The Time of the Victim
A key theme of Night Shyamalan’s psycho-thriller film Split (2016) is surviving abuse. Kevin Crumb, played by James McAvoy, was abused as a child and suffers from dissociative identity disorder, being host to 24 identities, some of which are benign and some malevolent. He kidnaps three girls in order to be sacrificed to one of these identities, The Beast, which has been hidden even from his therapist. As The Beast emerges, two of the girls are hideously killed. When he is about to hurt the last one, he notices the scars on her body and recognizes her as a survivor of abuse. Sparing her, he says “You are different from the rest. Your heart is pure. Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved.” A victim of abuse alone, the psychopath claims, can have true character. The rest deserve punishment. The traditional triad of the good, the true and the beautiful converge at a single point – the victim.
In his observations on the recent sexual harassment scandals in the West, Slavoj Zizek has written about the problems of basing political legitimization on the victim status of a subject, further warning that “This notion of the subject as an irresponsible victim involves the extreme Narcissistic perspective from which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance.” In this regard, it is instructive to consider a recent article on The Guardian on the #MeToo protests. After dismissing the feminist critics of #MeToo as individualist feminists and labeling the supporters as social feminists, the author provides a “working definition of women” according to the logic of #MeToo, namely “everyone who has experienced misogyny.” The key here is “shared suffering.” The shift is clear. Where feminisms of the previous century attempted to build solidarity among women based on theoretical understanding(s) of patriarchy, #MeToo seeks to build solidarity based on the experiences of victims of misogyny.
American sociologists Campbell and Manning, in their study of microaggression, make a pertinent observation on the emerging cultures of victimhood: “Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”[i] Increasingly, victimhood is becoming fashionable on campuses in the West, more specifically in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Sensitive students on campus feel victimized by anything ranging from an explicitly racist remark to a class on Titus Andronicus without trigger warnings, and appeal to institutional authorities to arbitrate. The logic appears to mirror that of the human rights organizations that urge Western powers to intervene in Third World countries to save victimized groups. But there is more at work here, which is the lack of any objective criteria to determine oppression or its nature. Since the victim is the only authentic subject, and since only the perspective of victimhood can guarantee an access to Truth, all accusations of harassment are to be taken as valid and equal. Thus, physical abuse, a sexist remark, including Huckleberry Finn in the curriculum, forgetting to acknowledge Arab contributions to math, wearing an Indian dress etc. can all be categorized as harassment and microagression.
While there are no hierarchies among harassments, the reactions to harassment are contingent upon the identities of the harassers and the harassed. For instance, the closer one is to what is perceived as ‘normal’ the lesser are they allowed to be the victim and the further away from the norm one appears, lesser the possibilities of being accused as a perpetrator. Applying equal standards here, it would be argued, would contribute to the state’s criminalization of minorities. The failure of the Left in the UK to take an open and politically credible stand on the Rotherham child abuse issue was quite conspicuous.
The idea of solidarity with all women suffering from misogyny comes with a crucial qualification, i.e. when the person accused of harassment can himself claim a victim status. So it is no irony that in the same year when supporters of #MeToo were defending the ‘name and shame’ tactic and the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach, Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall (2017) released to critical acclaim. The film is about Joseph Spell, a Black man who is falsely accused of rape by Eleanor Strubing, a married White woman, and how his innocence is established in court through appropriate legal process. In the course of the inquiry, it is revealed that Strubing had consensual sex with Spell but, owing to guilt, twists it as rape. If we replaced the characters in the film with a Japanese man and a Pakistani woman, how would have multiculturalist audiences reacted? And can one not imagine a similar process happening with people of the same ethnicity, or different ethnicities, in real life? There are no easy answers to these questions.
One can see such trends in other struggles as well. Where once Black militants in America proudly raised the slogan of Black Power as a challenge to White supremacy, it is now Black Lives Matter, demanding a greater sensitivity to the human rights of Black people. It is not an over-exaggeration to say that the Western human rights industry, and its politics of identifying victims and prescribing policies to save them, has greatly influenced the language of those claiming to be victims in the West. The politics of confrontation, which saw the oppressed as agents of historical change, is replaced by a culture of victimhood which sees the oppressed primarily as victims of History. Consider the fascination of the ultra-Left in the West for various forms of Islamism. Instead of a critical understanding of the latter, what seems to guide opinion is an underlying masochistic sentiment: “They were our victims during colonialism, so we deserve to be their victims now.”
What is notable about the recent forms of articulating victimhood on social media is its contempt for reflection, and the urgency it places on quick reactions. Experiential wisdom is valued over theoretical knowledge; in fact, any emphasis on the latter is dismissed as intellectual snobbery and entitlement. This is much in the spirit of German radical Wilhelm Weitling’s accusation on Karl Marx that his theories were detached from the lives and experiences of the poor. The latter responded swiftly and brutally – ‘Ignorance never yet helped anybody.’
The most effective users of victimhood across the world, of course, have been the Right. Trump, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Modi, Orban, not to mention the ISIS and Boko Haram, have all consolidated their power by appealing to the insecurities and delusions of persecution of their constituencies. But their discourse is one of lost strength. The victims in Western campuses cannot imagine weakness and powerlessness as negative attributes. They say they bring diversity to the fight, but beyond fragmenting a much needed left unity, one is yet to see how this trend will survive assaults by a Right in power.
It may appear that we are living in the time of the victim. But this too shall pass.
[i] Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” in Comparative Sociology 13 (2014) p. 715