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 KavanaughBiden hits back after Trump's attacks on Harris Trump and allies grapple with how to target Harris Joe Biden played it safe MORE’s hearing for his nomination to the Supreme Court, Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors Democrats urge controversial Pentagon policy nominee to withdraw 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 MooreSessions hits back at Trump days ahead of Alabama Senate runoff Judge allows Roy Moore lawsuit over Sacha Baron Cohen prank to proceed Senate outlook slides for GOP MORE whose aspirations for senatorhood were scuttled by accusations of sexual abuse, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate Democrats say White House isn't budging in coronavirus relief stalemate 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 GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause On The Money: McConnell says it's time to restart coronavirus talks | New report finds majority of Americans support merger moratorium | Corporate bankruptcies on pace for 10-year high 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.