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 prevalent dilemma social work: in order to help people, care providers regularly tend to treat clients as victims. This is easy to do because the implication with seeing yourself as a “helper” or a “rescuer” is that dis-empowered, helpless or victimized people validate your role (and very often justify your funding). If the object of your concern was not otherwise incapacitated, your rescuing role would be obsolete and therefore nullified. Complementary “victims” are required for every person who fancies themselves a “hero.”

Juxtapose the notion of “helping people” (and thus inadvertently victimizing them) with the etymological essence of the word community. A group of people in common unity exist 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.

The great bash to our human pride here is that true heroism comes not in our rushing to the aid of a victim in their plight, but rather in joining in common unity 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 offer them inclusion into an tribe of unvictimized individuals who refuse to abide by the power dynamics of the victim, villain and hero triangle.

I wonder if the story of victims, villains and heroes is just simply the rhetoric of heroes? Gary Harper writes, “A villain is a misunderstood hero; a hero is a self-righteous villain.”2 Saving victims and naming villains sure goes a long way to justifying one’s own particular valor and ethos.

Your closest circle of human relationships is comprised of individuals who are neither victims, villains or heroes toward you (or one another). Where power triad exists, common unity is altogether impossible. This ought to give us pause when we consider the manner by which we run “social programs” as a society. It seems that most altruistic, religious, and community service organizations are founded upon doctrines of heroism: “We will save you!” Tragically and inadvertently, many of the best intentioned social programs thus reinforce the power dynamics that victimized clients and recipients in the first place. The whole system needs a serious rethink from the roots of human interaction up, not from the rhetoric of hero ideologies down!


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

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

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020[2011]). 'Victims, Villains and Heroes' (in Simplicity Praxis). Originally published on June 10, 2011. Cited version last modified on October 26, 2020. Accessed on December 5, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=1218
Additional reference and meta data:
This page is currently a subsection of 'The Most Liberating Realization in the World' in the Simplicity Praxis manuscript. Structure and document location subject to change. Use https://jamesshelley.com?p=1218 as permanent identifier/locator for this page if linking externally. Share this link on Twitter and Facebook.

One thought on “Victims, Villains and Heroes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.