Victimhood culture and traditional justice are on a collision course

Victimhood culture and traditional justice are on a collision course
© Greg Nash

“I just want to say to the men in this country, just shut up and step up.” Responding to Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughCollins downplays 2020 threat: 'Confident' re-election would go well if she runs The exhaustion of Democrats' anti-Trump delusions Lewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' MORE’s hearing for his nomination to the Supreme Court, Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoLawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator Democratic senator on possibility of Trump standing up to the NRA: 'That's just such BS' Schumer to Trump: Demand McConnell hold vote on background check bill MORE (D-Hawaii) put American men on notice: Their day was over. The mainstream press and social media were more specific in echoing who needed to shut up: old white men in government. According to social justice, the proper role for this privileged group is to mutely support victimized ones. Presumably, they could also step aside.    

Congress has a culture war on its hands and the battles will blaze for the foreseeable future. Congress is a microcosm of the schism that is tearing America apart--ideologically, morally and emotionally.


Understanding the dynamics of the conflict requires a grasp of the “victimhood culture” that Hirono’s statement epitomized in its message and its tone. The message of this #MeToo approach is “get out of the way of oppressed groups”; the tone is rage. 

A key to understanding the victimhood ideology is how it defines “justice.”   

Identity justice

Victimhood is an integral part of identity politics and the social justice movement of past decades. People are separated into categories according to their secondary characteristics, such as gender or race. (Their primary characteristic is being human). A person’s political status is then viewed through the lens of his or her group identity, with heavy emphasis placed upon whether the group is considered to be oppressed or oppressive. Men oppress women, for instance. The purpose of social justice is to balance the status of all groups, which requires an imbalance of treatment because some groups are seemingly privileged at the expense of others. 

Social justice is identity justice applied to groups. This runs counter to the ideal of traditional Western justice that seeks to erase secondary characteristics from how the law treats individuals. Ideally, it does not matter if someone is white or black, male or female. The same legal principles and practices, such as the presumption of innocence, are applied equally to every human being. Western justice is individual justice for all. 

Ideals are rarely manifested in pure form. Law enforcement does not always handle a black person with the same respect as it does a white one, for example. When this happens, the situation needs to be rectified. One way is to remove the cause of discrimination against blacks, which could mean reforming aspects of the system or removing specific personnel. The goal is equal justice for all, which is achieved by treating everyone as an individual to be judged on the merits of evidence and according to concepts encompassed by the words, “due process.”

To the victimhood culture, however, Western justice is a creation of white privilege and it cannot deliver fairness to oppressed groups. Indeed, the ideals and structure of Western law are an obstacle to social justice. Old legal and political principles must be either discarded or redefined. 

The redefinition toward social justice has been active in Congress for some while; it has also been actively resisted — a trend that is likely to accelerate. The recasting of justice includes:

  1. Expanding the scope of punishable offenses. The version of the Violence Against Women Act that is up for reauthorization expands the definition of domestic violence (DV) to include non-violent and common behavior, such as persistently telephoning an ex-partner after a break-up. This broadening is to the legal advantage of alleged DV victims, who are usually viewed as women, at the expense of alleged DV perpetrators, who are usually viewed as men.
  2. Reducing due process. #Believewomen was a mantra of activists during the Kavanaugh hearings and it is an increasingly common sentiment expressed in Congress. In response to a question about Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreGOP Senate candidate 'pissed off' at Trump over health care for veterans Durbin says he has second thoughts about asking for Franken's resignation Alabama GOP senate candidate says 'homosexual activities' have ruined TV, country's moral core MORE whose aspirations for senatorhood were scuttled by accusations of sexual abuse, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes Hobbled NRA shows strength with Trump MORE (R-Ky.) said, “I believe the women.” Immediately believing an accusation is the opposite of due process, however, which demands evidence and presumes innocence. 
  3. Creating incentives for false accusations by not punishing them. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyWhite House denies exploring payroll tax cut to offset worsening economy Schumer joins Pelosi in opposition to post-Brexit trade deal that risks Northern Ireland accord GOP senators call for Barr to release full results of Epstein investigation MORE (R-Iowa) recently commented on a "fabricated allegation" against Kavanaugh. Grassley contended that the accuser “just wanted to get attention.” Political motives may have been in play, as well. Normally, such allegations go unpunished, which allows false accusers to achieve their goals, without paying a legal price. In this case, however, Grassley asked the Department of Justice to investigate.   

The victimhood culture and traditional justice are on a collision course.  

The victimhood culture draws upon the natural compassion that people feel for those who are treated unfairly. Compassion is one of the best qualities within human beings and society; it should not be politically abused. The culture also elicits support by pointing to the make-up of institutions, such as Congress. On its surface, at least, Congress does not seem to represent the American demographic. But the solution should not be to demonize a category of people or to abandon traditional standards of justice.

The victimhood culture has used people’s compassion and sense of fairness to restructure the principles of justice that protect individuals against government overreach and false accusations. Traditional justice is a defining aspect of Western civilization. The incivility that now haunts society reflects the breakdown of such institutions. Without justice for all, there is violence.  

Wendy McElroy is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and the author or editor of nine books on women’s issues, government and liberty.