This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…
If you wander into reading the wrong self-help blogs, chances are you will find all sorts of ideas and advice on how to “stop being a victim” and take control back of your life.
“Playing the victim” can even be an insult, one thrown around in a fit of frustration at someone who just can’t seem to get themselves together.
But it’s always puzzled me because it used to be the word “victim” was associated with compassion, sympathy, to being subject to a horrible crime, or involved in a tragic accident: incidents obviously beyond our control. Actually being victimised.
The idea that someone can just stop being a victim is a nonsense: by definition to be a victim, one is subjected to something one has no control over. How is thinking differently supposed to stop an unforeseen event?
In part, we have the self-esteem industry to thank for this. The idea being that people can believe they are much less powerful than they think they are, and the solution is they just need to change their mindset. In other words, it’s a clever way of saying “get over it”.
This is the problem with much of the self-help movement, and it’s based on a myth: that it is possible for individuals to massively change their circumstances through an effort of will and mental effort, and moreover, the problem being solved lies solely within you.
For many, who weren’t fortunate enough to grow up white, middle class and privileged this misses a large part of the problem.
The thing about power is it’s invisible to the powerful.
There are all sorts of forces that can leave someone subject to forces beyond their control, and unable to pick themselves up without help, that may be harder for some to acknowledge.
Take racism for instance. Time and time again studies have shown that people of colour are subject to what we call “unconscious bias” whereby they receive fewer opportunities than their white-skinned counterparts.
In New Zealand, arrest rates for cannabis crimes for Maori versus Pakeha are a stark example of this.
The gender pay gap is another example: men don’t have to actually feel powerful for women to be on the wrong end of sexism. The pay gap even puts a percentage on the power difference.
And no amount of “positive thinking” is going to get a woman being underpaid a pay rise.
People in these circumstances (and many others) aren’t playing the victim: they are being victimised by a society that continues to prejudice those who aren’t white, male and middle class.
Instead of telling people to stop being a victim, we should ask “how can I help you feel more powerful? How can we all help you overcome the hurdles you face?”
And we should all ask ourselves how can we ultimately work towards a society where people aren’t victimised because of their skin colour, gender, age or sexual orientation.
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