Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Individual Rights and the Victim Mechanism

James Alison says that our predilection for individual rights is merely the reverse of the victim mechanism. Instead of the single victim against the righteous group, individual rights pits the righteous individual against (or at least suspicious of) the potentially oppressive many. Here is what he writes:
"In exactly the same way, the modern, 'enlightened' equivalent relies on the same distortion, but from the reverse side: it is the individual who is the sacred good, imbued with inalienable rights and with an inalienable freedom and conscience. The 'many', the social other, are the threatening and dangerous element, who may at any moment fetter 'my' freedom of rights, which are always worked out over against the social other. To be able to claim the high ground of victim status is indispensable for furthering whatever cause 'I' seek to sponsor. In this case, as in the previous, there has been no escape from the founding sacrality of the victim, as indeed there cannot be without a recognition that the victim is exactly the same as the many, and that the difference is produced by a collectively held delusion." (The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 37-38.)


  1. It is interesting to look at this from the other side. Would this be an example? Should a Muslim woman be allowed to wear a face covering burka in court when giving evidence? "Political correctness" would argue that she should have the right to practise her individual freedom and therefore is a victim if she isn't allowed this. However Julia Gillard actually said something sensible about this from her lawyer perspective: that sometimes the rights of the people have more precedence the rights of the individual. Have you ever noticed that motorcyclists are asked to remove their helmets before entering a bank? I am not allowed the freedom to drive as fast as I feel like on any road. Are we all victims? I think not. Personally I believe that a victim mentality is very disempowering.

  2. Hi Penney,

    I don't think it is from the other side. What you say is right: the victim mentality disempowering. In our societies victims are victimised. God coming to us as a victim shows us how our victimisation of others works and hurts us all. Alison's point about human rights is how the individual becomes the norm at the expense of others. Human rights at their best are a great gift, but the individualism at their root are equally problematic. We need another way forward.