Accused of prejudice, some claim they are the victims

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Claiming victimization of another type – say, regarding free speech – seen as more effective in silencing critics

How we evolve as a society largely depends on how historically advantaged dominant groups (e.g., white Americans, men) choose to respond to claims of discrimination from historically disadvantaged non-dominant groups (e.g., non-white Americans, women).

While many are motivated to become allies of non-dominant groups, some members of dominant groups respond to accusations of discrimination by insisting that they are the real victims.

The most basic version of this is what researchers call “competitive victimization.” This happens when dominant groups, accused of discrimination, claim that they are, in fact, the ones being discriminated against. For example, when accused of racial discrimination, some white Americans claim that the real problem is anti-white racial discrimination (e.g., “white replacement theory”).

Is degressive victimization more effective than competitive victimization?

Sometimes, however, members of dominant groups do something slightly different. Not only do they pretend to be victims, but they also try to change the subject of the conversation. For example, instead of responding to a racial discrimination accusation with a reverse racial discrimination counterclaim, white Americans sometimes respond with something like, “How dare you call me a racist. This is an attack on my free speech rights. Because this response aims to claim victimization while shifting the topic of discussion, researchers call it “degressive victimization.”

Another example of degressive victimization can be seen in a case that went to the Supreme Court. When a gay couple sued a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake to celebrate their wedding, the plaintiffs based their action on their LGBTQ rights. The baker responded with a defense that changed the subject: Baking the cake would be an attack on his religious freedom. (The baker prevailed.)

Felix Danbold of University College London, Ivuoma N. Onyeador of Northwestern, and Miguel M. Unzueta of UCLA Anderson conducted research to explore how people respond to these digressive claims of victimhood. In research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they show across three studies involving more than 3,000 participants that dominant groups prefer degressive victimization claims to more conventional competitive victimization claims to counter claims of discrimination.

An unprincipled use of a principle?

Researchers have also found that one of the reasons members of dominant groups prefer degressive victimization claims to competitive victimization claims is that they view them as more effective in preventing further criticism of their group.

In a study involving more than 1,100 white participants, researchers created two versions of a fake podcast that reported on college students wearing racially insensitive costumes at an off-campus party. The podcast reported that nine white students at the party were suspended.

Some participants listened to a report that used the “competitive victimization” framework. The podcast host (a white man) said: While the student protesters claim to be victims of prejudice, the real victims are the nine white students who are being denied access to education by the university. The host added that “discrimination against white students was a growing problem facing the university.

In the digressive framework of victimization, participants heard that the “real victim” was “the First Amendment and the right to free speech in America.” This time, the host noted that the university should stand up for free speech.

All participants were asked to weigh on a scale of 1 to 7 how much they agreed with a victimization argument and how much they thought it would be an effective response. Participants also answered a series of questions to gauge their level of bias and gauge their support for free speech.

The degressive claim (free speech is the victim) was more strongly supported, with an average score of 4.15 versus 3.46 for the competitive framework (whites are unfairly victimized). Digressive victimization spiel was also considered more effective at ending criticism, with an average score of 3.78 versus a score of 3.23 for the perceived effectiveness of competitive victimization framing.

That digressive claims of victimization are seen as more effective in silencing critics raises the question of whether such claims can be cynically supported (for example, people claiming the right to free speech without believing their own argument).

The researchers were also able to infer from the data that even when participants did not have high attachment to the digressive principle used here (e.g., freedom of speech), they were nevertheless okay with using it as a means to their end value. This relates to a larger pattern of what researchers call “hierarchy maintenance,” in which dominant groups attempt to preserve their position in the hierarchy.

Danbold, Onyeador, and Unzueta note that as society increasingly confronts and debates inequality, they “expect degressive victimization to be a feature of intergroup tensions for years to come.”

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