We’ve been re-watching the TV series Smallville with our kids. It’s the story of Clark Kent as he grows from Kansas farm boy to city-dwelling superhero.  It’s a drama full of heroes (rescuers), victims yelling “Save me!,” and villains (persecutors).  Fortunately, at least every once in a while a villain will act like a rescuer or a victim, and a victim will become a villain.  Otherwise, it would be totally insufferable.  On the show, the persecutors (usually Luthors) feel that the ends justify the means.  The victims often blame all their woes on circumstances or people outside their control.  And there’s Superman, assigning people the role of victim or persecutor and acting all self-righteous about his judgments.

When Judas chastised Jesus because the woman had anointed him with expensive oil, suggesting that instead that money could have been used to help the poor, Jesus said:  “The poor ye have always with you,” implying that his own death was imminent.  But he was also implying that poverty would never be cured.  No matter how much you do to make things better, it’s a bottomless pit.  It’s never enough.

I have likewise felt this sense of frustration in talking with my liberal friends, fellow feminists or in discussing race.  It seems that no matter how much progress society makes, it’s never enough; the pit of anger doesn’t really shrink.  Why is that?  If you compare societies with extremely serious injustices (like 25% of men admitting to rape in South Africa, or 100% of women having been sexually harassed in Egypt, or an entire country, Iran, denying that homosexuals exist), much worse than those in the United States, the level of anger is often lower.  This could be due to oppression.  Or maybe it’s because the need is so great that pragmatism rules.  Maybe it’s a lack of hope or empowerment to make meaningful changes.  Maybe those with the most power to make changes (in less repressed countries) can speak the loudest because they are the least marginalized.

Recently, Paul Ryan’s econ professor was quoted in the New York Times.  He was talking about economic philosophy and the focus of the left on lifting people out of poverty and otherwise advocating for victims.  He said, “You can’t represent a group of the downtrodden unless you have a permanent group of downtrodden to represent.”  His point is my main concern with liberal politics and why they have not won me over.  (Reminder:  I’m a political independent; the Republicans haven’t won me over either).

File:The drama triangle large.tiffThe Karpman Triangle is a psychological drama that people engage in that was first observed by Dr. Stephen Karpman in therapy sessions in 1968.  Identifying the behaviours in the drama triangle is part of helping people let go of these invented dramas and take control of their lives in a positive way.  The model shows that people tend to take on one of the following roles in life situations:

  • Victim.  Victims point out their lack of power in a situation, and they usually identify a person or group of people who are preventing them from having power.  Often the person who assumes the role of victim uses this position to manipulate rescuers into giving them what they need while perpetuating the myth of their victimhood.  Eventually, though, they often turn on their rescuers, and the rescuer becomes a victim too.  In the mind of the victim, s/he is blameless, no matter what.
  • Persecutor.  This is the person who is pressuring or coercing the victim in some way, limiting the victim’s choices, or keeping them in a disempowered position (according to the rescuer and victim).  Often the persecutor feels that s/he has a valid complaint against the mistreatment they are receiving from the victim and the rescuer.  In this way, the “persecutor” often becomes a “victim” over time.  In the mind of the persecutor, s/he is right.
  • Rescuer.  The person derives an ego boost from helping the underdog, the victims s/he identifies as needing help or advocacy, and fighting against persecutors, those people the rescuer identifies as causing harm to the victim.  The rescuer has a surface motive of resolving the problem, and appears to make great efforts to solve it, but also has a hidden motive to not succeed, or to succeed in a way that they benefit. For example, they may feel a sense of status as a “rescuer”, or enjoy having someone dependent or trusting of them – and act in a way that ostensibly seems to be trying to help, but at a deeper level relies upon the victim’s continuing dependence on them. If a rescuer finds a willing victim, codependency (a self-sustaining dysfunctional relationship) results.  In the mind of the rescuer, s/he is a good person, doing good deeds.

Rescuers create victims and persecutors to play their game.

What about real victims?  Obviously, there are real victims out there.  Even though we’ve largely closed the wage gap within like positions, it’s still true that women are disproportionately hurt by maternity leaves, lack of flexible choices, a glass ceiling at the highest levels, and career choices that often land them in the least lucrative fields.  The progress we’ve made, and it is great, is still not enough to erase some of the inequity of opportunity.  Men, especially white males, feel marginalized by their loss of status (or the elevation of women to more equal footing).

The problem with seeing people as victims is that being a victim by definition means you don’t have power or control over your circumstances.  As soon as you see yourself as a victim, you lose your ability to not be a victim.  It becomes self-perpetuating.

How do we break the cycle?  It depends on where you are on the cycle.  If you are a rescuer, you have to let go of the heroic ego boost and help people help themselves.  Promote solutions that create equality of opportunity, not outcomes.  Give people power by giving them opportunity. Don’t take away their power by manipulating outcomes.  As the saying goes, if you give a man a fish he eats today; if you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.  Unless the river is polluted, in which case go get those bastards who run big business.  Just kidding about that last part.

If you see yourself as a victim, you have to focus on what is in your control and begin to make your own choices to improve your situation.  Several years ago, we had a representative from a large national charity come to our senior leadership team to promote their charity’s efforts and enlist our company in gathering donations from employees.  They brought in a woman who was a recipient of their program.  She talked about how a few years earlier she had a live-in boyfriend who got her hooked on drugs and left her pregnant with his child, no education, and no means to support herself.  She relied on the money she received from this charity in the way most people rely on their paycheck.  In her words, because of everything that had happened to her, she had no choices and no power in her life.  She was a total victim.  A different charity came in and explained that their goal was to help women who had left domestic abuse situations.  They provided a temporary shelter, job counseling, professional clothing, and child care while women did job interviews so that they could get their own apartment and support their families.  Which charity do you think our company agreed to support?

As for persecutors, people don’t generally engage in the Karpman Triangle as a persecutor, but rather the rescuers and victims cast them in this role.  A few who have been cast in the role of persecutor that I can think of off the top of my head:  corporations, white males, the patriarchal leadership of the church, the 1%.  So what is a persecutor to do to make the situation better?  I suggest examining their privilege and then tackling areas to increase equality of opportunity.  The privileged go wrong when they retrench and protect their power.  Power is only useful to society when it is used toward a meritocratic end.  Of course, Lex Luthor doesn’t exactly take this advice.  But we all know how that story ends.