The other day I was discussing with a friend some of the ideas in my “victim and victimizer” post from a few weeks back, and I found myself articulating something a little bit differently than I have in the past.
“It’s not possible to be a virtuous victimizer,” I said. The person acting unjustly cannot at the same time and in the same way be just, clearly. I’ve said this sort of thing in the past, but not quite in this way. I do like the phrasing of it.
Then I said the obvious followup: “It is, however, possible to be a virtuous victim.”
After saying this, I paused and reflected. This led me to a further step that I don’t normally go on to say.
“And by being a virtuous victim, in a way, a person ceases to be a victim.”
I don’t know why this thought seemed so striking to me. Maybe to some it won’t seem surprising or strange at all, and of course it shouldn’t be. Perhaps what made it feel different was partly that I felt like like I was saying it from experience, not solely from something I had studied.
It is common in these sorts of discussions for someone to express a concern about acting like, or being, or appearing to be, a doormat. No one wants to be a doormat.
But this time I knew in my bones, in my lived experience, the difference between being a doormat and being a virtuous victim.
When we speak of a doormat, we mean someone who is too weak or cowardly to be assertive. We are speaking of people who cannot stand up for themselves.
There may be a superficial resemblance, but in fact this is profoundly different from the Platonic teaching that it is better to be treated unjustly than to act unjustly.
The person who has the power to strike back but does not, isn’t someone weak.
You can justifiably shout at people who mistreat you, can have it out with them, cut them down to size, report them, spread stories about them. When you instead take a breath in the midst of your anger, and exercise great self control, and leave them to suffer the great punishment of simply being themselves — when that happens, you do not feel weak. You feel incredibly strong.
And the strength you feel isn’t simply the strength of a fighter, of a warrior. It feels like the strength of a judge, a good monarch, a kind lord.
When an ally asks you why you did not make the aggressors pay for their actions in any of the myriad ways available to you, and your immediate and sincere reply is that although it would have been satisfying, it wouldn’t have made anything better — when that happens, you don’t look like a doormat. You look fearsome. Your reputation for deliberate gentleness might inspire a wonder about what would happen if someone ever truly did inspire you to wrath.
I’m not saying that punishment is never the best course of action. Of course it can be, for many reasons. I will say that in my experience most of the times we want to deal out punishment it is actually better not to. However, on occasion you might judge that for the sake of the victimizer or of future victims you have a responsibility to take some sort of action. Probably that action will involve reporting it, unless you are a police officer or an employer or the parent.
Even still, when you choose to pursue punitive action because you think it will lead to the best outcome, and not merely because you are feeling stung and your ego demands recompense, you will know without doubt that it is something entirely different. It looks somewhat different to an external observer, but what is much more important is that it feels absolutely, starkly, completely different to you from the inside. You aren’t needy and desperate and beggared in your vengeance. You are whole and strong and generous in your decision to act justly.
That’s why I said, and why it felt so true to say, that a virtuous victim becomes almost no victim at all.