On “the social construction of victimhood”

Steven Walt asks the question “Whose lives matter?” in Foreign Policy’s Voice blog —

The world has no shortage of victims of terrible tragedies these days. Death tolls are rising in places from Syria to Sudan and some 60 million people have been displaced from their homes worldwide. But which of these people will get widespread support and sympathy and which will be ignored or neglected? A photograph of a single drowned Syrian child riveted the world’s attention on the humanitarian crisis unfolding there, and the beheading of two American journalists by the Islamic State forced a reluctant president to pay more attention to the problem than he initially intended. Yet few people in the United States spend much time thinking about hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who lost their lives as a consequence of the U.S. invasion, just as most of the world ignored the frightful human consequences of the long Congo War(s). Human suffering may still be a depressingly constant feature of our politics, but sometimes these tragedies bring forth an outpouring of sympathy, money, and armed intervention, at other times the world turns its back.

Why do some groups trigger our sympathy and win outside help while other victims suffer in (relative) obscurity? Here’s my initial cut at an answer: a nine-point framework that describes what I’ve called the “social construction of victimhood.”

His framework, in redux:

  1. How many are suffering or dying?
  2. Who is suffering or dying?
  3. How are people dying?
  4. Are the deaths deliberate or accidental?
  5. Is there a simple solution to the problem?
  6. Are the victims (partly) responsible?
  7. Was it “worth it?”
  8. Are the victims well-connected and media-savvy?
  9. Timing matters, too.

(links in original text)

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