I find it somewhat humorous and perhaps a bit telling to contrast the debut efforts of my younger brother and I in writing in elementary school. In the fourth grade at our elementary school it was assigned to students to write enough material that could be formed into a small book, often with drawings attached to them. Though I have never been a particularly skilled artist, my own debut effort at writing a small book ended up being a book of poems, mostly limericks, that contained slice of life reflections including what I believe to be my best work of the period, a melancholy poem from a chicken reflecting on his demise because of how tasty he would be to his master on his plate. That sort of empathy with one’s food animals ought to have made it impossible for others to have viewed me merely as an awkward Asperger’s sort of person, but alas, that was not the case. My brother’s effort, written two years after mine, was called “Skinned Knee,” and perhaps inevitably I was painted as the bullying villain of a tale who ends up meeting his just desserts by getting in trouble for delivering what was probably a well-deserved thrashing of some kind. Since I got into trouble fairly readily as a kid, often because I was viewed as the more responsible party in the face of continual quarreling and violence between my brother and I that continued long into adulthood and sadly has not entirely ended, it is curious that a victim/villain tale would be my brother’s first foray into fictional writing.
We live in a world that is obsessed with the issue of victimization. A considerable amount of virtue signalling comes from being part of various subaltern groups that are judged to have been subjected to some sort of alleged injustice throughout history and the more points that one can add up of various groups, the more one can feel as if others have an obligation to bow to whims and sensitivities. On the contrary, those who are judged to be the villains of history–straight white Christian men being perhaps the most wicked of all human beings who have ever lived in the eyes of such people are considered beyond the pale of having to respect and it is viewed that anything that one does to them or says about them is acceptable. The possibilities for double standards and hypocrisy in such a world is immense and frequently realized. I would like to use my brother’s story and its framing as a way of entering into the problem of victim and villain tales as a whole.
Throughout the course of human history, although not at present, the virtue of prudence was highly valued. It was understood that powerful people, be they big brothers or political or religious authorities or powerful nations, would act in ways that could be painful to those who were smaller and more vulnerable. It was considered important for people who were in positions of weakness and vulnerability to take steps that would protect themselves and that would above all to avoid antagonizing those who were more powerful than oneself. It is this sort of prudence and moderation that allowed the Jews and Christians to survive centuries of minority status as dhimmi in the Middle East, for example, and this is what gave many women and children admirable (if sometimes lamentable) survival skills in dealing with insecure authorities who had to be charmed into agreement. The contemporary world has largely forgotten the importance of prudence and often views it as cowardice. It is considered morally upright to antagonize those who are powerful in the hope that they will be castigated as bullies and tyrants when they are irritated and inflamed to the point where they strike back from injuries and blows directed by those who view themselves in a position of weakness and inferiority. Terrorist attacks, for example, and asymmetric warfare as a whole, are of this kind, the attempt to create a heads I win, tails you lose situation by condemning one’s powerful enemies either to continual blows and injuries or to the mortification of being viewed as a bully for responding to them.
To say that this is unjust and unwise is an obvious cliche, but at the same time it is not always easy to understand this as folly when one is convinced that being weak and a victim grants one immunity from justice. After all, those who view themselves as victims and view themselves morally unimpeachable tend not to be very reflective about the morality of their own deeds and engage in all kinds of double standards where it is considered brave to attack and maim and kill innocent civilians who happen to belong to a nation like the United States or Israel (to give two fairly obvious examples) but where it is considered to be intolerable tyranny for these nations or their citizens to engage in self-defense or retaliation against such threats. If we lived in a world where ancient and proper standards of virtue were defended, instead of flattering such idiocy someone from the clan or family of the would-be terrorist would slap the troublemaker upside the head for being a moron that threatened to bring destruction upon everyone for no good cause. There is a saying that if one is going to strike the king that one needs to kill the king, and if the weak and “victimized” simply provoke and antagonize those who are more powerful than themselves, they only have themselves to blame when they receive the inevitable furious response for their antagonizing and provocation. This would have been a useful survival skill for my brother to learn as a kid instead of starting a tendency to view himself as the victim of an abusive older brother and as the unfortunate citizen of a bullying nation in the United States, but it is probably a bit too late for such wise lessons in prudence at this point.
Prudence belongs to one of those set of virtues that is not particularly glorious, and those are the virtues of restraint. In few ages has restraint of any kind been as uniformly reviled and held in derision and contempt as it has in our own contemporary age. Given that whim and longing has the force of law, sometimes literally so, in the eyes of people of our present age, those things which encourage us to counteract what we want to do because of something resembling street smarts or survival skills or just good sense are things to be hated. Why should we refrain from acts of violence against those we view as enemies or hostile to ourselves? Why should we respect the rights to property and dignity for those who do not think or feel positively towards, be they members of our family or members of our community or simply other human beings who happen to be our neighbors in some fashion? Ultimately our restraint against acting on our whims or venting our frustrations in having to deal with others has to come from something that tells us that other people, even people who think differently than we are, are worthy of some sort of respect, at least the respect of being able to be wrong in peace where it does not harm us to simply let them be. But those who view themselves as victims with the solemn responsibility of avenging themselves cannot have this sort of respect, for any act of mercy or restraint is an acceptance of intolerable injustice. Such people seldom stop to reflect upon the injustices that they inflict upon others with their selfish solipsistic mindset, because being a victim and painful self-reflection about the bitterness and warped worldview that can result from such a mindset seldom go together. Sadly, human beings are simul justus et peccator, even at our best, and sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can build empathy for others, and get off the high horses that make claims of victim status so intolerable for others to deal with.