A nation of victims and villains A critic says Americans have made pastime of simplistic blame game

November 30, 1997|By James M. Kramon

WE HAVE become a country of villains and victims and, the evidence shows, we like it that way.

Television and other media are consumed with plots involving perpetrators and their prey. People who have harbored or forgotten grievances for decades are suddenly recalling childhood abuses by parents and others. Employees of businesses, patrons of restaurants, customers of stores and people who come into contact with government authority are decrying the harsh and lawless treatment they claim they have received.

Some of these contentions are no doubt true. But to hear us as a society, one could conclude that virtually every American is either a villain or a victim or, to make matters more confusing, both.

The fact is, we love the scenario. If you want your talk show to be a success, tell us about villains and victims. A recent "Geraldo" concerns teen-age children who misbehave and abuse their parents.

Geraldo must have concluded that the parent-as-villain, child-as-victim plot works just as well in reverse. On a recent "Leeza," the guests were parents and siblings of serial murderers, including a serial murderer who engaged in cannibalism. Each time there was even the slightest suggestion of culpability on the part of one of the parents, the audience erupted in vigorous applause.

When an articulate and knowledgeable expert explained that there is a subset of human beings who, through no fault of anyone else, develop pathological tendencies as they move into adolescence, the audience was stone quiet. We do not wish to hear that outrageous conduct might be attributable to something other than an identifiable villain.

Whether the matter is small, such as a passing romantic disappointment, or large, such as conduct for which one might receive the maximum sentences provided by law, the American public wants to know who did what wrongful thing to whom and be assured that those things (which, of course, we would never do) are responsible for what occurred.

The strongest ally of the villain-victim scenario is the legal system. More than a million Americans are in federal prisons, several million in state prisons, and many more are waiting their turns.

The idea seems to be, wherever we find behavior that fits the villain-victim scenario, criminalize it and pursue the criminals.

Also, millions of civil claims are pending in this country, claims in which victims are contending they were injured by all sorts of misconduct. Victim-employees are claiming against villain-employers. Victim-purchasers are claiming against villain-sellers. Victim-tenants are claiming against villain-landlords. No wonder lawyers love the villain-victim scenario.

There are two big problems with all of this.

The first problem is that the degree of contentiousness in our society has become so elevated that orderly and agreeable social interactions are becoming difficult. Every sidelong glance and innocent nudge has become a basis for legal action. To listen to the advertisements of lawyers on television, one would think that the average American is foolishly unaware of countless claims for everything from medical malpractice to mayhem.

Have we become a society where one must think of oneself as a hapless victim every time one's car is bumped or one visits a doctor or something questionable occurs in a store? A society in which potential liability and risk management become overriding concerns is not a happy place in which to live, work and raise families.

The second problem with the villain-victim scenario is that it consumes our energies and precludes us from pursuing productive social programs. For example, three decades of making villains of everyone from South American drug kingpins to street-corner users/sellers has done absolutely nothing to relieve the problem of illicit drug use.

Pursuing villains for negligence, business and financial improprieties, environmental pollution and many other forms of undesirable conduct have not produced better results. Although few would doubt the legitimacy of some claims of victims in each of these areas, it appears that for every villain identified and held accountable, new villains wait to take his or her place. Our society does not have a shortage of people capable of misconduct.

There is no clearer example of the futility of the villain-victim scenario than the just concluded Senate Campaign Finance Hearings. As Republicans would have it, the villains are the Democrats who, they suggest, have given new meaning to campaign-finance abuses. To bolster this alignment of villains and victims, Republicans direct our attention to the president's unseemly use of White House coffees and sleep-overs in the Lincoln Bedroom and concerns about which telephone the vice president used to hit up big contributors.

Democrats, on the other hand, contend that Republicans are the bigger villains. They suggest that former GOP presidents and vice presidents not only did precisely what the present administration is doing but did it better.

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