The following is the second installment of a two-part series. The first portion can be read here.
The Nietzschean frame that most easily lends itself as a comparison to contemporary victimhood is that of the Last Man. Appearing in the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the figure of the Last Man is the direct opposite of the Übermensch, or “overman.”. When the townspeople are unenthused at the presented challenge of overcoming the self in order to embody the overman, Zarathustra attempts to sway them towards this goal by presenting an overall revolting image of the Last Man, whose wrongs were so egregious that Zarathustra viewed him explicitly as a straw man.
He weaves a tale of human beings who walk warily, move from inhospitable regions to those where challenge is rare, and are unwilling to take risks. He talks about how, “… everyone wanteth the same; everyone is equal,”(21) on account of the fact that social stratification is too “burdensome” regardless of whether one is the ruler or the ruled, the rich or the poor. “What is love? What is creation?” What is longing?” What is a star?” – So asketh the last man and blinketh.”(21)
Human beings ae so completely dedicated to mediocrity that deep understanding, creative tendencies, or academic inquiry become foreign concepts. Increasingly, the contemporary victim perfectly mirrors this idea, one that Nietzsche intended to be merely a rhetorical ploy to entice one towards self-transcendence.
What Zarathustra was utterly unprepared for, however, was the enthusiasm with which the townspeople greeted the idea of the Last Man; “make us into these last men!” they cried upon completion of his description.(21) They simultaneously mocked Zarathustra’s presentation of the overman and welcomed the egalitarian frailty that the Last Man entails.
It does not take undue effort to see how the contemporary victim would mirror this enthusiasm, thus becoming an historical incarnation of Nietzsche’s purely rhetorical idea. That is not to say that desiring an equitable society renders one inherently flawed, or even especially weak-willed. Nietzsche’s Last Men and contemporary victims, however, have incredibly narrow views as to what egalitarianism means.
Were a society to be composed entirely of individuals nearing the life-affirming status of the overman by their own strength of will, it would by all accounts be considered to be egalitarian. Despite being an unrealistic and arguably unwise goal, this hypothetical serves to provide an example on how relative equality could exist without grounds for Nietzschean protest.
Furthermore, it details the fact that equality need not be a destructive force – it need not entail the lowering of powerful individuals, when it could just as easily raise those who are already low. The goal, however, is shared by neither the Last man nor the contemporary victim. Rather than focusing on the ways in which the United States has the power to aid historically disenfranchised identities, the strongest voices in victimhood culture are concerned with lowering those they perceive as “dominant”, as Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning point out.
If moral status is given solely to those with victim identities, the straight, white male is completely discounted. Many of these “privileged” individuals express disenfranchisement towards the whole culture, but even more will either try to regain status by asserting that the changing tides have made them the discriminated class, or turn to other social markers such as class or popularity to find ways in which they, too, can be victims.
Every individual under this system is actively looking for the ways in which their lives are not under their own control, at the cost of knowing where they are in control. They know not what creation is, nor love, nor longing, nor stars (as Nietzsche would say). Their perspectives are riddled with impotence, and they celebrate it under the banner of inclusivity, not seeing the ways in which they have sacrificed challenge, sacrificed their right to determine their own lives.
The contemporary victim avoids the burden of human asymmetry by asserting that all are inherently equal. They do so not by empowering individuals who may be overlooked, but by wrenching any perceived threats down. Mediocrity is enforced, and thus “His species is ineradicable … the last man liveth longest,” Nietzsche writes.(20)
What Nietzsche terms ressentiment (using the French word deliberately to convert the word “resentment” into an enduring philosophical construct) serves as the primary motivation for the various performances of victimhood culture, shedding light on it as a pure example of Nietzschean master/slave morality. Although Nietzsche’s account of ressentiment is essentially framed in a Christian context, the elemental aspects speak to a broader human pathology.
In Guy Algot’s analysis of the slave revolt, he recounts how the slave class will,“adopt and subscribe to values that will enable them to experience themselves as morally superior to the masters.” This is theoverriding concept Nietzsche proposed in his account of ressentiment in the book Genealogy of Morals, namely, that the “slave” class reframes moral concepts in order to exact revenge against the “master” class. This process is precisely what today’s victim undergoes, except “oppressed/privileged” is the linguistic substitute for “slave/master.”
The classification of ressentiment is furthered when Elgat explains how “this imaginary revenge manifests itself in the creation of new solutions, new metaphysical and religious beliefs and new principles of action and judgement.” This rendering of Nietzsche’s work calls on how the slaves, namely Christians, completely reinterpreted the world in order to find both comfort and revenge.
In the words of Elgat, this revenge is targeted at the “physically and politically ruling masters, who systematically deprive them [the slave class] of various social and material goods.” Out of context of the explicit Nietzschean focus of Elgat’s writings, that quote could easily be seen as intentioned towards contemporary victim mentalities, which is in no small part due to the obvious connection between each respective class’ mentalities.
It was power disparity, as illustrated above, that led Christianity, in Nietzsche’s perspective, to create new values; he focused on “turn the other cheek” mentalities. He viewed the high prioritization of subservience and humility not as inherently good, but as the aforementioned means by which to exact revenge, as well as to enable a sense of superiority that the “lower” classes could find nowhere except for in the realm of created values.
Part of Nietzsche’s critique of the slave mentality in Genealogy of Morals is how uncreative it is. It is reactionary: “in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all – its action is fundamentally reaction.”
Whereas noble master mentality highly values creation, slave mentality is at its very essence a reaction to outside processes. The same can be said for victimhood culture; individuals are not encouraged to find their own moral worth, they are encouraged to look external degradation and loudly confront it. Their status is established by defining what they are not (privileged), rather than what they are.
As mentioned in the historical overview of victimhood culture, Eric Gans noted a primary cultural trend whereby U.S. society is “dominated by victimary resentment and fear of arousing it.” Despite not even mentioning Nietzsche, or even Elgat’s in-depth analysis, he touched on the ways in which the resentment of underprivileged individuals – women, racial minorities, sexual minorities, etc. – has become a prevailing force. This resentment is a clear instance of contemporary ressentiment. Rather than falling on religious lines, this time, it is centered on lines of historical power struggles. Ressentiment, in its power to create new values, was the instigator of the moral “slave revolt.”
Finally, in what way is Zarathustra’s Last Man different from the slave? Given that they are both applicable frames for victimhood culture, there is clearly a significant amount of overlap. One of the primary instances of this is that they both deny life. It is unclear which Nietzsche would detest more, given that the primary focus is on different aspects of human failing. In the context of victimhood culture, the key difference falls on applicability. While the contemporary victim is the realization of the last man, they are not the slave class. They do, however, find motivation in the same source as the slave class – ressentiment.
As Frantz Fanon was quoted saying in the book La Guerre des Mémoires, “Je n’ai pas le droit de me laisser engluer par les déterminations du passé. Je ne suis pas esclave de l’esclavage qui déshumanisa mes pères.”(57) Translated, this says: “I do not have the right to allow myself to be ensnared by the determinations of the past. I am not enslaved by the slavery that dehumanized my ancestors.”
This attitude, riddled with strength, is not common among those who claim historical oppression, as is evidenced by the aforementioned eagerness to be perceived as a victim. Fanon’s approach embodies a Nietzschean vivacity that refuses to be burdened by events of the past. It directly touches on one particular way Nietzsche characterized master morality, when he said: “To be incapable of taking one’s enemies, one’s accidents, even one’s misdeeds seriously for very long – that is the sign of strong, full natures in whom there is an excess of the power to form, to mold, to recuperate and to forget.”(475)
The generative power that Fanon embodied, and Nietzsche applauded, is one that increases personal agency and responsibility. It holds untold amounts of untapped power, that would greatly improve the lives of those who swear by a victim mentality. In presenting a Nietzschean remedy, however, an important caveat has to be made. It is no secret that Nietzsche’s work has been interpreted in a variety of ways, and for a variety of purposes.
It is also no secret that there is still a clear presence of social hierarchies, based off completely unchosen identity classes. It is therefore imperative that a Nietzschean a remedy for the faults of victimhood culture not turn towards assigning blame for oppression, or merit for privilege. It is clear that Nietzsche’s work is ambiguous enough that various interpretations can be used to justify horrendous acts.
While victimhood culture as a whole needs to be refuted, it would be unwise to go so far as to argue that Nietzsche is holistically right in regards to oppressed individuals. His approach is best implemented on an individual rather than a societal level. Given that Nietzsche’s focus is on the individual’s power of creation, it would be both ineffective and inaccurate for a remedy of victimhood culture to focus on what others ought to do.
The moral theory that Nietzsche provides aids in interpreting victimhood culture, and could no doubt help individuals to regain a sense of individual autonomy. However, this effect would be entirely inert should the individuals in question fail to choose to adopt this mentality. A Nietzschean moral approach bears strength in this context insofar as it empowers individuals.
While the overman is presented as Nietzsche’s idea for a proper goal for humanity, its tenets are largely ambiguous. Those suffering from a victim mindset certainly could benefit from moving towards overcoming the self, however a more concrete metric can be seen in Nietzsche’s iteration of eternal recurrence, as seen in The Gay Science. Essentially, Nietzsche views a life worth living as one where the individual yearns to experience each and every moment – into eternity. On this topic, he says “Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”(57 – Italics for emphasis.)
This attitude is lacking among victims who search for the negatives in their life, and would no doubt prove beneficial. As Campbell and Manning articulate it, there is an “emergence of a new moral culture, one we call victimhood culture…” The bulk of Nietzsche’s work centers on the theory that morals are not innate, but are generated by humanity itself.
Although not generally tied explicitly to Nietzsche, this facet, too, is central to critique of victimhood culture. While expanding values to reach historically marginalized groups can be beneficial insofar as it works towards empowering individual autonomy – as is seen in allowing women schooling, for instance – victimhood culture’s reductionist attempt at transvaluation ignores truth without even furthering utility.
Without systematic global morals, humanity is charged with the responsibility of creating their own. While victimhood culture attempts to counter this imperative, it overlooks the moral rights of those who belong to historically dominant groups, and prescribes a narrow definition of morality. Individuals, therefore, need to enact their own will, and work towards moral systems that affirm themselves, their life, and their autonomy.
Miriam Wilson is a writer living in Denver, Colorado.