“Vindication” describes a style of political and intellectual discourse that motivates certain social movements. Adherents of vindicationist movements believe that their group is undervalued by the broader society, and they seek to rehabilitate and elevate their collective reputation. Vindicationist rhetoric argues that the minority group possesses qualities and abilities that are equal to or superior to those of the dominant group and that the dominant group’s prejudice against the minority is thus based on false premises. Vindicationism functions to motivate potential followers of the movement while simultaneously scolding the dominant group for failing to appreciate the admirable character and qualities of the people for whom the movement is advocating. Vindicationism is most commonly found in the ideologies of feminist movements and racial-ethnic nationalist movements.
An early example is Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a pioneering feminist treatise. Mary Wollstonecraft argued on behalf of women’s natural talents and abilities and held that women should not be measured according to essentially male standards. She asserted that men needed to change in order to end women’s oppression. Many of the ideological roots of twentieth-century liberal feminism trace back to Wollstonecraft.
A significant strain of vindicationism emerges in early African American political thought. Black abolitionist David Walker’s famous “Appeal” (1829) argued for the humanity and inherent rights of African Americans. Walker traces African American heritage back to ancient Egypt, whose cultural achievements demonstrate racial abilities equal or superior to those of whites.
The vindicationist sentiment found in nineteenth-century African American political writing influenced the anticolonial ideologies of twentieth-century Africa. Not surprisingly, vindicationism appeared first in Sierra Leone and Liberia, the two West African countries most heavily populated by freed slaves from North America. A contemporary influence on African anticolonialist vindicationism was American author W. E. B. Du Bois’s The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part That Africa Has Played in World History (1947).
Vindicationist ideology is also central to white Southern nationalism in the United States. Immediately following the Civil War, Confederate apologists began to recast the causes of the war, in what became known as the “Lost Cause” narrative. This narrative denies the role of proslavery ideology as a significant motive behind secession. Instead, it argues that “state’s rights” were the primary instigating factor. This permits Confederate apologists to situate the secession not as a rebellion but instead as advocacy of core American values as expressed in the Constitution. The other major component of Lost Cause vindicationism is the argument that the South lost the Civil War because of the North’s overwhelming numbers and resources, and not because of Northern soldiers’ superior bravery or tactical skill. Thus, for Southern nationalists invested in the Lost Cause narrative, the Confederacy can be honored in historical memory not as a rebellion motivated by a dishonorable motive, not as a military failure, but as a noble Lost Cause whose ultimate purpose was to uphold the best of American values.
Lost Cause vindicationism found an organizational home around the turn of the twentieth century with the establishment of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). The UDC embarked on a number of educational and symbolic campaigns to cement the Lost Cause ideology in American historical memory. The early 1990s saw the foundation of the League of the South (LoS), an explicitly separatist southern nationalist movement. By 2005, the neo-Confederate nationalism of the LoS had also suffused the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a much older, larger, and wealthier organization.
Many vindicationist ideologies develop elements of supremacism. This rhetorical move begins with an essentialist argument, holding that we—the vindicated group—are essentially different from the dominant group. The argument then asserts that the differences between the dominant group and the vindicated minority demonstrate the minority’s superiority to the dominant group. The essentialist strain in contemporary feminism at its extremist fringes verges into female supremacism. The lesbian separatist feminism that emerged in the 1970s is the most prominent example.
The early black abolitionist David Walker argued that blacks “never were half so avaricious, deceitful and unmerciful as the whites” (1829). In the mid-twentieth century, Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975) preached to African Americans that they are divine, while whites are a race of devils that were created by an evil black scientist. Muhammad’s arguments persist today in the theology of the Nation of Islam. The group’s current leader, Louis Farrakhan, has said that “White people are potential humans…they haven’t evolved yet” (Raghavan 2000, p. B1).
The use of “vindication” among social scientists to refer to a particular expression of minority grievances begins with Wollstonecraft’s feminism. The most common application of the “vindication” adjective has historically been to describe African American political writings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, a recent shift has emerged in the social science community’s use of the concept. Political scientists now apply the term “vindicationism” to attempts by the United States to remake the world to conform to American values. This body of research locates the origins of American vindicationism in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and traces it through subsequent foreign interventions by the United States during the twentieth century. The vindicationist approach to foreign policy reached a peak with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as advocated and prosecuted by the George W. Bush administration and its neoconservative advisors (McCartney, 2004).
Du Bois, W. E. B. 1947. The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part which Africa Has Played in World History. New York: Viking.
Raghavan, Sudarsan. 2000. Farrakhan exhorts student leaders to fight oppression. Philadelphia Inquirer, March 19, p. B1.
Walker, David. 1829. Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829. Boston: Author. http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/walker.html.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Boston: Peter Edes for Thomas and Andrews.
Thomas F. Brown
vin·di·cate / ˈvindəˌkāt/ • v. [tr.] clear (someone) of blame or suspicion: hospital staff were vindicated by the inquest verdict. ∎ show or prove to be right, reasonable, or justified: more sober views were vindicated by events.DERIVATIVES: vin·di·ca·ble / -kəbəl/ adj.vin·di·ca·tion / ˌvindəˈkāshən/ n.vin·di·ca·tor / -ˌkātər/ n.vin·di·ca·to·ry / -kəˌtôrē/ adj.
So vindication †avenging XV; defence against censure, etc. XVII. — OF. or L. vindictive revengeful. XVII. f. L. vindicta vengeance.