The human race is extraordinary. We are compassionate, and when we see suffering and tragedy, it’s in our nature to sympathize and want to end another’s pain. The amount of charity organizations, medical care, grassroots initiatives which have sprouted worldwide is awe-inspiring; strangers immediately enlist to address causes and crises without a moment’s hesitation from disaster relief in Haiti to #BringBackOurGirls.
Still, upon taking action we must be mindful that we do so in a responsible way.
Like many, my heart goes out to people living in bleak circumstances, and I am unable to remain indifferent. On one such occasion, I joined the ranks of white blonde girls off to save Africa. And the lessons I learned were humbling:
We call it “Africa” as if all the peoples on the continent share one doleful and singular identity. Correction: I volunteered in Uganda. From the many conversations I had with Ugandans, I learned how debilitating efforts of the volunteer missions and NGOs were for them. Certainly such organizations, and those who enable their work through donations, only have the best of intentions, which I deeply commend, yet they may not realize the ramifications of their actions. They leave people dependent on their services, convinced they are too unintelligent and helpless to take initiative themselves. Ugandans refer to themselves as “backwards” and believe their only salvation will come from Western volunteers. When I asked for them to share their dreams with me I repeatedly heard they didn’t have one. I was shocked – we from the western world came to do good and had perpetuated further demoralization and dependence. I realized how important it is to be responsible when taking action, and the next time I went to Uganda, the strategy was completely reformed – we encouraged the local students to begin their own volunteer project whereby they would be the ones to aid their own community. Independent, sustainable, empowering. Responsible.
What I initially saw instilled in the minds of those I met was a victim mentality. Victim mentality is a learned trait whereby the victim feels powerless against external forces which negatively impact their lives. It is expressed through hopelessness, humiliation, frustration, anger, violence, blaming others, and feeling helpless and incapable of changing their circumstances.
The victims focus on immediate survival, remaining entrenched in the pain. Indeed those living with a victim mentality tend to live up to their negative doleful identity, with inhibited academic performance, and the expectation that others will save them. The well-intended pity they receive from others is, in effect, condescending and demoralizing, and comes to solidify their victim mentality. They believe they are incapable of taking steps to change their reality. As a result, they may become violent and seek revenge. They are unable to look to the future and do not dare to dream.
What they need most is to be empowered, to feel worthy and capable of uplifting themselves, and beyond that – capable of uplifting others. Instead of being consumed by their inward-focused debilitating anguish, they need to be able to raise their heads and unfurl their strengths in order to believe in themselves and to take initiative in saving themselves.
Across the globe, those living with a victim mindset have spanned from women living under the terror of domestic violence, to humiliated Germans after WWI, certain minorities trying to acclimate to a host country, to the downtrodden Palestinian people.
And that’s just it – the Palestinian people are, indeed, often portrayed as downtrodden, suffering, a destitute nation of refugees. This impression warrants the pity and support of many from around the world. NGOs and UN bodies focus on the Palestinians’ weak status. The media vividly details the dreadful conditions in which they live. Certainly this sympathy is well intended, coming from compassionate people, yet it may in truth be further instilling the victim mentality in those they wish to help. For when an entire people’s identity is concentrated on one single facet of being weak, this can only instill further hopelessness.
There are different ways in which the external attitude towards the Palestinian people continues to be demoralizing, inhibiting them from taking initiative to change their circumstances.
When newscasters begin segments by highlighting the rising number of casualties, the tone is set to focus on the Palestinians as helpless victims. When millions around the world protest Palestinian suffering, tweet #FreeGaza or call for a ceasefire based solely on pictures of bloody children, this leads to solidifying the victim identity. Unquestionably the death of innocent civilians, especially children, is a terrible painful truth of war, and every heart grieves for all the bereaved families. To be sure, such efforts stem from heartfelt pity for the Palestinians’ circumstances. Yet they fixate on immediate relief. They emphasize the hopelessness of the Palestinians, reinforcing despair. They are devoid of consideration for long-term solutions which will ultimately enable the Palestinians to build a better future for themselves. They certainly do not set the tone for feeling worthy and charged with hope.
In addition, sympathy alone will not serve to change the status quo of living under autocratic rulers who themselves fan the flames of the victim mindset. Those living with a victim mindset may feel angry and humiliated, and vent their frustration through violence fixating on vengeance. The leaders of the Palestinian people educate towards and promote violence as a way of resistance. This is once again a manifestation of feeling helpless and having nothing to lose, consumed by the anguish and the past, or believing that they have no other way of changing their circumstances.
Concurrently, the Palestinians are not held accountable for their violent actions, there is no call demanding them to uphold contemporary standards of human rights or to lawfully condemn their own peoples for violating those rights. This may be sending home the message that no one expects them to be able to meet these standards, and that they are incapable of being as moral and just as the rest of the world. Once again this creates a demoralizing and humiliating effect.
The relevant slogan today is “FreePalestine”. Yet it is often stated in a way that comes to reinforce their weakness and helplessness. It conveys a condescending message that they need someone else to save them from their misery. It does not encourage taking initiative, and does not lead to lasting independence and rehabilitation. Instead of freeing them, it further shackles Palestinians to their victim mindset.
Numerous questions may be raised. How can we talk about fostering hope when fundamental physical needs of the Palestinians are endangered? Surely physical freedom takes precedence over mental freedom? Perhaps, though this requires determining – who is the real captor? Yet, given physical freedom is granted – by what means and to what extent will their freedom be actualized? On that day, will they truly be free?
I ask supporters of the Palestinian people to consider how they may be able to aid the Palestinians in meeting the full extent of their freedom. I urge supporters to be mindful of doing so in a responsible way. I call for a reassessment of what it is that the Palestinian people ultimately need to be free from – a victim mentality. This can be achieved by empowering the Palestinian people to initiate changing their own circumstances. It must be emphasized to the Palestinians that they are capable of attaining this, for they are held to the same moral standards as others and are regarded as equals, as they embody the same level of talents and merit as the rest of the world. This responsible form of support does not magnify dependency and feeling powerless. Instead it leads to a long-lasting feeling of worthiness and ability to focus on a brighter future. Furthermore, the Palestinians can extend their strengths and give support to others as contributors to the world and its many causes in their own right. This change of approach is what will allow them to shed their hopeless victim mindset and empower them with the freedom to have dreams. Let our support not name them the weak victims of today but rather as future leaders of tomorrow.