NOTE: Persecution complex is more of a popular phrase, not a clinical entity. It refers to the feeling and belief that others are out to get you or hurt you. There are various degrees. Sometimes it is an exaggeration of a real situation and at other times it is totally ungrounded in reality, a product of the person’s inner life projection onto the world . That is when it is called paranoia.
“”The central belief of every moron is that he is the victim of a mysterious conspiracy against his common rights and true deserts. He ascribes all his failure to get on in the world, all of his congenital incapacity and damfoolishness, to the machinations of werewolves assembled in Wall Street, or some other such den of infamy.—H.L. Mencken
A persecution complex is a term given to an array of psychologically-complex behaviours, that specifically deals with the perception of being persecuted, for various possible reasons, imagined or real.
People or groups who hold to marginal (non-mainstream) beliefs or theories often display some features of this malady, as a way of explaining why their views are not more widespread. It is also commonly displayed by people or groups whose beliefs actually are comparatively widespread, such as fundamentalist Christians.
Role in tribalism
The formation of a tribe, in the sociological sense, relies on there being a common interest or goal strong enough that a group would in some way delimitate itself from the larger society. Persecution complexes are not inherent in all forms of tribalism, but they do lend themselves to the polarization of such groups. Communal reinforcement reassures group members that they are indeed correct; how could all of us be wrong? At extremes this leads to the groupthink that places continued membership of a group and conformity to its norms above rational and critical evaluation. Such a process is highly evident in fundamentalist religion, but is almost a given for any group expressing sufficiently extreme ideology. Nothing brings people together like having a common enemy.
Sociologically, people tend to form groups with like-minded people. These social units form a kind of tribe united against the world by an ideology or an idea. This is evident in religious groups, but the behavior can be seen in any group that places group cohesion above the need to critically evaluate its claims.
Christian fundamentalists in the Bible Belt feel persecuted or “oppressed” whenever they find someone that doesn’t share their particular worldview (such as creationism, as pointed out in talk.origins’s archive). On closer examination of such claims, it’s more commonly the case that claims of persecution are better explained as annoyance at the removal of privilege or the curtailment of their ability to force their views on others. The controversy over classroom prayer is raised as a case of persecution to prevent Christians from observing their religious beliefs, when in reality the rulings made in the 1960s and 1970s forbade state schools from sponsoring religious observances. Students are perfectly free to pray on their initiative and in their own time (with only faculty-led prayer being unconstitutional, as the faculty of public schools are government employees they are required to put on a secular face in school; creationism being taught as science is unconstitutional for the same reason), yet it’s easier for conspiracy nuts to bond if they can describe these rulings as being an attack on freedom of religion for Christians. This misunderstanding of freedom of expression was well answered by Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” More recently, Fundamentalist Christians, particularly in the US, will point to the growing prevalence of “Satanism” (ranging from a monument to Baphomet to pretty much anything that doesn’t agree with them or their religion) in popular culture, and anti-Christian jokes made by comedians as “proof” of persecution.
Religious views that lie very much outside of the mainstream and are highly visible are likely to attract criticism and ridicule, and in some cases adherents may radicalize in response to perceived threats from the outside. In some cases these threats may actually have a grain of truth, such as in France where a backlash against female Muslims wearing Islamic headscarves in schools occurred. The Burqa is an unmistakable sign of membership of a specific subset of Islamic society, and, due to the religion’s very nature, by no means a universally agreed-upon tenet of Islam. Headscarves are ubiquitous in most Islamic society, while veils that cover the face are in most Islamic countries limited to a minority subset of the population. Women choosing to wear veils would obviously attract attention the same way in which male Orthodox Jews and punks are easily identified by their very distinctive clothing and hair styling. This ease of recognition may in fact lead to persecution by virtue of being different. Muslims are in the position of being commonly associated with oppressive Islamic regimes and unfortunate events, while Jews and punks by comparison appear more benign.
Choosing to self-identify with an extremist position of female modesty can also be perceived as a deliberate attempt to draw attention to oneself, particularly if the request for acceptance of the practice appears unreasonable. In 2003 a Florida judge ruled that a Floridian convert to Islam could not wear the niqab when posing for a photo for her driver’s license photo, as this would clearly defeat the purpose of requiring photographic evidence if faces can be obscured to the point where visual identification becomes impossible.
Nothing brings a cult together quite like an army of perceived enemies and persecutors, and in extreme examples has led to religious cults effectively sealing themselves away from the population as a whole. There is a good deal of cross-pollination between extreme religious beliefs and the militia movement in America, with variants on Christianity being the most common basis for these followings. David Koresh’s Branch Davidians cult was rich in conspiracy theories, and led to the very visible siege that resulted in numerous deaths as their compound in Waco was raided by federal agencies. David Icke is famed as a man who’s never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, and is best known for bizarre claims about alien reptiles conspiring to control the human race.
In pseudo-science and alternative medicine
Proponents of pseudoscience regularly rail against the scientific establishment and what they see as concerted efforts to quash anyone who would compete with the orthodox line. A common example of this is the creationist line that the prevalence of evolutionary biology is less to do with scientific evidence, than it is a conspiracy to push ideology or protect the jobs of scientists who toe the party line. The same claim is made by global warming conspiracy theorists. Medical conspiracies follow a similar line in that proponents of obviously flawed treatments, such as homeopathy, are not dismissed due to lack of evidence, but more because Big Pharma won’t tolerate any threat to their ability to hawk their pills.
Those who try to rationalize their persecution complexes often turn to political extremism, in particular, the sort that posits some secret or invisible “oppression” of some group of which the persecution complex sufferer is a part.
Neo-Nazism, with its theories of the secret Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, adapts itself well to this model. Variants on this theme include the John Birch Society’s conspiracy theories involving communists and (more recently) wingnuts with New World Order conspiracy theories involving sinister liberal politicians. For those inclined to the other end of the political spectrum, the numerous variants of Marxism will also not disappoint, with the theory of cultural hegemony to explain how sinister capitalists secretly hold the untermenschen in enormous interlocking systems of oppression. A common defense of communism is that communism has never been implemented properly – leading to a variation on the no true Scotsman fallacy that ignores the basic problems inherent in trying to establish a worker’s paradise that doesn’t effectively lead to the establishment of a new ruling class.
The pro-North Korea Korean Friendship Association is a contemporary example of a group built almost entirely on a persecution complex the size of an aircraft carrier. In their worldview, North Korea’s status as an international pariah that spends money on missiles rather than feeding its starving population has absolutely nothing to do with the batshit insanity of the dictatorship of the North Korean government; apologists instead blame Western hegemony for conspiring to oppress the glorious revolutionary experiment that is North Korea. Similarly, paranoid apologetics are used in defense of governments in Venezuela and the Middle East. Zimbabwe’s woes should not be blamed on Robert Mugabe’s ruinously poor grasp of economics and his destructive social policies. It’s far easier for the ZANU PF (Mugabe’s ruling party) to blame former colonial powers, Zionists, and homosexuals for the impressive implosion of Zimbabwe under their rule. Attacking external criticism is far easier than tackling internal problems, the resolution of which could undermine the very basis of the group in question.
“”…one of the great secrets of human nature is that the one thing people want more than love, security, sex, chocolate or big-screen TV’s is to feel hard done by. Why? Because being hard done by is the shit. Feeling hard done by is the sweetest of drugs. If you’re being persecuted — it must mean you’re doing the right thing, right? You get the mellow buzz of the moral high ground, but without arrogantly claiming it as your own. You get an instant, supportive community in a big dark scary world of such scope it may well literally be beyond rational human processing. When you are hard done by, you get purpose in a life where otherwise, you’d have to find your own. And when you ride that high, then no amount of logic, no pointing out that in actuality you and your beliefs are at a high point of popularity and influence for the last hundred years — is going to pry that sweet crack-pipe of moral indignation from your hands.—John Rogers
“”Racism tends to attract attention when it’s flagrant and filled with invective. But like all bigotry, the most potent component of racism is frame-flipping — positioning the bigot as the actual victim. So the gay do not simply want to marry; they want to convert our children into sin. The Jews do not merely want to be left in peace; they actually are plotting world take-over. And the blacks are not actually victims of American power, but beneficiaries of the war against hard-working whites. This is a respectable, more sensible, bigotry, one that does not seek to name-call, preferring instead change the subject and straw man. Thus segregation wasn’t necessary to keep the niggers in line; it was necessary to protect the honor of white women.—Ta-Nehisi Coates
- “Varieties of Envy,” in Second Mencken Chrestomathy
- Communal reinforcement, The Skeptic’s Dictionary
- Entry CH183 in Talkorigins.org’s index of creationist claims deals with an example of a persecution claim.
- BBC News: French MPs back headscarf ban
- BBC Religions: Niqab
- USA Today: Muslim woman cannot wear veil in driver’s license photo (The ninja population is yet to offer its thoughts on this ruling.)
- “Big pharma” and its relentless war against natural remedies
- See, e.g., Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Although a decent case can be made that such assertions aren’t entirely wrong, a failure to apply Hanlon’s razor often appears here.
- A Yahoo search for the phrase “communism has never been tested”. By the time he died, Lenin had become convinced that the problem had yet to be solved, but thanks to Stalin, we’ll never find out exactly how Lenin intended to clean up the mess.
- Kung Fu Monkey: “Toxic Spiritual Nature” … and Those Desks Pinch
- The NAACP is Right