The Victimhood Narrative: Justifying Racism and Gaining Supporters
How do you effectively legitimise the exclusion, suppression and discrimination of others based merely on racial features? The far right has an easy answer – paint yourself as the innocent one.
This blog entry aims at providing you with an understanding of yet another argumentation scheme that far-right political actors have adopted to their benefit. By repeating a story motivated by a false sense of imperilment over and over again, the so-called victimhood narrative.
What is the victimhood narrative?
It might seem puzzling at a first glance. Let’s untangle this idea. Building on initial victimhood studies and transitioning to the far-right domain, the most compelling scholarly writing from the early 2000s investigates how the victim ideology is used strategically to put forward racialist arguments. Five claims of white supremacists are identified: (1) white supremacists experience discrimination themselves as a result of civil rights movements, (2) their rights are being abrogated – take free speech, for example, (3) stigmatization and the denial of pride, (4) short-term harm as a loss of self-esteem, and (5) long-term harm as the racial elimination or a perceived extinction of the white race. These beliefs might sound absurd at times but turn out to be powerful for gathering support.
The predominant group of supporters for the far-right are driven by a sense that they are adversely affected by a multiracial society and (!) will be wiped away somehow. Some scholars researching violence prevention believe that arguments prepare for an emotional preparation for aggressively proactive actions with a finish line at inciting fear and dehumanizing the other. While other scholars contribute to the topic by focusing on the individual aspects of the victimization narrative. It appeals to far-right supporters simply because it paints the image of somebody to blame. However, there doesn’t seem to be a heated debate within the academic community on this narrative’s objective.
Let’s apply this theoretical pattern to a practical example of an under-researched area – the Bulgarian far right with the aim of shedding light on a societal issue too important to be neglected.
The case in focus: United Patriots
Who are they and why are they important? United Patriots (UP) was an electoral alliance formed by three radical right political parties: the IMRO – Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO), the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) and Ataka. All parties are well-known for their racist ideologies with Ataka being the most radical. In 2017, they formed a government coalition with the populist right-wing party GERB. From that moment onwards, the far-right officially had a seat in the highest state authority. The marginalization of the Roma people and the significant rise in the crime rate within their community based on multiple reasons saw an expansion in anti-Roma discourse.
It appears that UP representatives rely on constructing their image as the victims. Two examples of vocal racism by high-end politicians against the Roma minority in the country justified by reverse victimhood illustrate this.
Vocal racism but justified?!
The first example is former Deputy Prime Minister Karakachanov’s racist statements in 2019. The situation was not out-of-the-ordinary. The news read that following a criminal act, the two perpetrators were caught and sent to trial. However, from another perspective, the problem was that two men of Roma background attacked an ethnic Bulgarian. The Deputy PM at the time, Karakachanov, took this opportunity to address the media by referring to Roma people as “gypsies” and declaring that “Bulgaria’s patience with the community was running out”. Going back to the victimhood narrative characteristics – the situation was twisted in a way that portrayed the whole Bulgarian Roma minority as associated with and guilty of the said crime. It was enough to incite fear and to spark a reaction that resulted in the raiding of many homes of the Roma community in the region and continuous threats.
Another illustrative example is again an action initiated by Karakachanov. Namely, his proposal for “solving the gypsy problem”.
What is the purpose you might wonder? The highly discriminatory text that thankfully was never adopted discusses birth control based on ethnicity, for instance, which is a textbook example of the long-term threat of racial elimination. It aims at turning the electorate against people who are already marginalized by society. It turns out that the biggest enemy of Bulgarians is not a corrupt politician misappropriating public funds but a single mother who robs the state intentionally by receiving a minimal social benefit for her children with an income of less than BGN 400 per month!
Why could this narrative be appealing?
In different societies, as examined in the academic backbone of this post, this victimhood narrative exists in similar ways. From far-right movements to political parties, one can observe at least one of the aspects above. Victimhood is a powerful mechanism for mobilising support on a psychological level even. As if looking at one issue through the same lens – there is one enemy, the other, and you are the innocent victim. That’s why it is important to identify how political actors construct realities in order to fit any contemporary problem into the same box. A question arises on how to counter such narratives effectively? Possible avenues for future research could trace the influence of far-right actors on mainstream political parties and how they tackle minority issues in response.