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The victims are the ones we don’t hear

26 September 2014

ONE of the most contentious aspects of the Scottish referendum was the Yes campaign's readiness to rely on a "victim" narrative as a justification for independence. The worst example of this was the comparison between Scotland and an abused wife who did not need permission to seek a divorce.

The narrative of victimhood also underlay the extraordinary identification of Alex Salmond with Gandhi - as though for the past 300 years Scotland had been an oppressed British colony.

The creation of a culture of victimhood is often a strategy in nationalist and separationist movements. It provides excitement and romance, and catches the imagination of musicians, writers, and artists.

The victim narrative justified the snatch-back, by Russia, of Crimea, and now supports its covert interference in east Ukraine. It played a huge part on all sides in the Balkan wars; Israel and Palestine both use the narrative of victimhood; and even massive China can indulge in it, in its rhetorical war against Japan.

The core idea is to portray the "other" as an abusive enemy. This often involves a rewriting of history, a grisly celebration of past defeats, and a glorification of violence in the cause of freedom. It is an easy message to sell, and it rouses strong emotions, so that people are permanently fired up by the language of grievance.

As the ugly rhetoric increased in Scotland, I was reminded of what such narratives can lead to. I remember Welsh nationalists setting fire to the weekend homes of English neighbours, and, of course, the endless self-pitying, self-glorifying rhetoric that used to be employed by the IRA.

There is a terrible irony in all this, because the agony of real victims is that they are not heard at all. Even when they find the courage to speak their truth, they are frequently dismissed. You have only to think of the Rotherham abuse victims to realise how real victimhood means disempowerment. Nobody listens. You have no voice, and no advocate.

The victim narrative employed between nations, and groups within nations, is a manipulative ploy. It hijacks the experience of real victims to give false credibility to a cause that might otherwise have to struggle harder to come up with sound arguments for its policies and actions. It short-circuits true negotiation.

There are good reasons for being suspicious of the narrative of victimhood, especially in connection with nationalism. Victims who trumpet their sufferings through megaphones are usually engaged in something more like aggression.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.


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