Anyone involved in any sort of emancipatory activism, from flame wars in forums to robust street protesting, is bound to be familiar with the phenomenon I’m about to describe:
“What’s the big deal!?”
This is most often asked when you broach a subject of media criticism or a critique of seemingly innocuous language. You’re told that it’s ‘not a big deal’ if someone says, say, ‘fag’ persistently in the most derogating way possible. It’s ‘not a big deal’ if a commercial is in any way commodifying or objectifying women. It’s ‘not a big deal’ if, say, a late night talk show host predicates a gag on trans panic. Et cetera. Et cetera.
Such is the power of privilege that the obvious, and in any just universe the only needed, answer never occurs to the offender for even a moment. “It’s disrespectful” ought to be enough, yet somehow it never is; so we are left justifying our anger at a seemingly small bit of errata that must appear like a speck of dust in the night to the privileged people we try so valiantly to reach.
We’re left trying to explain why it isn’t, in fact, so small. Why it is that that speck of dust is just one point in a far larger duststorm.
In that process the next bomb is very likely to be dropped:
“Why are you self-victimising?”
So it is that you pass through the gilded oak doors of the Ministry of Strength.
It should go without saying that such little bits of nonsense are a big deal for the same reason my aforementioned dust storm is a big deal. When one is buffeted and utterly enveloped in one, one tends to be offended by every grain of sand in it. When we take umbrage at an example of irresponsible journalism or other exploitative or bigoted media, we’re merely pointing and saying “look, there’s the dust in my storm; that’s just one part of it, but it’s there.” We are not oppressed by the image or the word en toto, but are instead stung by its existence in a sinful constellation of ideas and legitimations that do us precious little good. In other words, its role in the grander scheme of things.
That much- the fallacy of the ‘big deal’ defence- is abundantly clear. But wither this Ministry of Strength?
It flows out of that all too common accusation that tends to come out of our attempts to show others the storm that swirls around us. The accusation that we are somehow making ourselves victims in pointing out a disrespectful word, thought, or image that is a bolt in the framework of institutionalised marginalisation or oppression. We point it out to say, in essence, ‘this is real.’ In this there is, to be sure, some strength. There is the strength to break free of seeing only the objectivated meaning of these images and instead see them for what their true purpose- latent or otherwise- really is.
So where does being a victim come into it? Needless to say, this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Every single one of you reading this has probably had this happen to you, seen it happen, or perhaps even done this yourself: someone says they’re offended or disrespected by something and they are told they have a victim complex by the nearest available wielder of privilege. It serves to immediately put the complainant on the defensive, and it’s quite effective as a silencer to boot.
And yet the phenomenon goes further still. Witness this recent exchange on a blog written by a rape survivor. Familiar words enter the fray immediately:
“So your life now revolves around victimhood? Perpetual and eternal. That’s sad. You should move on. Life’s too short. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.”
I don’t need to tell any of my readers this is but a small sample of this kind of nonsense. It’s ubiquitous and it’s churned out daily. In my observation of this I found that a nagging question pressed itself ever more firmly into my conscious thoughts: What is with this ‘victim’ poppycock? I believe I can now begin to formulate the elements of an answer.
To say that calling anything “Orwellian” is a cliché is to insult clichés. Yet so rarely is Newspeak found so readily and in its perfect form, just as Orwell intended. So rarely is a meaning well and truly inverted and perverted in the way that words like ‘love’ were in Orwell’s dystopian future.
“Victim” is the word that we’ve somehow made into a perverse opposite.
Where once ‘victim’ necessarily implied the existence of a victimiser, it has now become an individual phenomenon, located entirely in the person labelled ‘victim.’ Where once calling out oppression was popularly understood as bold and courageous, it is now seen as weak and ‘self-victimising’ (more on that connection in a moment). In our contemporary and popular understanding of the term, if I am a victim it means I’ve made myself one and am wallowing in it for some ill-defined reward; it does not mean, as it once did, that I was hurt by someone or something.
This will take a great deal more careful study but I believe I can trace the origins of this to four points.
- The changes to the law in the 1960s.
- The self-help culture that emerged in the 1970s.
- The backlash against emancipatory activism by the marginalised in the 1980s.
- And the general form of rationalist-individualist capitalism that has come to dominate our society.
One of the first things that a privileged person, confronted with their privilege or with the existence of oppression, will try to do is to deny that the oppression exists. In this aim, they’ve been greatly assisted by the raft of legislation bequeathed to us by the activism of the 1960s. From the Voting Rights Act to Title IX, a broad swathe of (though by no means the entirety of) de jure marginalisation and oppression was struck down. This alone facilitates the privileged line that is most often used to combat any number of call-outs: “You have your rights now so any failures you’ve had are your own. You’re totally equal now, you’re just being lazy/self-victimising.”
This ignores the complexity of such things, naturally. The law is only one avenue of oppression. Often it is the most overt, yes, and the existence of legal repression is one of the surest and obvious signs of socially sanctioned marginalisation of some group. But its absence does not mean inequality vanishes with it. If society itself remains unchanged, it’ll merely be displaced elsewhere.
But this is how the raft of 1960s-era civil rights legislation is used in this formulation. In order for it to be used in this way, however, (with special attention to the ‘all your failures are yours’ bit) more needs to be added to this stew.
By the mid to late 1970s the repackaging of the 60s counterculture into manageable, marketable fun size chunks was well underway and a major spinoff of these efforts was the beginning of the now ubiquitous self-help industry. Taking bowdlerised ideas of 60s liberation and individual freedom, they began to project a message that you were entirely responsible for how you felt, and that you had the power to completely alter your personal state, regardless of outside influence or outside forces. Indeed, some even promised that with the right attitude adjustment you could will outside forces to change for you. (This chicanery continues today in the form of the execrable book/program/cult The Secret).
Obviously not everyone bought into this. But society is a funny thing. We are ever in a dialogue with it and are invariably shaped by it. This conversation (or dialectic if you prefer the five guinea word) acts on society even as it acts upon us. Dialectic, in its most literal form, may actually be the best word to use as this is a saga about language and its evolution. For even as people might’ve rejected the deeper mysteries of self-help culture, they came to be entrapped by its argot and its message of individual empowerment. It began to undergird messages in cheerful daytime television (which would take off in the late 70s), children’s television, and the plotlines of popular programmes.
This then segues into the 1980s. “Backlash” is a term most often associated with feminism due to Susan Faludi’s perceptive use of it in her groundbreaking book of the same name, examining the travails of the 80s. But it just as easily belongs to all emancipatory movements. Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town best known for one particularly gruesome event:
“Philadelphia is known as the site of one of the most infamous race-related crimes in American history. In 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered by white supremacists on a highway outside of Philadelphia. The crime and decades-long legal aftermath inspired the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.” (from Wikipedia)
Here he declared his unwavering support for “states’ rights”, the same notion trumpeted by segregationist George Wallace nearly twenty years earlier as a bulwark against desegregation.
This would be the beginning of a cavalcade of such ‘dog whistles’ to white men who felt increasingly antagonised and threatened by the sudden growth in power of both women and people of colour in general. It is worth noting that the small but potent transgender liberation movement was no less harmed by this backlash. What small but significant victories we had won in the 1960s were thrown back in our faces many times over as the 70s and 80s ground forward. The AIDS epidemic hit trans women of colour especially hard, and the backlash-mood of the time made it all the easier for much of the government to turn a blind eye to this suffering.
The 1980s then were the decade in which those who perceived themselves the losers of the 60s revolts found their footing again and began to reassert themselves as a political force. Out of this would come the battles against “special interests” (read: NOW and the NAACP), the crusade against “political correctness” and the beginning of such terms as “reverse sexism” and “reverse racism.” All of this nonsense, the New Racism and the New Sexism as I called it in the past, got its true start in the 1980s when the Republican Party’s infamous Southern Strategy was in full bloom. Similar forces were at work to varying degrees in other parts of the English-speaking world as well. It is no coincidence that the 80s were a time of conservative governments blessed with longevity in Britain and Canada as well.
In this period, our final bullet point also rose mightily into the stratosphere. Though individualist capitalism has been prominent in American culture since at least the 1920s, it truly hit the big time in the 70s and 80s with thinkers like Milton Friedman eagerly exporting new and ever more radical ideas to western democracies that praised the individual and the power of markets. All of capitalism’s legitimating mythology- the Horatio Alger myth, social mobility, the power of the individual, and so on- was greatly amplified by the new and ever more expansive pushes towards deregulation.
Needless to say, I do a very poor summary of economic history here and certainly entertain no delusions about doing justice to so complex a subject. I merely hope to illustrate with broad strokes the historical antecedents of our present predicament. (Should one wish to learn more they could do worse than to begin with this documentary.)
At any rate, so it was that capitalism itself- a dominant and powerful part of our social legitimating structure, as well as a source of much of our society’s meaning- came to throw its ever engorging weight behind this notion of the all-powerful individual. The climax of this would come with Margaret Thatcher’s infamous proclamation to the magazine Women’s Own:
“They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”
Thus the ultimate formulation of our current problem was writ large. At this point they all intersect: privilege of all sorts, capitalist individualism, the denial of collective responsibility, the exaltation of individual power.
What follows from such a belief, now shared by many, is all too easy to formulate. If you “cast your problems on society” you are self-victimising and therefore weak.
Now where did weak part come from? All of the above? Yes indeed. There’s just one more bit, however, one of great interest to the feminist.
Over the course of this time period we came to exalt a very particular type of masculinity. The classic archetype of the unwavering male-as-stoic-defender, that John Wayne model of manhood that would defy all odds to defend the ones he loved, and so on and so on. We had always worshipped this model of manhood to some extent over the last, especially, two hundred years but it seemed to become hugely popular in the wake of the Second World War with ever diminishing tolerance for alternate expressions of masculinity, perhaps because of the rise of the mass media combined with pervasive fear of Communism (the latter making apparent the supposed need for strong male warrior types).
What we artificially divided into masculine and feminine fell, as they always did, into a hierarchy with all that was good and masculine at the very top, with the dainty qualities of the feminine relegated to a status of tolerated inferiority. Because we as women were reified as the weaker sex, and socially defined feminine traits were reified as intrinsic to us, it followed that whatever was feminine was weak. In regards to this newly juiced up conception of manhood, this meant all feminine traits were verboten for men. Any hint of weakness was to be scrupulously avoided like death itself.
With the rise of the women’s movement, women were increasingly free to take on the roles restricted from them by patriarchy. The unforeseen problem was that this aspirational ideal was still based on a fundamentally patriarchal one: to be masculine is to be good. This would inevitably bring women as a whole into contact with the idea that weakness (as defined through objectivated patriarchal structures, lest we forget) was to be shunned if one wanted to be taken seriously.
Without a doubt, we wanted to be taken very seriously, and we fought twice as hard when we were thought of as half as good. We swam upstream, and indeed are still swimming upstream in many sectors to reap the fruits of our labours. Yet while we still live in the master’s house (a la Audre Lorde), one constructed of patriarchal dark iron, we run into this fear of weakness. Fear of the feminine in ourselves.
Assuredly this branches off into complex topics all on its own; these too I’ll write about in time. But for now let’s return to the Ministry of Strength.
Thus we live in a society that values a very particular idea of strength, one which women now feel very compelled to live up to (with the added handicap of us being thought of as intrinsically feminine and thus intrinsically weaker). We also live in a society that has constructed the individual as all-powerful, even able to shape her or his surroundings through sheer will, and a society that is increasingly sceptical of its own existence, much less the existence of structures that could repress or marginalise whole groups of people.
At base, to be a victim is to be hurt. In the patriarchal conception, to be wounded is to be undesirably weak. To admit it is an even greater taboo. If one thinks that these masculine ideas don’t afflict women in dire circumstances I direct you to the heartfelt words of a woman I spoke with recently on the subject:
“May I add, and this is something else that others may be familiar with: The alienation from the victim role can inhibit true processing of an event.
Feeling as if something bad has happened is a natural part of grief/processing. Yet, we’re encouraged to ignore this huge step of dealing with things that happen in our lives and encouraged to just get back to normal.
Yes, I refused to accept that I was a victim when I was raped. I thought it would make me sad and slow and weak. I thought that saying I had been victimized would be caving in and giving power to the person who wronged me. Now I realize that I did myself a grave disservice, and thought I was being strong when I did so.”
This is a phenomenon affecting and, indeed, afflicting real people.
Without a doubt, a man who was raped or abused would be compelled to feel even worse by his peers. By social standards we still nurse, he is given every reason to see himself as a failure.
We pretend that we can will away the fact that we’ve been victimised. The assailant becomes almost incidental, tangential, a nonfactor. All that matters is you. It’s not hard to see how this ties into the pervasive culture of victim-blaming that still dominates our society. When a woman is raped the accusations fly, even sometimes from other women, about the clothes she wore, where she was walking, or where she was partying, or what she was having to drink, or what she did or did not do, or who she did or did not sleep with.
In it all, the rapist is lost, relegated to being a merely implied spectre in the whole thing.
If this woman, who is to blame for her own rape according to some in society, dares to socially locate that rape in broader cultural phenomena rather than as a justified consequence of her actions, she is immediately called self-victimising. So it was with Ms. Chester, the blogger from earlier, who uses her words to help combat these evils and knows from whence they sprung. A man accused her of self-victimising to silence her, positing to her that Orwellian ideal that there was strength in supplication, redemption in denial, joy in silence. He enjoined her to move on with her life, unable to fathom that this is how she is moving on with her life, as she comes to truly understand it for the first time.
It is so mystifying and threatening to him precisely because we believe now that the role of ‘victim’ is entirely self created and self-imposed, and that if only one were strong enough it could be wished away, along with all the attendant pain.
In our ongoing conversation with our culture new phrases and ideas have begun to come out of this. “Inspiring stories” in the media will often feature the moment when the subject proclaimed “that was the day I stopped being a victim.” When less-sympathetic victims are spoken of by others it is not uncommon to hear that they “let themselves” be a victim. People fond of giving aggressive, ‘ tough-love’ style help will take you by the shoulders and say forcefully “stop being a victim!” if they feel you haven’t taken the appropriate amount of control over your life. All of this is out there, and until quite recently I myself used many of these phrases flippantly, unaware of how I’d bought into this ugly new concept of victimhood.
It is a Ministry of Strength, in the Orwellian sense, then. A social institution dedicated to the proposition that weakness is strength. The activist, oppositional posture is cast as weakness, whereas apologising for those in power is cast as strength. Strength comes from doing the one thing that obviates your healing: denying that you’ve ever been hurt. The focus for victims of rape and abuse is now on shrugging off the mantle of ‘victim’ before doing anything else. If you can erase the label from yourself, you’ll be cured and pure again, so goes the self-help wisdom. Inasmuch as it exists on the same continuum as victim-blaming and slut-shaming it is plain to see where the interest for broader Feminism lies in this matter.
Some might argue that we see very prominent cases of victims shouting j’accuse at their tormentors. Yet study the discourses surrounding those events. If it is a woman claiming to have been raped, invariably mentions of the Duke Lacrosse team will surface. If it is the victim of a war crime they’re branded as glory hogs or terrorists in disguise. If it is the victim of discrimination in housing or employment, they’re branded attention whores trying to strike it rich in a lawsuit. That is how these people who dare to speak up are cast and framed. They are mercilessly pilloried for their efforts and assumed to be selfish (another rationalist-capitalist idea, by the by), they are rarely seen as entirely sympathetic.
Our present economic structure excels at producing atomised individuals, and when combined with the creaking but still operational machinery of patriarchy, as well as the better oiled rigs of transphobia, racism, and homophobia, it creates atomised victims. Victims who are actively encouraged to not fight back, or even admit that they’ve been victimised. Victims who are encouraged to be alone in their sense of victimhood. Should they dare speak the name of their assailant, he or she will always be Thatcher’s individual- never part of something bigger. There are only individual bad guys out there, and anyway they don’t matter as much as your own self-victimisation, do they?
Recently I got into a sparring match with someone who deployed the self-victimising ploy yet again. She said to me:
“I don’t know, I want to start a [forum] for women who look out the window and say ‘ “i have more control over my life than the world does over me and i am going to live my life knowing that.” “
I responded as follows:
“Your concept of “self-victimisation” is false and does not exist. To be honest, I look out the window every day and think “I have more control over my life than the world does” in my heart. How could I not? I have things to do, a life to live, degrees to get, dreams to fulfil. How could I not think that empowering sentence each and every day?
I want independence, I want the fruits of my labour to be ripe and bountiful. That’s exactly why I fight sexism, and there is something ennobling about that very act that gives me even more strength to keep right on saying that the world has no power over me. I recognise and grapple with reality, but also try my best to rise above it. Why? Because I can do no other.
Recognising discriminatory or biased behaviour, however small, is not self-victimisation. Fighting against bigotry (whether it be sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, or all of the above) is not allowing one’s self to be defeated by the world or surrender power to it. It’s the very opposite. It’s the seizure of strength, of identity, and independence.”
What struck me most was that it seemed to win over my opponent, who deleted her accusatory posts and left one to me saying she’d love to hear my stories of overcoming adversity sometime, something for which I hope an opportunity soon presents itself.
In this is, perhaps, part of the solution to our problem- and it is a problem we all face whatever our group identities. That solution is to continue to emphasise and frame the strength of activism. Activism need not mean taking to the streets or leafleting. It can just mean having the strength to say “hey, that’s transphobic, stop that.” That alone is the activist posture that resists the perpetuation of marginalising or alienating norms. That alone will do to qualify for the activist label (that’s certainly Fox News’ standard). But it is not enough in the face of these new oppressive ideas that have redefined victimhood. We must smash this new Ministry of Strength with the very real strength we possess, and remind others that this strength stems not from apologising for the way things are but from actively working to change it, and from proactively seizing your identity from others who would define it for you.
In this lies strength, in this lies freedom.