A Theory of Class Victimization
by Ari Armstrong, May 20, 2003
I was driving along I-70 with Pam White, and, trying to make a point, I asked her how some people are able to rationalize unjust treatment of others. Her answer was a little different than what I expected: she pointed out people often claim they are "helping" their victims. What I had in mind was that oppressors demonize their victims in order to treat them as sub-human. But then it struck me that the two types of rationalizations are mutually reinforcing.
Often it is the case that two ideas, or memes, don't have any logical connection, yet they support each other in a symbiotic way. Jeffrey Friedman of Critical Review talks about the "libertarian straddle," the tendency of some libertarians to oscillate between pragmatic arguments and moralistic ones. I noted the analogy to a "war straddle," the tendency of some proponents of the war in Iraq to lead with argument that the leaders there posed a direct threat to U.S. lives, then to fall back on the argument that we're liberating the locals, and to keep switching between the two.
Just as codependent relationships between people are unhealthy and destructive, so are codependent memes, or co-memes. By themselves, the co-memes are fairly obviously false, but, taken collectively, they gain a seductive appeal. The co-memes that go a long way in explaining mass-victimization are those of false benevolence and demonization (or scape-goating, or dehumanization).
Even the Nazi regime employed these co-memes. The efforts to dehumanize the Jews and other targeted groups were obvious. But another part of the propaganda war described the Nazis as concerned with, say, ridding Jewish communities of diseases. One image seared into my memory is a sign that hangs in the remnants of a concentration camp that reads, "Work makes you free." And so one of the greatest atrocities in history was couched in terms of liberalism.
Perhaps the best term for the co-memes I'm describing is "parentalist loathing:" "We hate you and we're here to help you."
The Crusades, and perhaps most types of forced religious conversions, involve this combination of detestation for the victims and a mask of benevolence. After all, these poor heathen souls will end up in Hell if we don't threaten them with homicide. A similar mentality encouraged the Inquisition.
In the United States, slave owners clearly exhibited parentalist loathing. Lincoln, often considered progressive for his time, was nevertheless a white supremacist and a white separatist, as he demonstrated in a public debate with Douglas: "I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two... and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I... am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position." So how did it come about that the general white population came to view those from Africa as an "inferior race?" It is impossible to impose such a horrifying system as slavery without believing the victims are somehow inferior, and anyway their treatment is actually good for them. A similar pattern permitted the ghastly treatment of American Indians.
I'm going to move to a couple of examples of less virulent, modern American versions of parentalist loathing. I am arguing the pattern of co-memes is similar, not that the behavior described is as reprehensible as what's discussed above.
The drug war, itself largely a product of racism, today is perpetuated by parentalist loathing. People who take politically-incorrect drugs are usually described as "addicts," rather than as casual users, and they are said to pose an inordinate risk to society. Drug users go crazy: it's Reefer Madness! Now, there is a grain of truth to this mentality: some of the harsher drugs that have arisen because of the system of prohibition, such as methamphetamine, are used by some users in ways that induce paranoia and violence. Of course, alcohol has the same effects on some users. In general, though, drug users are demonized and dehumanized. So it's okay to send off drug users to get raped and warehoused in prison, because they're fundamentally depraved. But at the same time, you see, we're actually helping drug users by sending them to prison.
The gun war, largely driven by the obscene levels of violence caused by drug prohibition, is also marked by parentalist loathing. On one hand, opponents of gun ownership demonize and ridicule gun owners. One representative of the "Million" Mom March said, "We're going to love our children more than the NRA loves their guns," suggesting that NRA members are so inhuman they don't even care if children are killed. At the same time, disarmament groups promote fraudulent factoids to bolster the case that disarmament laws really help the miserable hicks who stupidly own guns.
The co-memes of false benevolence and dehumanization work hand-in-hand to give people the rationalizations they need to oppress and victimize others. The tendency seems to be fairly pervasive, though I won't attempt to list more examples here.
At the same time, the theory I'm describing can be misapplied. For instance, we may justifiably revile a murderer, and at the same time believe sending him or her to prison in some sense makes the person better off. But that's not an example of co-dependent memes at work.
Fortunately, the first step to guarding against destructive memes is to be aware that they exist. Then we can work to replace them with better memes, along with genuine benevolence and just laws.