The victim wars: How competitive victimhood stymies reconciliation between conflicting groups

According to Noor and colleagues (Noor, Brown, Gonzalez, Manzi, & Lewis, 2008; Noor, Brown & Prentice, 2008), when intergroup relations are based on conflicts over social or material resources, this sense of victimhood may interplay with group members’ need to compete with the out-groups (e.g., Brewer & Brown, 1998). Thus, group members may tend to engage in a real competition with the  out-group over who has suffered more. Interestingly, this kind of competition has a psychological benefit. Indeed, it helps people cope with conflict. Years of conflict create stress and uncertainty among group members. The highest victimhood status helps to manage these feelings by providing safe explanations about who is responsible for the violence, and clear boundaries between good and evil (Bar-Tal et al., 2009). Furthermore, perceiving one’s own group as the primary victim of the conflict can reduce feelings of guilt that arise when people witness misdeeds perpetrated by ingroup members (Smyth, 2001). By the same token, it may help to rationalize and legitimize acts of revenge against rivals, especially in a post-conflict era (see Nadler & Saguy, 2003). Finally, portraying one’s own group as the “real” victim of the conflict may also serve material purposes, as it frames the group the worthy recipient of sympathy and assistance. Thus, encouraging the perception of one’s own group as the victim may enhance the possibility of receiving moral and practical support from the international community (Simon & Klandermans, 2001).

For all these reasons, it is no wonder that each of the parties involved in a conflict makes great efforts to persuade themselves, rivals, and third parties that their suffering has been greatest. Recent research has provided empirical support for the detrimental consequences of competitive victimhood in reconciliation processes. For instance, Noor and colleagues found that in Northern Ireland, competitive victimhood decreases the Protestants' and Catholics' inclination to forgive each other (Noor, Brown, Gonzalez, et al. 2008; Noor, Brown, & Prentice, 2008) and, at the same time, reduces the willingness to accept responsibility for each group's past misdeeds. Similarly, in Chile, competitive victimhood has been empirically demonstrated to be a great obstacle to the reconciliation between pro-Pinochet and anti-Pinochet groups (Noor, Brown, Gonzalez, et al. 2008).

Removing competitive victimhood

Social psychologists are now developing strategies to overcome the tendency toward competitive victimhood.

One strategy emphasizes the need to blur the lines between the conflicting groups. The Common In-group Identity Model (CIIM; Dovidio, Gaertner, & Saguy, 2009) suggests that, through a process of cognitive recategorization, members of separate groups may come to see themselves as belonging to subsets of the same group. With this increased sense of “we”, the cognitive and motivational processes leading to perceive one’s own group as the victim and the other group as the perpetrators are redirected to include former out-group members in a single common group, in which psychological and physical sufferings are shared.

Some studies have documented the beneficial effects of this increased sense of communality in contexts characterized by past or present victimization. For instance, Wohl and Branscombe (2005) found that Jews felt more forgiving towards Germans when they were encouraged to think of the two groups together, in terms of the larger group of human beings worldwide. Furthermore, Gaunt (2009) documented that identifying with the common group of “Israelis” weakened the Israeli Arabs’ tendency to dehumanize Israeli Jews. More recently, my colleagues and I (Andrighetto, Mari, Volpato, and Behluli, in press) provided more direct evidence of common in-group identity effects on competitive victimhood. We reported that an increased identification with the “Kosovars” common group decreased the Kosovar Albanians tendency to compete with the Serbs to obtain the status of victim of the past conflict.

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