Two Victim Paradigms and the Problem of ‘Impure’ Victims

Humanity 2 (2):255-275 (2011)
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Philosophers have had surprisingly little to say about the concept of a victim although it is presupposed by the extensive philosophical literature on rights. Proceeding in four stages, I seek to remedy this deficiency and to offer an alternative to the two current paradigms that eliminates the Othering of victims. First, I analyze two victim paradigms that emerged in the late 20th century along with the initial iteration of the international human rights regime – the pathetic victim paradigm and the heroic victim paradigm. Holocaust victims are quintessential instances of the pathetic victim paradigm. They are marked by passivity and innocence in the face of overpowering force and unspeakable humanly inflicted suffering. Aung San Suu Kyi is an exemplar of the heroic victim paradigm – prisoners of conscience, in Amnesty International’s terms. Because heroic victims face off against the repressive power of the state to fight injustice, they are by no means passive, but they must be innocent of wrongdoing – that is, they must use nonviolent means of dissent – to qualify as heroic victims. Second, I problematize the asymmetrical conceptions of innocence that underwrite the two victim paradigms. Whereas the pathetic victim paradigm identifies innocence with passivity, the heroic victim paradigm countenances agentic victims and adverts to a universalist, absolutist stance on the limits of the legitimate use of state power to ascribe innocence to heroic victims. Both conceptions of innocence are out of keeping with well established social and legal practices regarding what constitutes coercive force and innocent victimhood. Consequently, there is reason to be skeptical of the two victim paradigms. Third, I identify two kinds of human rights violations and two categories of victims that AI defends despite their failure to fit the two paradigms – women trafficked into sex work and prisoners on death row. In many cases, women forced to do sex work are not innocent girls who are ignorant of the trafficking system and who helplessly fall prey to smugglers. They are desperately poor women who for that reason are willing to take enormous risks to try to relieve their own and often their families’ deprivation and suffering. Although these women act nonviolently for irreproachable reasons, they lack the public political agendas that characterize heroic victims. Unless non-fulfillment of subsistence rights is recognized as a form of overpowering force that inflicts severe, avoidable suffering, these women do not qualify as pathetic victims either. The victim paradigms pose an even greater obstacle to recognizing that the death penalty is a human rights violation and that death row prisoners are victims. Because a jury concluded that these individuals committed heinous, violent crimes, they are excluded by the heroic victim paradigm. Only if death row prisoners can be proven (usually through DNA evidence) not to have committed the crimes for which they were convicted can these individuals qualify as pathetic victims. In the absence of any reason to believe that they are innocent and especially if they are unrepentant, they are widely regarded as brutal victimizers of others who deserve no sympathy for, let along relief from, the suffering they “brought on themselves.” Finally, I confront the Othering of victims that results from the two victim paradigms, which leads many victims to eschew the label, thereby opting out of human right discourse. I propose revisions in the victim paradigms that eliminate the real-world exclusions they sponsor as well as the Othering of victims of human rights abuses. In particular, I endorse greater attention to what people and the institutions they create do to other people, and I favor a presumption that unnecessary and severe humanly inflicted suffering is a human rights violation. Moreover, I reject the innocence criterion embedded in the two paradigms and urge that it be replaced by a burdened agency criterion. These modifications better align the concept of a victim with a realistic understanding of human subjectivity and agency and allow for a more capacious understanding of who is a bearer of human rights and under what conditions right-holders become victims of rights violations.

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Diana Meyers
University of Connecticut


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