Persecution complex

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Some dare call it
Icon conspiracy.svg
What THEY don't want
you to know!
Sheeple wakers
The central belief of every moron is that he is the victim of a mysterious conspiracy against his common rights and true desserts. 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[1]

A persecution complex is a term given to an array of psychologically-complex behaviours, which 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.[note 1]

Role in tribalism[edit] 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[2]

The formation of a tribe, in the sociological sense, relies on the existence of 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 (and, often, indoctrination) reassures group members that they are indeed correct; how could all of us be wrong?[3] 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 comes to the fore among adherents of fundamentalist religion, but is almost a given for any group expressing sufficiently extreme ideology. Nothing brings people together like having a common enemy.[note 2]

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 by an idea. This is evident in religious groups, but the behavior can occur in any group that places group cohesion above the need to critically evaluate its claims.

In religion[edit]

Brutally oppressed American Christians protest for equal rights in San Diego.
Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson[4]

In Christianity[edit]

We're conservative, we're Christian, and therefore we're being attacked.
Jerry Falwell Jr.,[5] falling into Emerson's vulgar mistake

Christian fundamentalists in the Bible Belt and pretty much everywhere else love to imagine that they are persecuted or "oppressed" whenever they find someone who does not share their particular worldview (such as creationism, as pointed out in's archive,[6] or their stance on abortion and LGBTQ issues) or mocks it. On closer examination of such claims, it's more commonly the case that claims of persecution are better explained as annoyance, fear, and/or anger 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, in fact, perfectly free to pray of their own accord, on their own initiative, and in their own time (only faculty-led prayer being unconstitutional, as the faculty of public schools are government employees, who are required not to endorse or disfavor any one particular religion; creationism being taught as science is unconstitutional for the same reason). All that being said, it is easier for believers of conspiracy theories to bond if they can describe these rulings as being an attack on freedom of religion[note 3] for Christians rather than simply Christians being made to follow the same rules as everybody else. This perception of freedom of expression was well addressed 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 those 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.

Depressingly, most American Christians believe that they are persecuted, according to a 2016 Brookings/PRRI poll.[7] The closest thing to actual "persecution" that exists for American Christians in modern times is "hostility", which is expressed toward conservative Christians by about a third of respondents in the American National Election Study.[8]

The New Testament itself also has a fair bit to say about persecution:

  • Matthew 5:10 says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
  • John 15:18-19 says, "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you."
  • Romans 12:14 tells Christians, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them."
  • 2 Timothy 3:12 says, "Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,"

Yet when Christians encounter real or imagined persecution, they scream for it to stop immediately, thus creating a paradox in which at the same time they don't want to be blessed, and they certainly don't want to bless anyone they think is persecuting them.

Miscellaneous cults[edit]

Nothing brings a cult together quite like an army of perceived enemies and persecutors, and in extreme examples this 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 of 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 reptilians conspiring to control the human race.

In pseudoscience and alternative medicine[edit]

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, typically dragging in comparisons between themselves and Galileo. 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.[9]

In politics[edit]

Building a more egalitarian society, one defaced chip shopWiktionary wall at a time.
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 to 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[10]
Oh, come and see the violence inherent in this system! Help! Help! I'm being repressed!
—The constitutional peasant, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

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.[11] 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 workers' paradise that doesn't effectively lead to the establishment of a new ruling class.[12]

The 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, the formerly politically dominant white minority, 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.

Republican Party (United States)[edit]

Another brilliant masterpiece from Ben Garrison.[note 4] (Why does he think we're big on wasting water?)

Within United States politics, members of the Republican Party have developed a persecution complex, believing that news media, universities, pollsters, scientists, Hollywood, and all powerful institutions are arrayed against them. Republicans interpret any negative feedback about their party's popularity or the efficacy of their policies as evidence of anti-Republican bias. This comes through in countless Republican talking points, including:

  • "Pollster Bias" — Opinion polls are not always accurate, but historically, they’re no more likely to underestimate support for Republicans than they are to overestimate them.[13] Republicans, however, assume that all polls underestimate their candidates and policies. When pollsters find that Donald Trump has a low approval rating, for example, Republicans respond by pointing out that the polls underrated Trump in the 2016 election — conveniently leaving out that pollsters also underrated Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election, that they accurately predicted Democratic victories in 2018, et cetera.
  • "Deep state" — Since becoming president, Trump faced resistance from career civil servants who worked for Executive agencies. Believing that Trump's impulsive, bigoted behavior was immoral and threatened American interests, these individuals leaked information about White House operations, refused to comply with Trump's instructions, and otherwise put some brakes on the Trump Administration. Republicans interpret this not as evidence that people with experience running the Executive Branch view Trump's policies as irrational, but rather as a "deep state" conspiracy to undermine the Trump Administration and destroy America.
  • The Climate "Hoax" — Climatologists, atmospheric chemists, geophysicists, and other scientists across the globe have overwhelmingly concluded that climate change is real, a serious problem, and the result of human activity. Republicans believe that all of these people are involved in a vast international conspiracy to weaken America, establish socialism, or achieve some other nefarious end. Trump famously lent credence to this conspiracy theory when he claimed that "the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." This is a strange claim to make given that China itself has spent billions of dollars to combat climate change through renewable energy investments; if such investments make a country non-competitive, China would appear to be shooting itself in the foot.[14]
  • Gay agenda — Also known as the "homosexual agenda", this conspiracy theory holds that LGBTQ Americans seeking the same legal rights and socio-economic opportunities as their heterosexual fellow citizens do this for nefarious purposes. Any efforts by schools, businesses, or government agencies to oppose anti-LGBTQ discrimination is seen as evidence that those institutions are controlled by the gay agenda, and not, say, committed to treating gay people as human beings.
  • Voter fraud — Republicans believe that voter fraud is rampant in the modern United States, and that it is the only reason the Democratic Party wins elections. Specific claims include that millions of undocumented immigrants vote in Southwestern states; that voters from Massachusetts routinely cross into New Hampshire to vote there; and that in 2016, Trump "won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." At the same time, Republicans appear to ignore the possibility that conservative voters may be cheating in elections. Republicans reject as "biased" the many academic studies suggesting that voter fraud does not occur on anywhere near the scale necessary to swing elections. They also never mention the fact that when voter fraud and other forms of election fraud do occur, it’s often Republicans who benefit from it.[15][16]

Republicans’ persecution complex has fueled the rise of a right-wing media ecosystem, which purports to provide the truth that liberal media outlets and universities won't admit. Fox News is by far the most prominent and powerful part of this ecosystem; other contributors include conservative talk radio outlets, think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, news sites like Breitbart and Townhall, and whatever PragerU is supposed to be. These organizations exist in a symbiotic cycle with the Republican persecution complex — conservative media use the persecution complex to gain and keep subscribers, and those media then tell subscribers that they are being persecuted.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. One may get the sense that some of these people (namely, the aforementioned fundies) won't be satisfied unless their beliefs are shared by literally everyone.
  2. This mindset can even be used to unite people who would otherwise be at each other's throats; see Genghis Gambit on TV Tropes for examples of people actively exploiting this.
  3. Or in other words, Religious Freedom™.
  4. We'd all be far better off if this was actually true…


  1. "Varieties of Envy," in Second Mencken Chrestomathy
  2. Kung Fu Monkey: "Toxic Spiritual Nature" ... and Those Desks Pinch
  3. Communal reinforcement, The Skeptic's Dictionary
  5. Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too: The decision by the school's president, Jerry Falwell Jr., to partly reopen his evangelical university enraged residents of Lynchburg, Va. Then students started getting sick. by Elizabeth Williamson (March 29, 2020) The New York Times.
  6. Entry CH183 in's index of creationist claims deals with an example of a persecution claim.
  8. What Christianophobia Looks Like in America, Christianity Today, George Yancey, March 27, 2015
  9. "Big pharma" and its relentless war against natural remedies
  10. The NAACP is Right
  11. 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.
  12. 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.