Study Shows How Victimhood is Used Strategically and Contextually By Political Heads of State

Summary of:

Markiewicz, T., & Sharvit, K. (2020). When Victimhood Goes to War? Israel and Victim Claims. Political Psychology. DOI:10.1111/pops.12690

Background & Theory

Victimhood has been studied in many contexts, but rarely in the context of macro-regional or political conflicts. In the case of Israel, it is believed that collective victimhood is the country’s foundational identity. This paper studies how the Israeli state uses this victim narrative frequently in armed conflicts, which is fundamentally different from collectives using this narrative. When the former does it, it becomes a part of strategic developments in governance and politics.

Research Question(s)

The authors have tried to answer the following question:

  1. How does the nature of military struggle change the role of collective victimhood in belligerents’ public communication?

Methods

A comparative study of two different armed conflicts in Israel: the Yom Kippur war (YKW) of 1973 and Operation Pillar of Defence (OPD) from 2012 was done.

Statements, opinions, and commentary by Israeli political elites, as appeared in articles published in two newspapers over the duration of the conflicts: The New York Times (NYT) and The Jerusalem Post (JP) were studied and compared. Using domestic and international newspapers as sources, the authors aimed to minimize potential biases of Israeli media’s “self-reporting.”

Results

Comparing the data showed that Israel’s political elites used more victim narratives during OPD than during the YKW. During the YKW, Israeli elites avoided the usage of victim claims — in 63.4% of comments, they were absent. During the OPD, they occurred (with different intensity) in 71.9% of cases. This finding is counter-intuitive, as one usually assumes that victimhood will be claimed when there is an actual life-threatening danger.

Hence, the study concludes that if the armed conflict becomes a “life or death” equation, political elites tend to avoid turning to a victimhood narrative, and vice-versa. It exposes the selective usage of victimhood: how it is used contextually in state affairs according to strategic national goals as a ploy

How This Translates for the Workplace:

  • Examining Thought Leadership and Incentives for Work: Workplaces must check how managers motivate their employees to perform better. If the narrative is focused on beating another company because “we have been wronged” or the messages allude to victimhood, versus affirmative tones of developmental outcomes, then the chances are that employees could turn to manipulative methods to achieve company goals. It is important to ensure that the top-down leadership does not promote an “us versus them” narrative too often in competitive industries, especially since this study confirmed that the use of victimization in public communication takes place only as a strategic ploy when there actually isn’t a life-threatening danger to the polis. The intention of top leadership is key here.
  • Trainings that Nudge Employee Accountability and Responsibility: It is a worthwhile investment to train employees on life skills as many companies have been doing for some time. To further include materials on accountability, crisis management, and responsibility in that curriculum can go a long way in ensuring that they are aware of the secondary gains that come from using victimhood as a strategy. It may be an unconscious bias, but can only be fought when knowledge about it is disseminated at scale. This can prevent employees from taking to victimhood themselves while demanding better work conditions or benefits. It can push them to act responsibly and earn their rewards, instead of turning to false victimhood, manipulative behavior, or unfair threats as a means to an end  at work or their own relationship.