Victims, Villains and Heroes

“The victim-rescuer-persecutor syndrome occurs frequently in human relationships of all kinds and is common in many helping relationships,” writes Lee Ann Hoff.1 This is a common phenomenon: when a well-intentioned person tries to help somebody else, the person receiving assistance often becomes considered a victim, both by themselves and by their helper.

The implication of seeing yourself as a helper or a rescuer is that your self-description becomes dependent on the existence of a disempowered, helpless, or victimized other person. (This is especially a problem for social agencies who must promote the fact they are helping ‘disadvantaged’ people in order to justify their funding.)

Without victims, the rescuing role would be obsolete, and therefore nullified. Complementary victims are required for every person who fancies themselves a hero. A hero with no one to save is no hero at all.

Juxtapose the notion of ‘helping people’ (and thus potentially, inadvertently victimizing them) with the essence of the word community. A group of people in common unity exists precisely because none of them are victims, villains or heroes. Only within this commonality can the corrosive power triad be avoided. In fact, the common unity disintegrates into a power structure as soon as any single point of this triangle is established within the group.

Your closest circle of human relationships is comprised of individuals who are neither victims, villains or heroes towards you, nor towards one another. Where the power triad exists, common unity is altogether impossible. Heroism is just bad for community.

Constructive heroism comes not in our rushing to the aid of a victim in their plight, but rather joining in common unity — community — with them. The most effective way to keep a needy person needy is to treat them like a needy person. The most effective way to “de-victimize” someone is to include them in a cohort of unvictimized individuals who refuse to abide by the power dynamics of the victim, villain and hero triangle.

Perhaps the story of victims, villains and heroes is just simply the rhetoric of heroes? Saving victims and naming villains sure goes a long way to justifying one’s own particular valour and ethos. In fact, anyone who would choose to be a hero must begin by identifying a victim. Gary Harper writes, “A villain is a misunderstood hero; a hero is a self-righteous villain.”2 Or, in the damning words of Eric Hoffer,

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.3

Reconsider what it means to help others. Are your altruistic actions founded on the doctrine of heroism: “I will save you”? Alternatively, instead of being a hero, what does it mean in your context to be a builder of common unity? (That is, after all, what community is all about, right?) What would it look like if you were to ‘commune with’ others instead of trying to ‘rescue’ them?


  1. Hoff, Lee Ann. (2001). People in Crisis. In Clinical and Public Health Perspectives (5th Ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. p. 121 

  2. Harper, Gary. (2004). The Joy of Conflict Resolution: Transforming Victims, Villains and Heros in the Workplace and at Home. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. p. 1 

  3. Hoffer, Eric. (1951). The True Believer. Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. New York: Perennial Classics. 2002. p. 14-15 

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