Of paranoia and victimismo

Monday 16 May 2016

My first head of department growled to me one day “We all fail, David, what matters is how we fail”. This bit of world-weary wisdom impressed me greatly, partly because I was young, pink-eared and impressionable, but also because I knew that the HoD’s marriage was failing at that very moment, largely in connection with the presence of a French assistante with sparkling black eyes and a mane of black hair. If this was failure, I thought ... I wanna fail! I wanna fail!

But truly the sense of failure is not fun. We all make up stories to explain failures, whether personal or in the society where we live. I have recently been noticing words which encapsulate some of these explanations for failure, and I find that they represent different slants – and these slants are in fact distinct myths which are socially and culturally powerful. Take the following, and notice how they share elements in common ...

paranoia ... Pinched from clinical psychology, in common usage this means something like ‘everyone’s against me’. There is a clear sense that this is not a reliable judgement, and we reckon that someone who is paranoid is probably exaggerating the extent to which people (or circumstances) are against them; but the fundamental argument of the paranoid vision is that ‘my failure is caused by people out there who want to make me fail, or suffer, or look ridiculous – anyway, it’s not my fault’.

conspiracy theory ... The popularity of theories which involve deep plots to trick the public (e.g. ‘9/11 was an Israeli plot’ or ‘the Moon Landing was faked’) has been much enhanced by the development of the internet, which gives conspiracy theorists a vast uncritical audience. Conspiracy theories are based on the idea that ‘they’ (those with power and evil intentions) set out to trick ‘us’ (decent people like you and me). Which sounds like standard paranoia, except for a further twist - ‘They’ may try to trick us, but a few Really Smart People (like me, for instance) have seen through their dastardly plots and have very cleverly unmasked their evil intentions. Which proves that paranoia is not mistaken, and even that we paranoids are smarter than anyone else ... and so we are not failures!

victimismo ... This useful Spanish word has no direct commonly-used equivalent in English – but if you think ‘victimism’ you’ll get the idea. The essence of victimismo is the attitude of “poor me – people are being horrible to me!” Significantly, it is not just that people are being horrible, but more that people being horrible proves how good you really are. They’re envious of you, and so they try to hamper your success ... and imagine how successful you’d be if they weren’t so horrible! The word victimismo is often used by those hostile to the idea of Catalan independence to indicate that the Catalans think that they’re better than all other Spaniards and that they are only being held back by an envious conspiracy organised in Madrid. There may conceivably be elements of factual support for that conspiracy, but actually Catalan society, like all other human groups, has proved that it is perfectly capable of producing failures without any help from anyone else.

loser ... A term created and promoted by the United States adulation of success: everyone can be a winner, and if you’re not a winner, you’re just a pathetic loser. Obviously, no-one wants to be a loser, and we only ever use  ‘loser’ to describe someone else.This means that we can blame losers - it's their own fault. Forget environment or background or even plain bad luck, you end up being defined as a loser because you can’t have tried hard enough ... and there is a subtle nuance that perhaps you were just sub-standard to start with, just written off by evolution from the beginning. Of course, there is also the pleasant implication that you can only call someone else a loser if you yourself are a winner – it provides a charming buzz of superiority to be contemptuous of others.

And the main common feature? Well spotted – all of these involve blaming the Other, and diverting attention from what you or I might personally have done to fail, and consequently what we might do to put things right. Let us beware any politician who bases any political project on Blaming the Other.

24 Jun 2016


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