Archer was photographed cavorting with another woman on a beach in South Africa. Yet Mary, a distinguished Oxbridge academic, celebrated for her beauty and intelligence, remained in a marriage that victimises her.

Feeling angry is much more powerful than feeling sorry for ourselves.

But getting stuck in anger doesn’t help either. What victims need is the encouragement to turn their adversity into opportunity. Is much more empowering to focus on the strength and courage exhibited by those who learn from and forgive their abuser.

There is no better example of this that the father of Anita Cobby. Despite the terrible suffering his daughter endured at the hands of her murderers, he was eventually able to forgive them and move on. This required enormous strength. But being a victim saps our strength. In the end this is a state of mind we cannot afford.