Asymmetry of Victim Stories (or: why the rich get away with whining about taxes)

I’m reading two great books about the power of story as an organizing tool in social change struggles.  One is smartMeme’s RE:Imagining Change (a guide for activists on story-based strategy), the other is It Was Like a Fever: Story-telling in Protest and Politics by Francesca Polletta.  

Amongst other subjects, both Polletta and smartMeme discuss the problem of “victim stories” for social change agents.  Social change organizations understandably try to mobilize to address an injustice by showing the real-life negative impact of that injustice.  Victims of the injustice tell their stories (or their stories are told) often emphasizing victim status – purposely or not – with the hope of appealing to people’s sense of compassion and mobilizing a popular response.

The problem though is that victim stories usually don’t work very well for challenger movements to challenge power relationships.  Instead of mobilizing people, they tend to reinforce the existing power structure – in part by reinforcing the idea that victims are in fact powerless.

SmartMeme encourages change agents to tell a story that instead casts challenger movements as empowered and sympathetic protagonists, who are attractive in large part because they are seen as winners or on a winning trajectory (usually in an insurgent kind of way).  Polletta discusses situations where social movement organizations have successfully done just that (e.g. Rosa Parks’ refusal, or the lunch counter sit-ins), and also discusses examples of when movements have presented their “main characters” as victims – which characteristically hasn’t worked very well.

(It’s important to note that we’re not talking about the objective reality of whether and how people are the victims of injustice, but rather whether telling a victim story is an effective mobilizing strategy.)

So if victim stories aren’t very effective for progressive challenger movements, why do they seem not only popular but also effective with the right and with the rich?

Today Paul Krugman discussed in The Angry Rich how, “self-pity among the privileged has become acceptable, even fashionable.”

…wallowing in self-pity and self-righteousness would be funny, except for one thing: they may well get their way.  Never mind the $700 billion price tag for extending the high-end tax breaks: virtually all Republicans and some Democrats are rushing to the aid of the oppressed affluent.

So victim stories don’t usually work for actual victims of injustice, but they work for the rich and powerful?

Basically, yes, often. Krugman goes on:

You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence. It’s partly a matter of campaign contributions, but it’s also a matter of social pressure, since politicians spend a lot of time hanging out with the wealthy. So when the rich face the prospect of paying an extra 3 or 4 percent of their income in taxes, politicians feel their pain – feel it much more acutely, it’s clear, than they feel the pain of families who are losing their jobs, their houses, and their hopes.

When oppressed groups present themselves or are presented as victims, they are often then seen as powerless.  This can trigger feelings of resignation in people who are sympathetic (“That’s just the way it is.  Some things will never change.”), and send a message to the powerful that this group doesn’t pose a threat.  On the other hand, when the very powerful style and fancy themselves as victims, they are seen as powerful, entitled to power and privilege, and about to blow their top if they don’t get everything they demand. The political class is oriented toward power – to please it, to have it, to kiss ass. And even when most of the rest of us see the truth of the situation, the self-victimization of the elite can also feed our resignation. In some ways the more outlandish the self-victimizing protests of the elite, the more it can serve as a display of power. These people are so powerful that they get to label as truth what everyone in their right mind knows to be a lie – and get away with it.

So what are the lessons here for progressive challenger movements?


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