The Ministry of Footnotes

My previous article was, in a word, a doozy. It is, if I may be immodest, ambitious and expansive in its arguments. This leaves it especially prone to puncturing from any number of people with ready examples of individuals and institutions or events that fall outside the parameters I laid out in The Ministry of Strength. So, tonight, I’ll address some of the weaknesses of my argument and anticipate some responses thereto.

I certainly don’t deny that exceptions to the theories exist. I’d be a little scared if they didn’t. No modern society contains 100% socialised individuals. Indeed, no society ever has. The very proposition of individuality requires that one not be ‘fully socialised.’ By fully socialised I mean simply that the individual has fully internalised the mores, folkways, and ideas of their society and never challenges or personally interprets any one of them. Such people do not exist, of course.

To construe any totalising argument from the thesis of Ministry is to miss the point of such a theory. It’s never meant to explain absolutely everything, only to corral what factual realities it can find into a cogent framework of understanding.

This theory is intended to explain a broad social trend, not society as a whole. If this reads like a lengthy disclaimer, it is in a sense. I was fortunate to learn when I was very young that no philosopher or social scientist could ever explain the world at a stroke. But this is also going to be an attempt to clarify Ministry of Strength against a backdrop of competing ideas and common arguments.

i.

The first issue comes from what one might call the countervailing (and very arguably dominant) ideology to the notions put forth by my previous article. The Culture of Victimisation. Just this afternoon I got a slightly used sociology textbook in the mail, much to my delight. Not far in, however, under the chapter headed “Culture” there was an aside in one of those ‘Thinking Critically’ insets entitled “Don’t Blame Me! The Culture of Victimisation.” In it you are presented with five cases of this supposed culture that are very sensational indeed.

Among them are things like a man leaping in front of a Subway train in New York, surviving, and then suing the City for 650,000 dollars due to the nature of his injuries. Four similar examples are given and the author then begins to discuss what he sees as the possible existence of a culture of self-victimisation. I find the examples to be spurious. Not because they didn’t happen, but because it’s rather hard to fit these sensationalist outliers into a true understanding of victimhood. We occasionally hear some story about an outrageous lawsuit or enormous rewards being reaped from them by people with relatively minor grievances but is this really victim culture?

This Culture of Victimisation is a popular theme among conservatives to be sure, but the argument there is very often expanded to include women, people of colour, LGBT people, the disabled, and so on. To claim that they are perpetuating such a culture. Many white conservatives are fond of arguing that ‘self segregation’ occurring in poor neighbourhoods is the product of this “victim culture.”

This, however, seems to support my argument that as a society we’re redefining ‘victim’ into a self-created category. Oftentimes without much in the way of real evidence. The author of the textbook, John J. Macionis, says the following:

“What’s going on here? Is US culture changing? Historically, our cultural ideal was “rugged individualism,” the idea that people are responsible for their own triumphs or tragedies. But this value has weakened for several reasons. First, everyone is more aware (partly through the work of sociologists) of how society shapes our lives. We now recognise that categories of people (such as Native Americans, African Americans, and women) have suffered real historical disadvantages. But more and more people these days are saying they are victims, including white males, who claim that “everybody gets special treatment but us.” ”

Needless to say, I have trouble swallowing this. The most glaring solecism in my view is that he seems to suggest individualism is on the decline in our society. As I said last night- and stand by today- the very opposite has occurred. In the United States especially we have become increasingly individualistic, to the point where we are actually denying the existence of social forces, institutions, and most acutely oppression itself. The idea that, as Macionis states, “people are responsible for their own triumphs or tragedies” is a consensus view in our culture, not one that is withering away.

Out of that idea comes the notion that one can self-victimise. Ironically, Macionis makes a critique that could not exist but for a culture in which individualism was so powerful. The very idea that a whole culture of individuals victimising themselves exists could only come about in a society that exalted the supreme power of the individual.

ii.

It should be noted that Macionis points out that white men are among those engaged in this sort of culture. Up until very recently I’d have agreed with that idea.

It’s worth taking a step aside now for a mea culpa. Even up until quite recently I have inveighed against reactionaries like Men’s Rights Activists for being ‘self-victimising’. I myself, without realising it, participated in the shameful exercise of perpetuating this insidious idea; that one could make one’s self a victim and attempt to profit from it.

A far better critique, I realise, would be to call out such groups for their hypocrisy. Oftentimes conservatives of various stripes will accuse me and others of being self-victimising before immediately turning around and bemoaning the sorry state of the white male at the hands of faceless feminist or NAACP oppressors. This is less self-victimising than it is pure selfishness, I realise, and naturally hypocritical. It’s just better to point that out to them: “if I’m being self victimising then surely you are. Or can we both agree that this idea is a fallacy?”

This is certainly what I’ll try to do from now on.

iii.

I should clarify my views on capitalism a bit as well. I threw around the term “rational-individualist capitalism” without defining it clearly, which is a huge faux pas on my part. Its meaning can be adequately intuited but I should not leave such things to the reader as that’s just kind of mean.

Essentially, rationalist-individualist capitalism is as much a theory of society as it is a theory of economics. It holds that all human beings are rational actors serving their self-interest, always calculating and strategising to their maximum advantage. Thus, in this model, even apparent altruism has a selfish core. It also posits that individuals are supremely powerful and can overcome all obstacles if they are talented enough; if they fail or stumble it is entirely their fault and no one else’s. It minimises the role of group action and collectives, it also minimises (or in extreme cases outright denies) the existence of a society.

This is, in short, the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” capitalism.

I went to pains to call this rationalist-individualist capitalism because to call it “capitalism” full stop as my Marxist and leftist friends are so fond of doing, is perhaps a grave mistake. Such is implicitly determinist, presuming that what we have at present is the inevitable form of capitalism that it was destined to take. The essential and basic ideas of capitalism do not lead to this society inevitably, however, at least not capitalism as an economic theory.

A good sociologist must always keep in mind that no social institution is inevitable. The institution could’ve been different had the historical chips fallen differently. Capitalism and the economies of every country are no exception.

What makes our version of capitalism so special is that it is not just economics, it’s philosophy as well. The individualism and rationalism therein which posits that economics can objectively prove human beings are entirely selfish and are best left to their own individual devices out of which an orderly and efficient equilibrium would emerge… are entirely political ideas. There is precious little that is objective about any of this, and it isn’t even really economics either. It makes many assumptions about human nature simply to make mathematical models of global economies work.

The rationalist part in particular is what gives rise to this idea of humans as inherently selfish, who’ll stab you in the back if given half the chance and if there was profit in it. This, of course, becomes a self fulfilling prophecy among both the capitalist class and economists, but that’s a tale for another day. What’s important to remember here is that underlying this notion of victim culture is the idea that the self-victimiser is trying to leverage something out of you with their victim status.

Macionis’ idea was that it was money, of course, as seen in the cases of those high profile frivolous lawsuits. In the twisted ideology of those who promote the idea of “victim culture” those who call themselves victims are actually making themselves part of a privileged class, because then they’ll be pitied, sympathised with, and perhaps even lavished with money or book deals.

Furthermore, mutatis mutandis, this also relates to the MRA obsession with false-rape allegations. In their construction of this idea, they see every woman who accuses a man of raping her as coldly calculating her maximum advantage. Rationally pursuing a selfish interest. This plays into, of course, the stereotype of women as deft manipulators who can play the fiddle of emotion, but with the coldest of intent behind it.

The selfish individual, always ready to screw over who they can for profit (financial, social, or spiritual), is a key figure in the Ministry of Strength.

iv.

A worthy question may be asked now, however. How does that square with the idea that victims are weak? It does require a bit of cognitive dissonance, really. It exists for the same reason that entitled people can believe trans activists are self-victimising before going off to complain about how they themselves are victims of some social ill.

I might also say that you can accuse a person of being weak by accusing them of taking the easy path (self-victimising to win an argument or win sympathy, say). In this view, there is no contradiction between the weak victim and the conniving victim.

But at heart the idea remains: in a society of selfish individuals, a person must have a selfish reason for claiming the title of victim. Thus the privileged person asks first “what do they want from me?” In this vein it’s instructive to consider the constant panic among white conservatives in the US about the ‘threat’ of black citizens demanding reparations for slavery. For them, this is the selfish motivation underlying black community activism.

In this racist assumption you may find the core that resolves the cognitive dissonance of the privileged. A person is too weak to win resources the hard way, ergo they call themselves a victim in an attempt to guilt people into handing it to them- or in the case of the female false accuser, dodge responsibility for a regretted night of sex. This is how many people are now conditioned to understand any activism or any accusation against victimisers (whether as groups or individuals).

v.

A brief aside may be spared here for media portrayals as well. One may raise the objection that many women are often portrayed sympathetically in the media (fiction and nonfiction) as victims we’re supposed to collectively care about. One might further argue that some form of misandry keeps us from seeing male victims brought onto Oprah to shed their tears.

Two points to be made here:

  1. The use of women as sympathetic victims in the media is usually conjoined with some sort of redemption wherein they throw off the shackles of the label and reclaim themselves. They proudly tell how they “stopped being a victim.” Alternately they may be set up as someone for men to save (see the Jessica Lynch story) or as a tragic victim of their own failings.
  2. The unwillingness to show male victims often is borne of misogyny at heart, not pure misandry. The aversion to countenancing the male in society as a vulnerable figure who can be hurt, and who would be comfortable with sharing their feelings and admitting their struggle is ground in ideas of masculinity that are directly tied to patriarchal ideals. There is no feminist conspiracy barring public sympathy for men who’ve been in some way victimised. This aversion is very strong when it comes to men who are victims of sexual violence in particular. Rape is still understood as something done only to women. Some laws even explicitly define rape as unwanted vaginal penetration by a penis. This exists largely because the patriarchal construction of Man will not tolerate a man being the victim of sex crimes.

vi.

Here might be a good place to address another spinoff of the selfish victim argument. The idea that we want to induce guilt in others. The accusation of ‘guilt tripping’ is familiar to any liberationist who has debated the privileged and I regret not addressing the matter sooner. One MRA I sparred with recently made the thinking on the matter quite clear. They said in no uncertain terms that feminists and similar groups wanted to induce guilt in order to squeeze tangible concessions out of people and thus gain more privileges. It’s not hard to see how this fantastic idea dovetails with the concepts I outlined earlier.

As I see it, guilt is the exact opposite of what we want. I do not want men or cis people in general to feel guilty because of the things I tell them or argue for (unless they themselves have committed some grievous wrong, in which case, guilt away). But in general, no. Why? Because it’s ultimately counterproductive. Guilt is self-centered by nature “I feel bad about what I did, woe is me.” What is being asked for is not yet more selfishness (which is what gets us into these predicaments in the first place) but more empathy.

See the world differently than you saw it before. See me as a human being, if you’re feeling inclined towards the radical. Consider new ideas. But don’t debilitate yourself with guilt.

vii.

While this is nearly last I think this is among the most important connections to make. As a trans person how often have you heard from some particularly callous and callow sorts that you have “created your own class to self-oppress in” or somesuch.

Consider that for a moment.

You are being accused of inventing a marginalised group to be a part of so you can… reap the rewards of being marginalised? It sounds bizarre but with the elements outlined above and in conjunction with those put forward in The Ministry of Strength it’s not really that odd. Privileged people and even those who are not so terribly privileged think that it’s very common and desirable for people to claim a victim status for some selfish end. Thus it entirely makes sense that trans people would be attacked by bigots and entitled sorts who feel, in all sincerity, that we actually made this up just to get the apparent special favour that comes with being a victim.

Not too many other people get hit with this exact iteration of bigotry. It’s hard to accuse a black person of making up their existence as a black individual, for example. The bigot can argue that they invent their oppression, yes. But beyond that, no. It is a testament to how far behind trans people are when our very class is accused of not existing. The odious Jack Donovan, MRA extraordinaire and professional ironic gay man, levelled this charge at trans people multiple times claiming that we made up our class to reap some ill defined benefit to being oppressed.

Think of how this pervasive ideology benefits those with power and privilege. To actually convince the mass of society that it is those who claim to be marginalised who have or seek privilege. How many times have you heard the LGBT lobby accused of pursuing “special rights”? How many times have you heard it claimed that we seek privileges over the rest of the hardworking, God-fearing populace? All of these ideas derive from this individualist ideology surrounding victimhood and the attendant notion that one can make one’s self a victim, with all emphasis taken off of any victimisers.

Like most cultural and social forces that afflict the marginalised, it seems trans people are prone to getting it especially bad.

viii.

Looking over these “footnotes” I know I may raise more questions than answers. None of this is easy and what I propose is an expansive way of examining this subject, part polemic, part sociology, part historical, part political science. But I feel we’ll be the better off for looking at this matter in a very different way going forward. Inasmuch as the fallacy of “victim culture” was put forward in a sociology textbook by an author who otherwise seemed disinclined to conservatism, it’s clear that what’s being challenged is a deeply engrained consensus viewpoint.

As illustrated last time, however, the need is urgent. Real people are being harmed by this ideology and its failings become abundantly clear in those cases.

Edit: Footnote seven was added a day later based on some thoughts I had after publication.

Comments

  1. In the context of “homo economicus”, this link is interesting http://wireheading.com/pleasure/liking-wanting.html

    Economics assumes that “revealed preferences” can be extracted from what people actually do – versus their avowed preferences, which are assumed to be lies or subconscious self-deception. But neuroscience reveals that the sensation of liking something is distinct from the sensation of being driven to obtain it by wanting, and the latter is more powerful.

    It’s true that the feedbacks of capitalism and profit cause more of the things people want to be created. If you assume that what people want is what they like, then profit literally reflects the amount the world has been made a better place – the output is wanted that much more than the input. But that assumption seems biologically questionable.

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