Victims in the media, or how can we in the media talk about victims?
(Adapted Excerpt from: Kirstin Breitenfellner: Wie können wir über Opfer reden? Vienna 2018, Passagen)
No matter what newspaper you open, whatever channel you turn on, whatever website you click, you see victims: victims of war, of crime, of economic and political injustice, of natural disasters and diseases. Apart from the real victims, the wounded and the dead, there are those victims whose suffering is not visible and yet—or for precisely this reason—keep the media in a state of suspense: victims of abuse, discrimination, humiliation and insults. It seems there is no area of life that does not produce victims. We are victims of the politicians, who are in turn victims of the media. The criminals are victims of their childhood, the depressed are victims of their disease, the small-scale investors are victims of the big financial players, the consumers are the victims of advertising, the unemployed are victims of the labour market policy, and the politicians responsible for this policy are the victims of multinational corporations.
Stories about victims increase circulation. They generate money, but what’s more, they unite society. When the talk turns to victims, people get serious. Victims not only have informational and entertainment value; they are also edifying and play the counterpart to comedy and TV shows. One is even tempted to say that they have become sources of meaning in a time in which the quest for meaning ever more rarely leads to a satisfactory result. We mainly see victims on television while we sit there on our comfy sofas. They promise a collective experience and a type of catharsis. They provide relief—even if it is only the comfort of knowing that you’re lucky it wasn’t you.
From a sociological point of view, victims act as a kind of safety value.[i] They reduce anxiety and aggression, bind society together and create a pale imitation of the potential for agreement in a society which is merely held together by consumption and hedonism, a point of reference in a situation in which nobody can really tell the difference between good and evil anymore because there are no shared values and especially no sacrosanct reasons for them.
The concept and the institution of sacrifice are of ancient origin and rooted in mythology and religion. How is it possible that it still forms the obvious—and yet in an odd way—invisible centre of our secularised culture and particularly the media? The concept of the victim is not only ubiquitous, but it is also one of the most commonly misunderstood terms. A political battle cry or a magic word used to silence one’s opponent or make them willing to pay. Hardly any other term in the brave new media world is as influential and tricky as this one. Hardly any other term is used as readily to play the moral high ground, and hardly any word is thought of in black-and-white terms like this one.
We live in a society that attaches more importance to victims than any other in history, and with many positive results: the legal protection of victims has been continuously expanded, more and more victims of abuse are coming forward as it is becoming less and less disgraceful to be known as a victim, and it is getting increasingly easier for victims to receive compensation. The negative consequences of this focus on victims result from a strange media scramble to seek out victims; to accuse the perpetrators, oneself, or society in general; and to thus appear superior. Thus, an increased awareness of injustice, a heightened sense of humanism, and a political discourse which was once about promoting freedom and emancipation has now been replaced by moralising.
And yet—or precisely for this reason—we are dissatisfied. It is in the nature of things that the increased concern for the victim forces us to constantly question ourselves. This humility goes back to Christianity, regardless of whether said humility is authentic or simply an act. It can however, like all things human, degenerate into a competition, into a hypermorality that exhibits a tendency towards relentlessness in the pursuit of the real or alleged perpetrators—under the guise of acting on behalf of the victims. It operates with accusations and thus depends on apprehending a perpetrator. For where there is a victim, there must be a perpetrator, right?
The media and, in its wake, the public are on their trail—and thereby create new victims, or sometimes victims twice over, by either putting actual victims in the public eye and thus victimising them for a second time, or by hunting down the perpetrators and thus making them into victims. It is referred to as a scandal and is followed by the obligatory social media shitstorm, today’s method of character assassination. Another negative consequence of the hype surrounding victims is the declining sympathy for the perpetrators who, up until a few decades ago, stood out more prominently in the public eye than they do today, and the greater speed with which they are prejudged by denying them the presumption of innocence which seems to be the exclusive property of the victim.
To a large extent, the concept of the victim owes its recent popularity to the rise of political correctness, or the heightened awareness of discriminatory language. The anxious, worried version of PC leads to a desire to avoid doing anything wrong to escape the accusations of others—to pre-emptively protect, take care of and thus often disenfranchise victims; its aggressive, self-confident form, on the other hand, often leads to a sense of arrogance, which sees itself as the spearhead of morality, and by tracking down victims in ever more hidden, and at first glance, ever more harmless situations, hopes to take the pole position in the race to being better than everyone else.
Because they are seen as passive, victims are nowadays considered to be innocent per se. But instead of receiving pity, they are increasingly granted respect. From there, it is just a small step towards victim-envy because, after all, they receive recognition and sometimes even money. Nobody is left cold by victims. Why does this concept evoke such strong feelings? And why is everyone talking about victims and perpetrators, but hardly anyone about the third member of the trio, the self-proclaimed rescuers? This is probably because those who cry “victim” the loudest, and thus identify and sometimes stigmatise people as victims, belong to this latter group.
Victims, perpetrators (persecutors) and rescuers are the main roles in Stephen Karpman’s “drama triangle,” which describes the typical structure of fairy tales and has found use in transactional analysis. In this form of manipulative communication, at least two persons play three roles, which can also switch during the interaction. The adoption of one of these roles leads the communication partner to take on the complementary role. From the beginning, two roles are open to the victim: one that calls for the persecutor, and one the rescuer. Therefore, the victim does not necessarily play a passive role in this “game.” Instead, the victim communicates his or her helplessness and dependency to achieve his or her objectives. “Past experience shows that those who present themselves to others in the victim role very often succeed in inducing them to take on the persecutor or rescuer role. In a manipulative relationship, the victim role is particularly ‘powerful’ in our society.”[ii]
The victim role can be very tempting because it generates sympathy or even respect and relieves one of responsibility. But the other two roles can also be an expression of a childlike attitude: the persecutor attempts to assert him or herself as an aggressive kid, and the rescuer, who helps the other out without being asked to do so, buys the other’s gratitude or a favour, thus assuming the role of the helpful child. In the media, these roles are complicated in an unfortunate way because here the actual victims, persecutors and rescuers of social and political situations or misfortunes get mixed up by the interpretation of other rescuers, i.e. the journalists, who thus become persecutors. For the terms “victim” and “persecutor” (the “rescuers,” of course, rarely address the topic of themselves) are used all too often in a manipulative, rather than an informative, way to increase circulation or enhance their own reputation.
This critical view of the self-proclaimed rescuers, the amplifiers of the victim hype, does not want to cast doubts on the noble aims of some, nor does it wish to trivialise the suffering of victims or contest the guilt of the perpetrators. It also does not wish to deny that civilisation has taken a big step forward by affording victims more attention today than ever before and by massively increasing their rights. The criticism is directed solely at the hysterical use of the victim concept in the media, which often appears to help victims at first glance. Upon closer inspection, however, they are mistreated a second time: this time by their self-proclaimed rescuers, who put themselves in the limelight, and the media (who also like to portray themselves as rescuers) to increase circulation. In the process, the victims are deprived of their freedom and personal responsibility, thus keeping them in a dependent position by granting them rights while at the same time denying them a voice of their own.
The media also plays a key role with regard to the victims of Islamic terror or shooting rampages: it is the media coverage, driven by the thirst for thrills, or often an undisguised admiration for the perpetrators, that makes the killing of innocent people interesting to the misguided, attention-seeking and power-hungry individuals in the first place.
My essay “How can we talk about victims?” was published in November 2018[iii] and follows up on my book We victims. Why scapegoats define our culture from 2013. If the European public was focused back then on scandals and allegations of abuse, Islamic militant terrorism has recently bombed its way back into the public eye, showing itself able, time and again, to eclipse these other troubling issues for a while in the competition for attention. And since autumn 2015, the “refugee crisis” has dominated the debate in Europe.
It has widened the political rifts between the left and the right. The hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have come to Europe since then and sought asylum have become a major bone of contention between the different camps: while the political right wing tends to blame refugees and asylum seekers for all kinds of problems that existed long before the presence of said refugees—unemployment, crime, the plight of education—the left wing has appointed itself to be their rescuer, although it does not always seem to be about those needing protection, but sometimes just about quarrelling with one’s political opponent. Thus, the discourse surrounding the immigration debate so far has more to do with mutual accusations and politics of emotion than about the exchange of arguments and the solving of problems.
Here too, it seems hard to tell victim from perpetrator: war refugees are initially considered to be victims. But what if they do not act as expected in their host country or even become perpetrators? Or what if they “merely” left their home countries for economic reasons? Then the mood turns—and they quickly become new scapegoats. The public discourse seems to have a hard time understanding that the victims of scapegoat mechanisms do not necessarily have to be innocent. An essential aspect of the French philosopher and religious theorist René Girard’s theory of the scapegoat is that the perpetrators believe them to be guilty.
For Girard, our culture is based on scapegoats.[iv] They were at first victims of collective lynchings, and later of consciously performed rituals. A scapegoat is a substitute: a victim that must suffer for the wrongdoings of others. The scapegoat is often innocent, but a scapegoat mechanism can also target (partially) guilty people. Anyone can become a scapegoat—but historically speaking, they have mainly come from the lower or upper classes: women, children, the disabled—or rulers. Immigrants or multimillionaires. Particularly ugly or particularly attractive people.
Nowadays, scapegoat mechanisms mainly take place in the media: when celebrities are hounded by the media in the case of scandals. Casting shows are based on the principle that at the end of the programme, they all get to stay except for one who must go. A scapegoat is made when politicians, although they haven’t been in office long, are forced to take responsibility for their country’s problems. Or when one person must go when there is a scandal in a company or a political party, so the others can carry on as before. Scapegoats are sought when less privileged people see the “elite” as the cause of social inequality, or when there is resentment towards Muslim refugees. And finally, scapegoats are found in contexts that transcend the personal level: in that particular faith in progress that sees the root of all evil in institutions like the family, school, state and church. Nowadays, we even look for guilty parties in the case of natural disasters.
For Girard, modernity represents a crisis of the scapegoat, in which the act of sacrifice no longer works like in archaic societies. What has remained, however, is the fundamental tendency of people to rid themselves of their inherent violence at the expense of a random victim.[v] He compares the act of sacrifice to the decontamination of nuclear plants, in which the clean-up crew also has to be decontaminated after finishing their work—and where accidents are always possible.[vi] He concludes by saying that violence has never before played its dual role as “poison” and “remedy” so blatantly.[vii] This means that in modernity—especially in the form of the media society—victims of violence not only have a limited ability to curb violence, they increasingly allow the situation to escalate as they encourage others to imitate the perpetrators. For instance, the innocent victims of Islamic terrorists, attackers of different political ideologies, as well as shooters with private agendas that imitate each other. “Islam” and “the West” threaten to become irreconcilable rivals in a spiral of mutual revenge, as the recent attacks on two mosques on March 15th, 2019 by a right-wing extremist in Christchurch, New Zealand and those on the hotels and Christian churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, April 21st, 2019, demonstrate. And on March 20th, 2019, a bus driver from Senegal kidnapped a bus carrying 51 kids and set it on fire to call attention to the death of refugees in the Mediterranean. A spiral of violence seems to be a harmless phrase for these events, although in the latter case, all the children survived.
In his last book, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre, Girard interprets recent conflicts between (at least) two rival groups—from the “civil war” in ex-Yugoslavia to the genocide in Rwanda to the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites—as failed sacrifices that demonstrate the impossibility of resolving violence by violence. “Convergence onto scapegoats has become impossible, and mimetic rivalries are unleashed contagiously with no possibility of warding them off.”[viii]
Talking about victims in the media not only means reporting about real victims of terror, war and expulsion, but it also includes those conscious or unconscious acts of collective persecution through which the media itself produces victims. The process of victimisation called scandal can apply to serious crimes as well as to medium and minor transgressions, which are often not only past the statute of limitations but also irrelevant criminally speaking. If the victim is famous or powerful, the latter are often enough to end their career for good. The satisfaction comes from the height from which the victim falls. Or in other words, the sense of vindication not only increases with the severity of the crime, but also with the dignity of a being in a position to topple a star or a politician—and thus drag them down to one’s own level.
The German media researcher Hans Mathias Kepplinger considers the idea that the media “uncovers” scandals to be a misunderstanding because: “Scandals are not predetermined issues which can be uncovered and reported, but the consequence of public communication about deficits.”[ix] The media turns deficits into scandals by condemning, orchestrating and searching for the guilty party or at least someone who will accept the responsibility: a public scapegoat.
Like all phenomena associated with the creation of victims or similar processes, there is a religious facet to scandals. The people involved in these are “victims of the illusion of the freedom of judgment,” because what they take to be their individual judgment is in fact an “expression of a self-reinforcing community of faith.” This illusion serves as the basis for the determination with which one defends their view of a scandal, in which the doubt of others is perceived to be doubt of one’s own ability to judge and thus a personal attack. This also explains why those involved usually aren’t interested in correcting the false allegations after the scandal has died down.[x]
Although most people or organisations that get caught up in a scandal have in fact broken the rules or done something wrong, almost all of them feel like victims.[xi] And the persecutors, on behalf of the victims, don’t like to see themselves as perpetrators. That is why they often smirk or look away when the perpetrators turn out to be innocent. In this respect, scandals are a perfect example of the entanglement of victims and perpetrators. This behaviour can be explained by “role inconsistency:” “According to popular belief, perpetrators cannot be victims.” Kepplinger argues that the derision and scorn regularly showered on perpetrators who claim to be victims themselves is a defence mechanism designed to defend the cognitive basis of scandalisation. “Whoever abandons this basis, takes away the opportunity to scandalise.”[xii]
If until recently it was professionals, journalists and media workers who as gatekeepers reported about the scandal, nowadays anyone can spread the news. And no one can be sure of remaining unnoticed anymore. The new victims on the Internet are often not celebrities but nobodies, random passers-by, people who never sought attention, and media morons who find themselves at the mercy of a mass audience either through ignorance or a wrong click. Persecution on the Internet is taking place at an unprecedented scale and often under the protection of anonymity, which usually does not bring out the best in people. At least inhibitions are lower when one doesn’t experience the victim’s reaction in person.
The Internet has mutated into the primary place for agitation and harassment. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media, as the stages for self-promotion, offer forums for mutual backslapping and expressions of solidarity, which have a dark side: the premature condemnation of the “perpetrator,” who is then happily buried in a shitstorm. The much-trumpeted “swarm intelligence” all too often turns into primitive herd instinct and culminates in textbook scapegoat mechanisms.
How can traditional media, which analyse these Internet scandals and thus often reinforce them, deal with the new victims without harming them again in the process? So far, there is no convincing answer. One problem is the intensity of the debates on the Internet, which cannot be controlled because of the sheer number of people involved, and don’t come with a date of expiration: as we all know, the Internet never “forgets.” The once passive recipients have now moved up to being actors, “journalistic heavyweights,”[xiii] and merely require a smartphone with a camera and Internet access to join in the pursuit. A radical democratisation is taking place which grants the individual previously unknown power. The German media theorist Bernhard Pörksen therefore recommends teaching children journalistic skills in school, which he hopes will help minimise this problem.[xiv]
However, Pörksen also thinks there is a bright side to scandals because “in the moment of collective outrage, the general public re-enacts the great moral dialogue and explains to itself what values are in force or should be,” as he wrote together with Hanne Detel. In this way, society fakes agreement, a collective morality, “by distancing itself with commonly shared anger from all that which it has recognised as bad and evil.”[xv] In this respect, scandal is a way of communicating about values. Especially when values have not been set in stone, like in democracies, then scandals can even be the primary tool for this communication. Public outrage often precedes new legislation and even brings it about in the first place.
Unfortunately, this altar of moral feelings, which can unite the masses, and all too often merely conceal resentments, is the sacrificial site of people whose character assassination leads to social exclusion or even suicide. This is when the safeguarding of virtues and norms turns into a manhunt, when justice turns into vigilante justice and the media’s analysis of the event turns into a scandal twice over by declaring the scandal a scandal and simultaneously feeding off of it.[xvi] In the “unleashed scandal,” it’s not always clear who the perpetrators are and who the victims. The reason for this is that it offers new possibilities of being a perpetrator or a victim, which, due to their virtual nature, are harder to tell apart than in “real” life. Therefore, presumed or actual victims mutate on the Internet, under the protection of anonymity, into perpetrators for the purpose of getting revenge via pillory websites.[xvii]
So, what can we do? Is there any way to counter the media’s use of scapegoats? The only option is to inform and educate people. For scapegoats are created—today as in the past—by an unconscious act of collective violence. It only works if everyone joins in and no one is consciously aware of their own actions. Therefore, it seems necessary to provide some clarity about the use of the terms victim and perpetrator, as well as the media’s handling of victims and perpetrators: to talk about victims and thus about scapegoats, in a rational and historically aware manner, without manipulation, without generalisations, without mutual condemnations, and without idolising perpetrators or victims.
(Translation: Mark Miscovich)
[i] Cf. Thomas VOLLMER, Das Heilige und das Opfer. Zur Soziologie religiöser Heilslehre, Gewalt(losigkeit) und Gemeinschaftsbildung, Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften 2009, 53.
[iii] Kirstin BREITENFELLNER: Wie können wir über Opfer reden?, Wien: Passagen 2018; this text is an adapted extract from the book
[iv] Cf. etwa: René GIRARD, Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977, orig. 1972), I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001, 2001 (orig. 1999)
[v] Cf. René GIRARD, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World: Research undertaken in collaboration with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and G. Lefort. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987 (orig. 1978), 72 (German edition, to be corrected).
[vi] Cf. GIRARD, Violence and the sacred, 64. (German edition, to be corrected).
[vii] Cf. GIRARD, Things Hidden, 308. (German edition, to be corrected).
[viii] Cf. René GIRARD, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press: 2009, 20.
[ix] Hans Mathias KEPPLINGER, Die Mechanismen der Skandalisierung: zu Guttenberg, Kachelmann, Sarrazin & Co.: Warum einige öffentlich untergehen – und andere nicht, München: Olzog 2012, 77.
[x] Cf. ibid., 28.
[xi] Cf. ibid., 107f.
[xii] Ibid., 124f.
[xiii] Bernhard PÖRKSEN, Hanne DETEL, Der entfesselte Skandal. Das Ende der Kontrolle im digitalen Zeitalter, Köln: Herbert von Halem 2012, 23.
[xiv] Bernhard PÖRKSEN, Die große Gereiztheit. Wege aus der kollektiven Erregung, München: Hanser 2018.
[xv] PÖRKSEN, DETEL, 21.
[xvi] Cf. ibid., 17f., 110.
[xvii] Cf. ibid., 136–143.