Reactions to the word ‘feminist’ today range from staunch rejection or ambivalence to fervent endorsement and activism.
A few thoughts about so-called cultures of victimhood and whether it's a new, old, or even real phenomenon, prompted partly by recent "debates" over trigger warnings, but also by our recent episode on the Changing Face of Feminism. I put "debates" in quotes like that because I think of the debates more as heated exchanges. Way too much talking past each other and way too little sympathetic listening has gone on.
But enough of that. I start with the observation that it's surely true that there have been victims as long as there have been humans relating to each other. i don't think any reasonable person could or would deny that. Would they? I suppose that what is taken by some to be perhaps a new thing under the sun -- and what people who talk about cultures of victimhood and victim studies and all that jazz are sort of trying to get at -- is that there are nowadays intensely fought and fraught contests over who exactly counts as a victim in various morally and politically fraught contexts. And I think that although perhaps they do acknowledge that nobody wants to be a victim, what they notice is that there are, nonetheless, certain advantages to being seen as a victim.
It's Plato's ring of Gyges but in reverse, perhaps. If you look at it this way, then the social/normative status of being a victim becomes in a way a complicated thing -- both desired and not desired. Though nobody wants the bad that comes with being a genuine victim, people do want the good that comes with being seen as a victim. What goods would those be? A certain degree of power, at least moral power, if not political power. If only one could have one's cake and it it too.
So here's the million dollar question. What is one could have one's ring of Gyges, as it were? That would be so very cool. It would allow one, while not being a victim, to still be seen as one. Of course, it would probably take a little bad faith, insincerity or self-deception or something to pull that hat trick off. And that, I think, is where the naysayers think so-called victim studies comes in. That is, those who dismiss certain fields as victim studies think that they function like a reverse ring of Gyges in the context of contests over victimhood. What these particular rings do is to make others and perhaps even the wearer him or herself see the wearer as a victim, one with diminished, oppressed, or marginalized agency. That it deceives not just the other, but the wearer him or herself, of course, distinguishes it from Plato's ring. Plato's ring only worked on others. It didn't hide the wearer from his or herself.
Now the conjuring trick here. those who hurl this sort of accusation will think, is that the very act of putting on the ring is itself a full and supreme act of agency. It not only gives the lie to the claimed victimhood. But it is an essentially aggressive act. The aggressive act of seizing the moral high ground with respect to the other. That's at least always a morally powerful ground to occupy and often maybe even a politically powerful ground to occupy. From the moral high ground you get to command and condemn the behavior of others. The commanding heights of victimhood, it could be called, if you thought this way.
But is this a real phenomenon? Is it something new under the sun? Well, as to the latter, I doubt that there was some discrete point in cultural history when contests over power came, at times, to take the form of contests over claimed victimhood. Probably such a move was always available. Probably it was exploited at different time in different ways by different groups. Nietzsche, I think, thought that something like that is a more of less enduring feature of human social life. (resentment, herd morality and all that). And I don't think he's entirely wrong for thinking that. So maybe in some sense at least the possibility of "cultures of victimhood" have perhaps been with us always.
But beyond abstract possibilities, do we really live at such a moment now? A moment when non-victims have seized the moral high ground of victimhood? That's a much tougher call. People, on one side or the other of our current struggles will no doubt view them differently in this regard. Where one side sees as an illegitimate culture of victimhood backed by bad faith and the will to power, the other side is liable to see genuine and disempowered victims claiming their moral due. Judging where the truth lies in that sort of meta-dispute -- is a hard thing, truly fraught thing. Notice that right now, I'm in my neutral interpretive guise. I'm just trying to figure out what talk of cultures of victimhood might really come to.