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The dangerous allure of victim politics

In our eagerness to tackle inequality, we run the risk of fetishing its victims

Complaining about victimhood mentality and victimhood politics is perhaps easier for the right-wing, who tend to agree more with individual explanations to social problems and an individual’s culpability if things turn out wrong. It’s sometimes expressed in a Littlejohnish “spineless-progressives-pandering-to-whingers-only-makes-them-whinge-more” way, which blames legitimate victims no matter what. Indeed, the very word “victimhood” chips away at a victim’s legitimacy, as if they are whining, wallowing, exaggerating or lying. That all makes it difficult territory for progressives, who believe real injustice happens every day and should be highlighted and resolved.

But progressive liberals should also worry about the allure of victimhood politics, because it’s even easier for them to end up in this unhelpful cul-de-sac. This is because progressives are, or should be, in the business of helping marginalised or oppressed groups. In trying to do so progressives sometimes attribute a kind of superior virtue or presumed authority to those who are victimised, and a reluctance to disagree with anyone who claims to feel like a victim. But this incentivises everyone and anyone to declare themselves as society’s victims too, divorced from any significant personal experience of suffering or oppression. And, when government makes available funding to resolve said grievance, a cottage industry emerges with the incentive is to keep the whole thing going. The danger is an identity politics of aggressively competing victimhoods, in which groups of people, based on religious, national, ethnic, sexual, or whatever else identity they chose, demand to have their victimhood status recognised and something done about it. This quashes all debate and moral reasoning, and in the end does little to resolve genuine oppression and suffering.

In a 1999 article for the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma argued that there is strange contentment that comes with feeling like you’re oppressed (rather than actually being oppressed which really is not nice). Victims, he said, “cannot escape a momentary feeling of vicarious virtue”. He claims to have felt it himself – much to his own shame – as a Jew visiting Auschwitz, each time a German walked past. Buruma even thought he detected a shade of envy in privileged groups that they too can’t be victims of similarly sufficient magnitude. This, he stressed, was not to deny, belittle or take pleasure in the historical suffering of many groups, much less the present suffering. What he spotted was a bigger trend at play, where ‘communal identity is based on sentimental solidarity of remembered victimhood’. People were increasingly desirous to wear the scars of others, almost as a badge of honour.

Buruma thought people liked to feel like society's victims, even where they were personally doing rather well, because modern life hollows out our identities. Hyper-capitalism is reducing meaningful beliefs and identity to fast food restaurants, sterile movies and empty gestures. But people want and perhaps need the authentic, the real, and the genuine in life. And so in an external world in which everything seems so empty, we turn inward in a search for authenticity. The only thing that can deliver authenticity is our feelings. And what more powerful feeling than victimhood and struggle?

Nothing more than feelings

It's quite true that feelings have become something of a modern obsession (Will Davies in his excellent new book about happiness calls feelings ‘the new religion’). They are being elevated to the highest measure of what it means to be human: what matters is how we feel about something. And a growing number of writers – most recently Mick Hume in his new book ‘Trigger Warning’ – think that people’s feelings are fast becoming the only test of whether something should be allowed. Prioritising feelings invariably means that if those precious feelings are hurt, upset, or offended, then these things should be banned or stopped.

Certainly it feels sometimes like everyone is on a single handed mission to find reasons to feel like, and declare themselves to be, a victim. Of course feelings do matter, but how someone feels about something should not be the sole arbiter of how decisions are made. Of course it's difficult to understand what it’s like being a victim unless you are one (there's a bustling academic literature on 'micro-aggression' about this). But this makes it incredibly difficult to make reasoned judgements about who is and who is not a legitimate victim, since everyone can find a way to feel oppressed, either historically, vicariously or presently. Scots feel oppressed by the English; the English feel oppressed by Scottish nationalists; Muslims feel oppressed by government; the far right feel oppressed by politically correct establishment; women feel oppressed by men; men’s rights activists feel oppressed by feminists; and on and on and on in a never ending and renewable cycle.

I suspect the internet makes this worse, because it provides unlimited opportunity to find reasons to feel victimised and assert that claim to the world. Take the modern scourge, internet trolling. Many people – I’ve documented some of them in my book The Dark Net – are genuinely tormented and terrorised by trolls. Others appear to almost revel in it. If you’re not getting trolled, you’re obviously not famous enough. Being trolled by strangers on the net gives you the chance to show how hard things are for you, how right you were, and how noble and magnanimous you are in sharing your suffering with the world. It is very rarely mentioned that the victims of trolls are often far more often privileged, wealthy, happy, and successful than their perceived oppressors, who are often frustrated, jealous, and lonely.

Identity anti-politics

There are lots of reasons for progressive to guard against feeling based victimhood politics. First, it’s inherently anti-political. Politics is about disagreement, argument and debate. Feelings, especially those relating to victimhood, cannot really be argued with, debated or questioned – ‘only meekly accepted’, as Buruma put it. Arguing over degrees of victimhood replaces moral reasoning, since victims aren’t always right. This can be used as justification for bad behaviour. Consider the recent case of the Goldsmiths Equalities Officer, Bahar Mustafa. She asked white people not to attend an event for black and ethnic minority students. I understand the thinking – although disagree – which was to create space for minority groups where social inequality is temporarily suspended, thereby enabling them to speak out on issues which might be difficult to do in other settings. When defending this decision, she argued that she could not be racist or sexist to white men, as she is a BAME woman. Bahar identified herself as a victim. Not personally, but by virtue of her historic status as a member of a victim group. As a victim, eternally and forever a victim, she couldn’t victimise others, especially people who are not victims, like white men. But if only those who claim to feel victimised that can truly speak about it, politics stops being a world of equals people and ideas. That leads toward a world of self-censorship and hecklers’ vetoes.

In a strange way, victimhood politics can also keep genuine victims oppressed. In 1950 Bertrand Russell wrote an essay called The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed. He argued that people tend to imagine those who are oppressed have some kind of superior moral quality. It started with Rousseau’s noble savage, if not before, and has been applied to women, to nationalities, to the proletariat etc. Russell said those admiring these superior qualities prefer to sentimentalise them, rather than actually live as them. (As to the causes of this behaviour, Russell is not entirely clear). The belief in 19th Century Britain that women were spiritually superior to men – better, you see – was a reason to keep them out of the messy business of economics and politics. These great spiritual beings were not to be sullied by actual power or personal agency. Proletarians weren’t to be given any true power, since that power would corrupt them. “Reverence” as Russell put it, “was a consolation for inferiority”.

Worse, I think, is that the more we focus on redressing people’s surface feeling of being a victim, the less time and enthusiasm we have to left to resolve deep and structure problems. If everyone declares themselves as victims, then every claim, no matter how grand or trivial, is put together in the same to-do tray, and whoever shouts loudest gets resolution. If Twitter is any guide, we appear to be more worried about internet trolling and Tim Hunt’s (probably / possibly) sexist remarks than we are about ISIS butchering innocent people and North Korea. Some oppressions are objectively worse than others, and we should focus more energy on them.

At the very edges of this problem, the constant vigilance – the countless declarations of our society or our institutions being riddled with racism, sexism, Islamophobia etc – can become a counsel of despair. It can convince victims their cause is helpless, that society is inexorably set against them; thereby pushing them further away. That surely leads to a society which is even less fair, since marginalised groups stay on the margins. You will find this sense of victimhood sitting squarely behind many of today’s extreme political movements. British Muslims who join or are inspired by al-Qaeda or ISIS are often not themselves particularly poor or in any sense oppressed – seek to personally identify with the (genuine) oppression of other Muslims around the world. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who murdered 77 people in Oslo in 2011 was fairly well off and educated, and yet claimed he (by which he meant White Europeans) were victims of cultural Marxism trying to destroy his culture and religion. The mother of the Tunisian gunman Seifeddine Rezgui, who killed dozens of holidaymakers, said her son was a victim. All in some sense, believing they are victims, and as such their cause was just.

What is to be done?

So what to do? Progressives want a society which, generally speaking, recognises there are victims in society (both individuals and groups); that things aren’t fair; that some groups – on the basis of historical circumstance, current economic status, deep rooted prejudice or whatever – have a life that’s harder and opportunities fewer than we would like. I recognise, too, that it’s exceptionally difficult to determine who is and is not a legitimate victim in any kind of objective way. I've changed my mind several times about publishing this article for this very reason, since many groups are routinely victimised and I want them to shout about it, because the first step in creating a society which is fairer requires injustice being exposed. What's more, victimhood politics is most powerful when there is some truth to it. When an independent jury (who saw all the available evidence) decided that Mark Duggan’s killing by the Met police was lawful, it sparked yet more demonstrations about Met police racism. This wouldn’t have provoked a response had there been absolutely no evidence whatsoever of institutional racism inside the police. If the risk of constant vigilance of oppression is a bit of victimhood politics, then it’s surely a price worth paying.

Nevertheless its negative side effects should be minimised. The progressive must be on guard that victimhood is never fetishized, is never equated with some mystical superior virtue or assumed moral authority, and that feelings don't become the arbiter of what is right. Above all, the progressive should not seek out a victimhood identity for themselves for the purposes of moral rectitude and righteous indignation. Because in the end, this obscures sight of genuine injustices and fuels a victimhood mentality that does nothing to help genuine victims, and most likely harms their cause.

Jamie Bartlett is Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, which is a collaboration between Demos and the University of Sussex. The Centre combines computer and social sciences for policy research. Jamie’s work focuses on the ways in which social media and modern communications and technology are changing political and social movements, with a special emphasis on terrorism and radical politics. Jamie is author of The Dark Net, (William Heinemann, 2013), and Radicals (Penguin, 2017)

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