Don’t Blame Me!

Rose Cipollone smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes daily for 40 years. And then came down with lung cancer.   Did Rose blame herself for ignoring the warning labels on cigarette packs? Did she kick herself for turning a blind eye to reports on the health hazards of smoking? Did she resign herself to the fact that she had gambled with her health--and lost?   No. None of the above. Instead she insisted that her illness wasn't her fault at all. I'm just a victim, she said--and then launched a lawsuit against three tobacco companies.   Or consider the story of another supposed victim. Some years ago, a young man named Dan White sneaked into San Francisco's City Hall and savagely gunned down the mayor and the supervisor Harvey Milk. Hauled into court, Dan pleaded temporary insanity. He insisted that a steady diet of junk food had raised his blood sugar and addled his brain. It became known as the infamous "Twinkie Defense."   These are only two examples of what has become a growth industry in America--the cult of victimization. Here's how it works.   Western civilization traditionally understood that human beings are moral agents who can distinguish right from wrong, and who can therefore be held accountable for their actions. Law codes and social morality were based on the notion of individual responsibility.   But in the cult of victimization, individuals are not seen as moral agents. They are victims--of racism, or sexism, or capitalist exploitation, or of an unhappy childhood. Victims of tobacco companies and Twinkies.   There are advantages to claiming victim status. For one thing, it confers a sense of innocence that allows one to get away with outrageous behavior: After all, it wasn't really I who did it; I was driven by outside forces.   Victim claims can also be used to cover up one's shortcomings. A woman was stopped recently by Virginia police for erratic driving. She cursed, kicked, and scored above the legal limit on a Breathalyzer test. Yet she successfully argued in court that she was not drunk, she was merely suffering from pre-menstrual syndrome, or PMS.   Her hormones made her do it.   Of course, there are real victims. As our culture moves farther away from biblical norms of behavior, more people break their marriage vows, more children are abandoned, more criminals stalk our streets. In short, more people suffer. The vocabulary of victimhood stems partly from a humanitarian concern for the suffering that may lie behind people's actions.   But it is not humanitarian to deprive people of their status as moral agents. It may be appealing to be a victim, since it frees you from having to admit that you are wrong or guilty. But there is actually greater dignity in admitting guilt. Because at least it affirms the moral dimension to human nature.   C.S. Lewis once said that to be punished because one is truly guilty is to be treated as a human being made in God's image, capable of making moral choices--even if the choice is wrong.   As Christians we weep with those who weep. But we do not use their sorrows as an excuse for their shortcomings. That would be to treat them as pawns moved about by outside forces.   People made in God's image deserve better than a Twinkie defense.   References: Main source is John Taylor, "Don't Blame Me: The New Culture of Victimization," New York Magazine, June 3, 1991.   PMS story is from DeNeen Brown, "PMS Defense Successful in Va. Drunken Driving Case," The Washington Post, June 7, 1991.


Chuck Colson



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