Seductive Yet Destructive

Image from Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, including Trick Photography, compiled and edited by Albert A. Hopkins (1897)

Seductive Yet Destructive: An Attempt at Navigating the Complexities and Pitfalls of Victimhood and Self-Victimization

Leah Jule Ritterfeld

The victim is the hero of our time. Being a victim confers prestige, attracts attention, promises and promotes recognition, powerfully generates identity, entitlement, self-respect. This role immunizes against all criticism, guarantees innocence beyond all reasonable doubt. How could the victim be guilty, or even responsible for anything? He has done nothing, something has been done to him. He does not act, he suffers.[1]
– Daniele Giglioli

In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on uncovering and addressing systemic inequalities, discrimination, and cases of abuse, and on recognizing the potentially traumatizingand often historically unaddressedexperiences of victims. However, this heightened awareness also brings to light a complex issue: the unintended negative side effects of adopting an identity based on being a victim.

The term “victim” is a broad and fuzzy concept. It can refer to a wide range of experiences and contexts, such as being a victim based on historical injustices (e.g., ancestry suffering under colonialism, the Holocaust, or slavery), systemic injustices (e.g., institutional discrimination), cases of abuse by a perpetrator (e.g., cases of sexual abuse), or even nonperpetrator-based hardships (e.g., living with a personality disorder, cognitive or bodily impairment). Here, I will not address the objective determination of whether, and to what extent, someone has been victimized, nor the topic of compensatory measures. Instead, this paper delves into victimhood—specifically, the self-ascription and subjective perception of oneself as a victim, which involves adopting a victimhood mentality and constructing of an identity around being a victim.[2] I will alternatively refer to this process as self-victimization.

To better understand victimhood and the potential adverse consequences of self-victimization, I will first explore three perspectives, from sociology, social ontology, and social psychology, examining their respective conceptual and empirical contributions. I will then introduce the philosophical concept of ressentiment, which picks up many of the points addressed by the previous three perspectives and moreover demonstrates how self-victimization can lead to spiraling dynamics, pulling the individual further and further into its grip. As an illustration, I will present a brief case study on the incel (“involuntary celibate”) subculture, which, in my view, exemplifies ressentiment and provides a contemporary illustration of what can happen when one capitulates to self-victimization. It is not my intention to equate any self-identification as a victim with incel culture. Rather, by examining this extreme example, I hope to find insights that are generalizable across a broader spectrum as they point to more general dynamics of self-victimization. I will conclude the paper by suggesting that we ought to orientate ourselves toward resisting self-victimization.

In their sociological perspective on victimhood, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning contextualize our current debates as part of a wider developmenta fundamental shift in moral culture. Their book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, argues that we are currently witnessing a departure from two distinct historical moral cultures, the first based on the concept of honor, the second on that of dignity.

In cultures of honor, people are “sensitive to slight” such as verbal offenses, because these are considered harmful to one’s sense of honor. As there is only weak (if any) legal authority in such cultures, conflicts are solved between the parties themselves, oftentimes “aggressively”[3] (e.g., honor killings). A reputation of toughness in such a culture is therefore of high value as it functions as an “effective deterrent against predation or attack.”[4]

Cultures of dignity, on the other hand, are cultures in which there exists a widespread acknowledgement that people’s dignity cannot be easily alienated (e.g., by verbal slights). In response, instead of being especially sensitive to slights and insults, verbal offenses (which are seen as separate from physical violence) are expected to be ignored: the notion of having thick skin and demonstrating self-restraint is part of the moral code.[5] In addition, these cultures tend to have a well-developed legal system which handles more serious harms (e.g., physical harms) and which individuals feel they can appeal to without shame.

Campbell and Manning argue that, whereas the West has up until quite recently been marked predominantly by a culture of dignity,[6] its current moral landscape indicates that a new compound culture is crystallizing. This so-called victimhood culture is described as combining a sensitivity to slight, which we would expect to find in honor cultures, with a willingness to appeal to third parties (e.g., legal or institutional authorities), which is prevalent in dignity cultures.[7] The result is a moral culture fixated on harms and victimhood whereby, as the authors argue, more and more acts are considered harmful and worth prosecuting.[8]

Most interestingly, in this new moral culture, victimhood, like honor and dignity in the previous cultures, becomes a moral status, whereby being a victim (e.g., being part of a marginalized group) becomes equated with being virtuous.[9] While Campbell and Manning concede that “holding the victim of an offense in higher regard can be a way of reversing the harmful effects of the offense,” it can also lead to a situation in which “being the victim of an offense might elevate one’s status regardless of whether one has done anything praiseworthy.”[10]

As such, a victimhood culture may promote identifying as a victim. This cultural shift may explain the prevalence of the topic of victimhood in today’s social debates and, moreover, how certain conversations of abuse, discrimination, or injustice seem to develop dynamics of competitive victimhood.[11] In the following section, I will discuss how an increasing prevalence of categories of victimhood—which may result from a culture in which being a victim is allocated a moral status—sheds light on how we come to understand ourselves.

To discuss how victim identities are formed through our social practices and semantic concepts, it proves insightful to apply what Canadian philosopher of science Ian Hacking has termed “looping effects.” How we understand ourselves depends on the ever-changing sample of classifications and categories that are available to us and how we define and describe these concepts. The categories from which we can choose give us different “possibilities for personhood”[12]—different ways of understanding oneself and others, whereby the development of such classifications is highly contingent on their historical, social, cultural, and political context, as well as the interactions that occur between the classified and the classification (i.e., how the classified individuals respond to these categories and change their content over time).[13]

As an example, the labels “child abuse” or “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD) are novel classifications. While they describe behaviors or conditions (of child abuse or ADHD) that are themselves not novel, the classification as such is novel, and it is only with this description that individuals are able to understand themselves as victims of child abuse or suffering from ADHD. New classifications therefore create new ways of being a person.[14] Once classified, a person will interact with the classification (i.e., will come to see themselves as belonging to this classification), and this can fundamentally alter how they perceive themselves and others.[15] As such, one could argue that these looping effects may also create self-fulfilling prophecies.

Pointing out that reality is always (also) socially constructed is by no means a novel claim. Nonetheless, Hacking’s model provides a particularly fruitful perspective for examining some of the complexities surrounding our social discourses on victimhood. For one, Hacking’s model can shed light on how the classifications we use to describe experiences of victimization are both real and socially constructed. For example, sexual abuse has been, as an act or event, undoubtedly real, while the classification of certain acts under this label is a rather recent development.

This caveat is of utmost relevance for the discussion of victimhood. While the experiences and subjective feelings of victimization are, undoubtedly, real, the label “victim of xyz” is a socially constructed classification, the content of which is contingent and variable: Victim-based identities fundamentally depend on the extent to which these “possibilities of personhood” are readily available to us as concepts, as well as how they are defined and described.

If, as Campbell and Manning argue, we currently live in a “victimhood culture,” we may find ourselves surrounded by, and often presented with, ever-increasing “possibilities of personhood” based on victimhood. And, if so, we may, at some point, also be contributing to creating more victim-identities. This concern finds resonance in discussions of “concept creep” in psychology, which describes the semantic extension of psychological concepts (e.g., abuse or illness) to include ever more phenomena. For example, in his analysis of six concepts (abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice), psychologist Nick Haslam observes stark semantic shifts that include the loosening of conditions delineating the range of phenomena that can be classified under these terms. Haslam also notes the inclusion of more subjective criteria, that is, phenomena being categorized as abuse or prejudice based on the subjective interpretation of the victim (e.g., perceived abuse or discrimination).[16]

Haslam is not decidedly for or against concept creep, pointing out how the development can be applauded for contributing to a growing sensitivity to harms, as well as professional treatment for people who have suffered adversity that previously would have been ignored. However, as he notes, “concept creep runs the risk of pathologizing everyday experience and encouraging a sense of virtuous but impotent victimhood.”[17]

Despite the status of the victim bearing a potential attractiveness in terms of conferring moral status (as argued above), it is associated with passivity, powerlessness, and diminished agency.[18] Using Hacking’s terminology of “looping effects,” Haslam thus warns:

A possible adverse looping effect of concept creep is therefore a tendency for more and more people to see themselves as victims who are defined by their suffering, vulnerability, and innocence, and who have diminished agency to overcome their plight.[19]

To conclude, identities of victimhood are continuously shaped by our social practices of defining and describing classifications such as “being a victim of xyz.” A social ontological analysis sheds light on how our concepts may be evolving and extending with the result of more and more individuals interacting and coming to identify with these classifications. Building on this analysis, the next section will examine the potential pitfalls of such an identification as victim.

Accompanying the increase in social discourse on injustices and victimization, we can also observe an emergence of measures to protect potential victims from harm in various settings. For example, from camping grounds to yoga classes to university campus events, one can increasingly find specific areas designated as accessible only to certain groups such as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), FLINTA (female, lesbian, intersex, nonbinary, trans, agender), or those with neurodiversity (e.g., ADHD or autism). Such arrangements suggest that certain groups are especially vulnerable and need protection from harm such as harassment, exclusion, or bullying, which these spaces aim to provide.

While finding increasing support in Western European countries, this social development is rooted in the US. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, in their 2015 Atlantic piece, note a trend at American universities to “turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”[20] This includes the policing of speech and content (e.g., rape law is requested not to be discussed in class as it could cause strong discomfort for students who have experienced sexual harassment) or the request for trigger warnings for all content that could be perceived as uncomfortable.[21]

What these examples seem to have in common is the underlying assumption that such measures will protect certain individuals from harm, whether from actual discrimination or the triggering of painful memories and thoughts, and will contribute to the combatting of unjust discrimination. Given the assumption that safe spaces and other protective measures are indeed beneficial—for the individuals belonging to discriminated minority groups—we may expect the motivation for such measures to collapse in itself if it could be shown that such precautions do not have the intended results or even evoke their opposite, that is, produce more harm than benefits—for the members of the minority groups as well as for others. And this is indeed what Haidt and Lukianoff have claimed:

A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.[22]

Their claim mirrors the motivations for psychological interventions such as exposure therapy where it is assumed that avoidance of whatever causes fear will likely make this fear worse, while exposure will decrease fear.[23] In addition, Haidt and Lukianoff argue, these movements can have wider negative consequences, as anxiety can be socially contagious: “If everyone around you acts as though something is dangerous—elevators, certain neighborhoods, novels depicting racism—then you are at risk of acquiring that fear too.”[24] With this perspective in mind, we may want to reconsider the current focus on victimization and establishment of protective measures. By constantly making the category of “victim” salient in our consciousness, we may be eliciting unintended counter-effects.

In addition to Haidt and Lukianoff’s perspective, psychology and behavioral sciences provide us with ample evidence of the potential negative correlates of victimhood, both on an individual and interpersonal level. It is important to note again here that “victimhood” does not refer to the state of being victimized but rather the perception of oneself as a victim and the adoption of an identity centered around this perception.[25]

Recently, scholars have introduced a novel personality construct termed the Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood (TIV), which encapsulates this mentality of adopting a victimhood identity. The TIV consists of four dimensions: need for recognition (the desire for one’s victimhood to be validated and empathized with by others), moral elitism (a sense of moral superiority over others), lack of empathy (a preoccupation with one’s suffering as well as a decreased concern for others), and rumination (a heightened focus on one’s suffering and its causes rather than solutions).[26]

It is interesting to note the close connection made between a heightened concern for one’s own suffering and a decreased concern for others’ suffering. This already alludes to the following point, namely that victimhood mentality has been demonstrated to produce antisocial behavioral tendencies such as reduced empathy and understanding for others, rejection of responsibility and guilt, entitlement to behave selfishly or act immorally, attribution of more malicious intent to others, and a resulting decrease in readiness to forgive as well as increased desire for revenge.[27] 

To conclude, a (social) psychological perspective highlights the potential negative outcomes, both individual and interpersonal, of adopting a victimhood mentality. Nonetheless, as outlined above, we currently seem to be confronted with a situation where the possibilities for constructing one’s identity on the status of being a victim, and thus the potential of taking on a victimhood mentality, are becoming ever more salient. This raises the question: To what extent is there a degree of choice in adopting these readily available categories, and ought we not to resist them?  

I wish to argue below that taking on a victimhood mentality is indeed—to a certain extent—a matter of choice, and that we should direct ourselves toward resisting it. This is not to deny that being victimized is a real and painful experience, nor to suggest that such experiences should not be addressed. However, if we understand victimhood as both real and constructed, we can acknowledge that we have some degree of choice in how we engage with these categories of victimhood available to us. This understanding allows us to develop an imperative, namely, to resist falling into the “looping effects” of self-victimization, even if these self-descriptions are readily available and may provide an appeal.

In what follows, I will illustrate the pernicious pathway that may open up when we give in to self-victimization. For this, I will introduce the philosophical concept of ressentiment, which picks up several aspects discussed above. Ressentiment represents the cultivation of victimhood: the extreme of taking on a victimhood mentality and identity. It shows how self-victimization can lead to a downward spiral, resulting in a self-poisoning with increasingly detrimental consequences. As an illustration, I will briefly introduce a case study of the incel community, which exemplifies the dynamics of ressentiment and self-victimization, as this community forms around a shared victim-based identity. It is crucial to clarify that this discussion does not intend to equate or compare experiences of victimization from abuse or oppression with the grievances expressed by the incel community. The intention is solely to demonstrate the detrimental dynamics of self-victimization taken to an extreme.

Originally popularized by Friedrich Nietzsche during the late 19th century and later extensively explored by Max Scheler in his eponymous monograph, ressentiment has gained renewed attention in current philosophical publications. For example, contemporary French philosopher Cynthia Fleury has recently published a book that dives into the pernicious nature of ressentiment, integrating both philosophical and psychological insights.[28] Most contemporary accounts—including Fleury’s—refer to Scheler’s seminal conceptualization of ressentiment, which offers a clearer delineation of the concept than the illustrative examples of Nietzsche’s more polemic writing.

Scheler characterizes ressentiment as the repeated experiencing and reliving of a particular emotional response reaction against someone else. The continual reliving of the emotion sinks it more deeply into the center of the personality.[29]Ressentiment can best be understood as a chronic psychological condition that arises from accumulated affects in response to perceived injustices, injuries, or offenses, combined with a sense of powerlessness to respond to respond to these directly—whether through revenge or genuine forgiveness. This state transcends mere emotional reaction, however; it leads to both affective and cognitive distortions, ultimately inverting even fundamental values. It has been described by Scheler most tellingly as a continuous “self-poisoning of the mind”.[30] Building on Scheler and Fleury’s accounts, I will describe four characteristic traits of ressentiment to carve out the seductive and destructive nature of this condition.

Firstly, ressentiment builds and festers over time as the person ruminates on the perceived injustice or painful emotions. In Scheler’s words, ressentiment is “a re-experiencing of the emotion itself, a renewal of the original feeling.”[31] For Fleury, rumination represents the “key term” [32] for understanding this condition; this ruminating can provide a certain pleasure, akin to a “fetish,” [33] therefore motivating the person to constantly revisit the painful emotion.

However, it is not merely the past that ressentiment broods over. Instead, it seeks out ever more loosely related objects, people, instances “from which it can draw gratification.”[34] This is the second characteristic of ressentiment: it distinctively distorts cognitive faculties, becoming ever more generalized, causing the subject to reinterpret subsequent events in ways that further legitimize the hostile emotions and beliefs, commandeering the individual’s “faculty of judgment […] in the service of maintaining [itself],”[35] thereby perpetuating a cycle of self-confirmation.

In consequence, while ressentiment may initially be oriented toward particular individuals, it morphs into a generalized appraisal over time. The formal object of ressentiment becomes increasingly indeterminate (i.e., blame is attributed to increasingly generalized targets), and, as a result, renders the aggrieved individual’s quest for compensation unattainable. This mechanism can offer a paradoxical appeal, allowing the individual to continuously find confirmation for their hostile sentiments and convictions.

The third characteristic describes the incessant self-victimization inherent to ressentiment. It is especially Fleury who, with her psychoanalytic background, makes this point clearly. Describing ressentiment as a “delirium of victimization,”[36] her account starkly resembles the victimhood mindset introduced above. Ressentiment includes blaming others for one’s suffering and the conviction of one’s powerlessness, resulting in a relinquishment of agency and incessant self-victimization.

Fleury is decidedly critical of the self-victimization inherent to ressentiment and considers the taking on of a victimhood identity a choice. It is imperative to note, however, that she does not negate the experiences of those who have been genuinely victimized, as becomes clear in the following passage:

It is one thing to temporarily define oneself as a victim to recognize oneself as such for a moment; it is quite another to consolidate one’s identity exclusively on the basis of this “fact” which is undoubtedly more subjective than objective. What is at stake is a “decision” made by the subject to choose rumination: to choose the enjoyment of what harms, whether this enjoyment is conscious or, as is generally the case, unconscious.[37]

To Fleury, a person in the grip of ressentiment will, due to increasingly generalized attributions of blame, progressively build their identity around a perceived victimhood status. Such a person can then either “waste away” or “use this new identity in a tyrannical way.”[38] Either way, this self-victimization offers a paradoxical kind of “pleasure”[39] as the subject can relinquish all responsibility and accountability for their fate. It is this relinquishment of personal agency and receding into passivity that makes ressentiment seductive. If individuals give in to this allure, ressentiment may take form more clearly, finding its culmination in the following fourth characteristic.

What Scheler describes as the “main achievement”[40] of ressentiment is its power to falsify values and value judgments, resulting in a falsified worldview. In this “new reality,” values are inverted to accommodate and distract from feelings of powerlessness. This happens in two steps. First, ressentiment furthers an illusory suppression of valuable qualities. This involves denying the existence of valuable qualities in the objects or persons that make one feel powerless. Aesop’s famous analogy of the fox and the grapes illustrates this: the fox, unable to reach the sweet grapes, convinces herself that they are sour, masking inability as choice and thereby attempting to desire them less.[41] Similarly, individuals with ressentiment attempt to convince themselves that certain objects or persons are not worth pursuing.

If this suppression of valuable qualities does not suffice, ressentiment can progress to its more extreme manifestation, which is a falsification of values themselves. It is here that the positive values themselves (e.g., strength, competence, and beauty; or sweetness, as for the fox’s grapes) are devalued as unimportant, undesirable, or as moral vices (e.g., arrogance, ruthlessness, and superficiality). Similarly, negative values such as weakness, incompetence, or ugliness can become elevated to the status of virtues, such as humility, gentleness, and authenticity.

Thus, a person with ressentiment can compensate for their feelings of powerlessness by inverting their value judgments, thereby enabling a feeling of moral superiority. As Nietzsche puts it, a person who feels she cannot take actual revenge will resort to “the most spiritual revenge”[42] that is ressentiment. This sense of moral superiority is what gives ressentiment its most seductive appeal. Especially if shared with others who harbor similar grievances, ressentiment can easily lend itself to producing self-righteous narratives of virtuous victimhood, with failings and sufferings attributed externally.

However, as Scheler emphasizes, departing at this point from Nietzsche, the objectively good and true values always carry the potential to shine through and remind the person of the fact that their falsified values are indeed falsifications. As such, to sustain itself, ressentiment must infiltrate and deteriorate all facets of life with its pervasive negativity and hostility, finding further confirmation of itself. This is what makes ressentiment so self-poisonous: its propensity for self-reinforcement and its power to distort an individual’s faculty of judgment.

To sum up, ressentiment is marked by its seductive yet destructive allures, which include rumination, cognitive distortions, self-victimization, and value falsification, making it challenging to resist. These allures make ressentiment inherently self-reinforcing: they create a downward spiral, perpetuating and legitimating itself, pulling the individual ever more into its grip. As ressentiment distorts reality and values, individuals become increasingly entrenched in this corrosive mindset.

“Incel” is a self-ascribed term for a subculture of young men who come together online to share their anger, frustration, and hatred resulting from feeling unable to enter (romantic and sexual) relationships. They believe this to be a permanent and insurmountable condition, rooted in their perceived inherent deficiencies (e.g., physical unattractiveness or social ineptness) and societal biases against them.[43] Although the self-ascribed term of “incel” points to sexual celibacy, many incels report general experiences of social ostracism and loneliness throughout their lives,[44] and their self-reports on measures of depression, anxiety, and suicidality are alarming.[45] Their forums are spaces of extreme hatred (including extreme misogyny, racism, but first and foremost self-hatred).[46] As investigative journalist Naama Kates describes them, incel online spaces provide “fatalistic, misogynistic echo chambers in which misery and failure are celebrated.”[47]

The incel subculture has become rather infamous over the past years due to its association with several mass killings (e.g., the 2014 Isla Vista shooting and the 2018 Toronto van attack), leading to its categorization in the US and Canada as an ideologically motivated terrorism threat.[48] However, as often pointed out by evolutionary psychologist William Costello, who has conducted extensive empirical research into the incel community, the perpetrators of these attacks are likely not representative of the community,[49] and the amount of violence stemming from it is in fact surprisingly low.[50] “Incels differ from many existing extremist groups,” Costello states. “Rather than striving to change society, incels are more focused on justifying what they perceive to be their hopeless existence.”[51]

This intense focus on perceived victimhood makes the incel community a paradigmatic case of ressentiment and its characteristic traits of rumination, cognitive distortions and generalizations, self-victimization, and value falsification. In what follows, I will shortly describe how the community exemplifies each of these four traits.

Firstly, even a cursory examination of online incel forums provides a striking illustration of the incessant rumination characteristic of ressentiment. Members deliberately revisit and re-experience moments of pain, with the community at large validating and egging them on. This collective validation reinforces hostile emotions, escalating them into ever more extreme expressions.

Secondly, we can observe various cognitive distortions and generalizations in the incel community. Emotional responses stemming from personal rejections broaden, via collective discussions, into animosity against all women (termed pejoratively as “femoids”) and society at large (considered oppressively “gynocentric”). This transition illustrates ressentiment’s ability to broaden its scope of blame, finding validation in ever more loosely related objects, events, and people. Hostile emotions escalate through repeated rumination, indiscriminately targeting anyone or anything that reinforces the individual’s pain and conviction.

Thirdly, the identity category of “incel” epitomizes the self-victimization inherent in ressentiment. As Costello argues, “we have a deep evolutionary history of involuntarily celibate men. […] Modern incels, however, appear unique in galvanizing a shared victimhood identity around their sexless and mateless circumstance.”[52] Central to their identity is their belief in the so-called “Blackpill,” an ideological worldview (allegedly confirmed by numerous studies from evolutionary psychology) classifying incels’ undesirability and lack of romantic success as unquestionable and permanent, attributed to unchangeable physical and psychological traits (e.g., facial bone structure, skin color, or social ineptness and personality traits labeled “autistic”).[53] This deep conviction of unchangeable victimhood is reinforced by the community reveling in endless confirmations of this status. Underscoring this analysis, incels have been found to score high on the Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood personality trait.[54]

Fourthly, one can analyze the incel community with both steps of ressentiment’s value falsification. In an attempt to reduce their suffering, incels invest considerable effort into devaluing the object of their desire, namely women, portraying these as superficial, inferior, unintelligent, and promiscuous. The specific vocabulary developed within the incel community (encompassing terms such as “foids,” “femoids,” “toilets,” “cumbuckets,” and “roasties,”) can be interpreted as a stark demonstration of the illusory suppression of valuable qualities discussed above. As with the fox, this self-deception is motivated by wanting to reduce the discomfort of not being able to obtain what is deeply desired (by attempting to convince oneself of the undesirability of the desired object or state of affairs).

However, one may expect this suppression to remain superficial; deep down, these individuals may still desire relationships with women and struggle to fully dismiss the positive values they associate with such relationships. It is here that the second step of value falsification (the falsification of the values themselves) may come in: Potentially, some incels manage to reach this second stage and indeed falsify the values, rejecting the values of love, family, and relationships altogether. However, the degrading descriptions of women on incel forums attest to these attempts remaining unsuccessful. Potentially, the so-called “MGTOW” (Men Going Their Own Way) movement may exemplify this second step better, as its members claim to no longer consider these values as positive or worth striving towards.[55]

More obvious in the incel community is the moral superiority that ressentiment provides: Incels often express convictions of possessing superior knowledge of the “truth” about societal dynamics, especially regarding sexual relationships and attraction; their group identity seems predicated on assumed superior epistemic insights (e.g., “being blackpilled”).[56]

In summary, the incel community offers an illustration of the four characteristics of ressentiment, providing a paradigmatic case of this condition and, by extension, of self-victimization taken to its extreme. We see how incels are not doing themselves any favors by holding onto and obsessing about their (perceived) victimization. The mental health implications (e.g., high anxiety, depression, and suicidality rates), along with their hateful (and often suicidal) posts, attest to this. They hold on to what, in the end, makes them miserable and obstructs any potential path forward.

Incels are an extreme example, but examining such extremes allows us to gain valuable insights into dynamics that, in milder expressions, may affect us more broadly and therefore have implications for other forms of victimization (regardless of how subjective the experience of victimization may be). External adversity is not a matter of choice, but adopting a victim identity is, and while incels may be convinced of their unchangeable status, they choose the easier path of self-victimization and descent into its extreme depths. The key question then becomes: How can we orient ourselves towards resisting the allure of self-victimization and ressentiment?

I never saw myself as a victim to the world. […] I don’t see myself in that way. I don’t walk through the world, thinking that my skin color is a burden. I know that there are things that I might experience because of it, I’m very aware of that, I don’t ignore that. But I don’t see that as the only truth. […] I’ve just never seen myself as a victim. Ever. Ever. And I won’t. I won’t do it.
– Africa Brooke

It is evident that certain life situations, particularly those involving oppression, marginalization, abuse, or injustice, can predispose individuals toward self-victimization and ressentiment. Nonetheless, it would be a misconception to equate the presence of adversity with the propensity for self-victimization and ressentiment. We can find various examples of individuals faced with the most severe oppression who never adopted a victim mentality. The reality of being victimized is not a determinant for the adoption of a victim mentality. In fact, there is a growing field of research in psychology and philosophy investigating the potential value that can come out of experiencing adversity (e.g., research into post-traumatic growth or the importance of suffering). The crucial differentiator between whether or not someone grows from adversity or succumbs to self-victimization seems to lie—at least to some extent—in how we choose to respond to such experiences.

As Fleury notes, “what is at stake is a ‘decision’ made by the subject to choose rumination: to choose the enjoyment of what harms.”[57] Adopting a victim identity and mindset is, to a significant degree, a choice. Opting for agency, responsibility, accountability, and confronting one’s inadequacies or adverse life circumstances is undoubtedly less immediately gratifying. However, is it not a necessary part of engaging virtuously with life—a life that will always be inherently unfair and challenging and does not always cater to our desires?

The question we may want to ask ourselves is: In which culture do we want to live? Is the current cultural development, which increasingly centers on victimhood, truly beneficial for us, for the victims, and for society at large? How can we avoid promoting a culture that encourages passivity and powerlessness, and instead promote one that fosters the overcoming of adversity and reclaiming agency?

Perhaps we are witnessing a transitional phase. In the past, there was little interest in many of the injustices we are addressing today, where we see a high level of attention and awareness brought to bear on abuse, harm, discrimination, oppression, and inequalities. This heightened awareness has had necessary and positive results. However, as I hope to have been able to show, in excess, it may also contribute to a victimhood culture, with all the pitfalls we have discussed.

What I wish to suggest is that we are in need of a culture that, on the one hand, offers recognition to victimization and, on the other hand, also promotes the overcoming of adversity. A culture that not only acknowledges and rectifies injustices but also empowers individuals to reclaim their agency. How can we develop such a culture? For one, we need to cultivate accountability and responsibility. For another, we need to foster a stronger understanding of ourselves as free enough to not be tied to the shackles of our adversity, as free enough to have control over our trajectories. I can be a victim of sexual abuse or discrimination, or have a physical impairment. There is endless potential for me to be victimized in life, as much of life’s trajectory lies beyond my control. But my experiences of victimization do not need to define all I am.

Experiences of victimization may need to be addressed, labelled, and processed. Overcoming adversity can be a slow and incredibly difficult process. Suffering needs recognition. Pain needs to be heard. But at some point, we must gather the courage to find ways out of victimhood. We must be wary of the allures of self-victimization and ressentiment so that we may resist them. The decision to do so cannot be made by anyone else, and nor is there a one-size-fits-all recipe for making it. However, we can, as a society, make this an issue of concern and start thinking about how to supplant victimhood culture with something like a resilience culture.

dePICTions volume 4 (2024): Victimhood

[1] “Das Opfer ist der Held unserer Zeit. Opfer zu sein verleiht Prestige, verschafft Aufmerksamkeit, verspricht und fördert Anerkennung, erzeugt machtvoll Identität, Anrecht, Selbstachtung. Es immunisiert gegen jegliche Kritik, garantiert eine über jeden vernünftigen Zweifel erhabene Unschuld. Wie könnte das Opfer schuldig, gar für etwas verantwortlich sein? Es hat nichts getan, es ist ihm etwas angetan worden. Es handelt nicht, es leidet.” Daniele Giglioli, Die Opferfalle: Wie die Vergangenheit die Zukunft fesselt, trans. Max Henninger, Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2015, 1, English translation mine.

[2] Cory J. Clark, “Villainy of Victimhood,” in Encyclopedia of Heroism Studies, Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2023, 1-4.

[3] Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture. Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, 11.

[4] Campbell and Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, 13.

[5] Campbell and Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, 11, 16.

[6] Campbell and Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, 14.

[7] Campbell and Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, 16.

[8] Campbell and Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, 15; Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2015 [17 May 2024].

[9] Campbell and Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, 22.

[10] Campbell and Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, 22.

[11] For an elaborate discussion of competitive victimhood, see Masi Noor et al., “When Suffering Begets Suffering: The Psychology of Competitive Victimhood Between Adversarial Groups in Violent Conflicts,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 16.4 (November 2012): 351-374.

[12] Ian Hacking, Historical Ontology, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, 107.

[13] Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000, 125-128.

[14] Ian Hacking, “Kinds of People: Moving Targets,” in P. J. Marshall, ed., Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 151, 2006 Lectures, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, 2, 13.

[15] Hacking, The Social Construction of What?

[16] Nick Haslam, “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology,” Psychological Inquiry 27.1 (2 January 2016): 1-17.

[17] Haslam, “Concept Creep,” 1.

[18] Haslam, “Concept Creep,” 14; Kurt Gray and Daniel M. Wegner, “To Escape Blame, Don’t Be a Hero—Be a Victim,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47.2 (March 2011): 516-519; Kurt Gray and Daniel M. Wegner, “Moral Typecasting: Divergent Perceptions of Moral Agents and Moral Patients,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96.3 (March 2009): 505-520.

[19] Haslam, “Concept Creep,” 14.

[20] Lukianoff and Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

[21] Lukianoff and Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

[22] Lukianoff and Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

[23] American Psychological Association, Division 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology), “What Is Exposure Therapy?” June 2017 [17 May 2024].

[24] Lukianoff and Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

[25] Clark, “Villainy of Victimhood.”

[26] Rahav Gabay et al., “The Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood: The Personality Construct and Its Consequences,” Personality and Individual Differences 165 (15 October 2020): 110134.

[27] Gabay et al., “The Tendency for Interpersonal Victimhood”; Clark, “Villainy of Victimhood”; Emily Zitek et al., “Victim Entitlement to Behave Selfishly,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98.2 (2010): 245-255; Noor et al., “When Suffering Begets Suffering.”

[28] Although the English translation of Fleury’s book uses the term “resentment,” she is specifically discussing the concept of ressentiment—the original title of her book is therefore more accurate: Ci-gît l’amer – Guérir du ressentiment. In the book’s endnotes, the translator defends this decision as being motivated by the desire to target a wider audience (that would be more familiar with concepts such as “politics of resentment”).

[29] Max Scheler, Ressentiment, translated by Lewis B. Coser and William W. Holheim, Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1998, 2.

[30] Scheler, Ressentiment, 4.

[31] Scheler, Ressentiment, 2.

[32] Cynthia Fleury, Here Lies Bitterness. Healing From Resentment, translated by Cory Stockwell, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2023, 7-8.

[33] Fleury, Here Lies Bitterness, 13.

[34] Scheler, Ressentiment, 5.

[35] Fleury, Here Lies Bitterness, 9.

[36] Fleury, Here Lies Bitterness, 12.

[37] Fleury, Here Lies Bitterness, 12.

[38] Fleury, Here Lies Bitterness, 19.

[39] Fleury, Here Lies Bitterness, 13.

[40] Scheler, Ressentiment, 13.

[41] Scheler, Ressentiment, 24.

[42] Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, translated by Ian Johnston, Arlington: Richer Resources Publications, 2009, 22.

[43] William Costello et al., “The Mating Psychology of Incels (Involuntary Celibates): Misfortunes, Misperceptions, and Misrepresentations,” The Journal of Sex Research, 7 September 2023, 1-12; William Costello, “The Allure of Inceldom: Why Incels Resist Ascension,” Aporia Magazine, 23 May 2023 [17 May 2024].

[44] Brandon Sparks, Alexandra M. Zidenberg, and Mark E. Olver, “One Is the Loneliest Number: Involuntary Celibacy (Incel), Mental Health, and Loneliness,” Current Psychology 43.1 (January 2024): 392-406.

[45] William Costello et al., “Levels of Well-Being Among Men Who Are Incel (Involuntarily Celibate),” Evolutionary Psychological Science 8 (2022): 375-390; Sparks, Zidenberg, and Olver, “One Is the Loneliest Number.”

[46] Sarah E. Daly and Shon M. Reed, “‘I Think Most of Society Hates Us’: A Qualitative Thematic Analysis of Interviews with Incels,” Sex Roles 86.1-2 (January 2022): 14-33.

[47] Naama Kates, “What the Media Gets Wrong about Incels,” UnHerd, 15 August 2021 [17 May 2024].

[48] Nicole Sganga, “New Secret Service Report Details Growing Incel Terrorism Threat,” CBSNews, 15 March 2022 [17 May 2024]; Marta Barcellona, “Incel Violence as a New Terrorism Threat: A Brief Investigation between Alt-Right and Manosphere Dimensions,” Sortuz. Oñati Journal of Emergent Socio-Legal Studies 11.2 (2022): 170-186.

[49] Costello, “The Allure of Inceldom.”

[50] William Costello and David M. Buss, “Why Isn’t There More Incel Violence?,” Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology 9.3 (1 September 2023): 252-259.

[51] Costello, “The Allure of Inceldom.”

[52] Costello and Buss, “Why Isn’t There More Incel Violence?,” emphasis added.

[53] Lisa Sugiura, The Incel Rebellion: The Rise of the Manosphere and the Virtual War against Women, Bingley: Emerald Publishing, 2021, 8-9.

[54] Costello et al., “Levels of Well-Being Among Men Who Are Incel (Involuntarily Celibate).”

[55] Sugiura, The Incel Rebellion, 23-24.

[56] In addition, incels seem to engage in something like “purity checks”—whereby the status of being a “truecel” (a real incel, as opposed to a “fakecel”) becomes a status worth competing for. One may wonder whether this is not a result of a value inversion, whereby the position of lowest status (least attractive man) becomes elevated to a desirable status worth competing for. However, these are mere conjectures, the elaboration of which would exceed the scope of this article.

[57] Fleury, Here Lies Bitterness, 12.