Crying wolf: Victimhood in Kenyan politics

Victimhood can come in three forms: First, legal. Secondly, socio-cultural, and thirdly, self-defined. [Courtesy]

Perceiving oneself to be a victim is ubiquitous in Kenyan politics. Indeed, the victim has become among the most important identity positions in our politics, a badge of honour of sorts. This is no accident; victimhood is a central theme of modern political messaging.

It is in the interest of politicians to cue victimhood, to make their potential supporters feel as though they have been wronged and that they are the best candidate to rectify things. If would-be constituents can be made to feel victimised, it may also be possible to demonstrate the relevance of such feelings to immediate political choices, such as voting or issue positions.

Generally speaking, victimhood can come in three forms: First, legal – experiencing some criminal injustice. Secondly, socio-cultural – a group being systematically mistreated, and thirdly, self-defined.

Self-defined victimhood is a psychological state whereby, irrespective of the reality, one who perceives oneself as a victim is a victim. The consequences of self-defined victimhood should manifest regardless of genuine victimisation.

In a sense, then, one can achieve greater social or political status by self-defining as a victim. Such a goal is sensible; achieving status has long been recognised as an important behavioral motivation. Thus, there is incentive to portray oneself as a victim, even if that label is not “earned” or explicitly used. If one wishes to assert social or political authority, society may be more willing to listen to a victim. 

There are two manifestations of perceived victimhood at the individual level: systemic victimhood and egocentric victimhood. The major distinction between egocentric and systemic victimhood is blame attribution. Systemic victimhood is a manifestation of perceived victimhood whereby the self-defined victim specifically attributes blame on systemic issues and entities. They see governmental and societal structures designed to keep them down while potentially benefiting “others.”

Egocentric victimhood, on the other hand, is less outwardly focused. Egocentric victims feel that they never get what they deserve in life, never get an extra break, and are always settling for less. Neither the “oppressor,” nor the attribution of blame, is very specific.

There are two ways perceived victimhood can relate to political attitudes and behaviours. First, victims can attribute causal blame to those in power and those whom they perceive to benefit from the status quo. If an individual, group or policy is viewed as “victimising” an individual, it follows that the victim should wish to see them ousted from power, mistrust them, view them as underserving of political benefits, or oppose the policy.

Secondly, perceived victimhood structures attitudes towards those who are not causally responsible, or those who can help. If an individual, group or policy is viewed as potentially treating the issues at hand (no matter if they are merely perceived), it follows that the victim should wish to see them in power, generally trust them, and support the particular policy, and so on.

All politicians, to some extent, utilise victimhood-cueing rhetoric in making their case to would-be constituents. They portray the masses as victims of all manner of policies and circumstances from the specific such as high taxes, income inequality, rising healthcare costs to the abstract such as the media or the system. In making victim-centred pleas, politicians are able to foster a sense of victimhood in their supporters and potentially gain new supporters by portraying themselves as uniquely capable of identifying and treating that which causes victimhood.

That victimhood plays such a central role in politics is not necessarily troubling. It is intuitive that politicians would make their case to constituents in such a way that victimhood is cued. Rather than the mere appeal to victimhood, it is the lengths one is willing to go in order to mobilise victimhood that poses the greatest potential normative threat to a civilised democratic political system.

-The writer lecturers at Pwani University