The first part of the title is meant to dispel any suspicions either that I think that victimary thought is about to disappear or that I am unaware of the irony of “killing” the victim by declaring the end of the victimary era. It is certainly neither my hope nor my expectation that we will abandon the notion of (in)justice. What I am suggesting, however, is that we have gone beyond the point where justice can best be served by identifying success with persecution and failure with martyrdom.
The real challenge of emerging from victimary thinking is thinking from love rather than resentment. Love is not a synonym for (symbolic) masochism. I cringe every time I witness a male using “she” instead of “he,” vicariously experiencing his self-abnegatory submission to a force greater than himself, his desire to avoid blackmail, to get invited to conferences… but also his sense of righting a wrong, making up for past injustice, showing he is a good sport, adopting the Other’s pronoun as a small price to pay for a (white-male) privileged existence. . . But this is not my idea of how to convert resentment into love.
I think a far better model is to be found in our personal, as opposed to political or even professional, relations. Whatever Orwellian horrors PC has wrought in the public sphere, it is undeniable that private relations between men and women, and even across racial divides, have become more frank and reciprocal in recent years. No doubt victimary rhetoric and its backlash do invade these conversations, but I think that rather than infecting them, these rhetorics serve to immunize and thereby to preserve the space of intimate dialogue from the fall into politics.
The most significant feature of the transition from the Marxian model of inequality as the opposition between capital and labor to the gender/race/ethnicity/sexual orientation/abledness dichotomies of our era is one not usually remarked: the potential and real intimacy of the respective “oppressors” and “victims” under the new dispensation. The impersonal contractual relation of capitalist and worker is replaced by a complex of personal relations more characteristic of Gemeinschaft than Gesellschaft. This is clearest in the major transition in victimary thinking from class (and race in the civil-rights sense) to sex, a transition that Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) anticipated and helped, we might say, to engender. I recall from the 1968 era the women of the New Left beginning to spin off rooms of their own in which to raise the issue of their inferior status within the “revolutionary” cadres of the SDS or NUC. Instead of fighting the faceless Establishment, they were contesting their own marriages and love-relationships. It is my strong impression that this opening of discourse, however shrill it may have felt at first, has led to far more mutual understanding and reciprocity between men and women than in the past. Personal experience and observation both tell me that mutual respect and essential equality within couples has never been greater, perhaps never in history.
This gives some hope that, in the long term, the frictions now felt in the public sphere will similarly dissipate. Meanwhile, there is wisdom in letting the strongest resentments speak loudest, provided this takes place within our republican system of “checks and balances”–one designed for very different kinds of differences of opinion from those we experience today, yet, in its prudently abstract view of the mimetically desirous human condition, applicable to these as well.
As a result of its refusal to pronounce on the legitimacy of these resentments, GA is sometimes accused–whether “fairly” or not is not at issue–of doing no more than expressing less socially useful resentments of its, or my, own. There is an unavoidable ambivalence in a theory that purports to make the need to contain resentment’s potential violence the “motor of history.” Does such a theory “scapegoat” resentment? Or, on the contrary, does it justify and even glorify it? We seek a “theory of justice” chastened by the difficulty of extricating a core of injustice from the resentment that surrounds it.
Insofar as history has taught us a gross solution to this difficulty, it is to favor the market model over its “socialist” transcendence. Now, whether or not the market is indeed politically neutral, the rhetorics it generates surely are not. When Al Gore insists that he’s “fighting for you,” he is denying the market-system’s ability to render you your just deserts. Yet, in a broader conception of the market-system, Gore is a loyal servant of the Republic acting within its rules by offering his policies on the marketplace of political ideas that acts as a necessary counterweight to strictly economic exchange. This observation, however, resolves the issue only in part. On one hand–let’s call it the “right” hand–the resolve to act within the democratic system involves implicit acceptance that the other guy’s position is as legitimate as one’s own (something that, even in their least civil moments, the presidential debaters expressed by such language as “my opponent and I have a disagreement”). But, on the “left” hand, it is felt that the very idea that the market basically makes the right decisions and needs only minor correction is immoral. Forgetting about the fringe of the so-called “radical right,” Democrats are undeniably more self-righteous than Republicans. To agree with the Democrats is not to contest this judgment, but rather to accept as justified their self-righteous defense of the victims of the market-system.
One of those ’68 slogans was that when there’s a controversy, instead of coming down on one side or the other it’s better to “teach the conflict.” This poor man’s Hegelianism, hoping for rather than creating synthesis, shows a faith in the democratic process and in the openness of history than neither Hegel nor Fukuyama have demonstrated. In the lofty terms of the present discussion, this faith means recognizing that the paradoxical opposition between moralists and amoralists who agree to disagree within a context of moral neutrality is precisely the equilibrium position of mature democracy. We can understand this paradoxical structure by recalling the category of “transcendence” that the existentialists inherited from Hegel via Heidegger. The point is no longer some stable “synthesis,” but a going-beyond into an always unstable position outside, yet soon once again inside, the system. Liberal democracy, the diametrical opposite of Marcuse’s unidimensional dystopia, rather than expelling the outside, admits it inside. In so doing, no doubt, it is “coopting” it. But rather than destroying negativity, cooptation guarantees its renewal, ensuring that the outside will be constantly recreated by new people with new agendas rather than solidifying into a revolutionary “mass,” with consequences we can predict all too well.
Let me now apply these observations to two “current events”: the election crisis, and a recent experience in academia.
Some Girardians have been tempted by the indecisiveness of the presidential vote to assimilate elections to arbitrary and/or sacrificial operations. I don’t think Girard’s anthropological achievement is honored by attempts to decide “who is the scapegoat/victim” in a democratic election. The function of human institutions is not to disguise their victimary basis so that only the possessors of the gnostic secret disseminated by COV&R can penetrate their “deep structure” and find the hidden victim. All gnosticism shows a lack of respect for human history, and for humanity itself. (No doubt ultimate criteria are lacking; it may be, as Voegelin thought, that it is the whole modern experiment, emphatically including democracy, that is irredeemably gnostic. If this is so, an awful lot of people are going to die violent deaths before the world can be brought back to its pre-industrial senses.) Elective office, that great Athenian invention, is surely an ethical improvement on either dictatorship or anarchy, let alone human sacrifice. But when the system fails to work properly, not because of glitches but simply because the decision required from it falls within its natural margin of error, we are suddenly faced with the revelation that all systems are ultimately arbitrary–the point being, we should not forget, to make the arbitrariness as “ultimate” as possible.
The most profound revelation of the election is to remind us of something we all know but would rather forget about: the impossibility of neutrality. There are no “honest brokers” because there is no one without a preference; none of those who claim this role have enough credibility to be trusted by those whom their decision will harm. Each side has its legal arguments, as lawyers are wont to create, none clearly superior to the other’s. In the end, what really counts for each side is who wins. Each appeal to our sense of fairness is predicated on second-guessing the results of that fairness: on the one hand, respect the objectivity of the process, stop the recounts… and choose Bush, on the other, allow each voice to be heard, continue the recounts… and elect Gore. The objective observer is suddenly faced with the realization that he is incapable of rendering an objective decision. But at this point, instead of talking about arbitrarily chosen victims, we should begin counting our blessings. For the difference between the two possible outcomes is not all that great; as I said in the election Chronicle, the intensity of the debate is proportional to its narrowness. An appropriate parallel, one that Bush might appreciate, is with the World Series: we rooted passionately for one team or the other, yet victory or defeat didn’t make all that much difference. We should be happy that we can draw this parallel, which is only now beginning to apply to French elections, and certainly didn’t apply to the battles under the Weimar Republic between the Communists and the Nazis.
As for academic life: the other day, I attended a meeting of the UCLA Academic Senate, a body that prides itself in being the most powerful in the state university system that gives more power than any other to its faculty. On the agenda was the report of a committee appointed by the Administration to study “gender equity.” The substance of the report was that, measured by numbers of female graduate students and PhDs in various fields, women were “under-utilized” on campus and that new hiring, as well as promotions, should take this into account.
I had to endure the self-righteousness of several highly successful representatives of a self-declared victimary group, speaking loudly into the mike, cheerfully confident of their position, in a context that permitted no opposition nor more than the most timid doubt concerning the quality of their statistics, which were based entirely on attendance at or graduation from a postgraduate institution and (as one brave soul pointed out) lacked any measure of the prestige of the institution, let alone of the qualifications of the individual graduates for university teaching positions.
This prompted me, if only in compensation for the times I had sat through more distasteful meetings in silence, to make a few cautionary observations about the euphemism of “gender equity”–after which, following one (male) speaker’s enthusiastic reference to the “good will” of the group, the meeting was adjourned.
I reflected afterward not simply on whether I had “made a difference” (surely not) but on what point I had really wanted to make. Although my own Department is blissfully gynocentric, there may well be “underutilization” in others. And, in any case, can one really claim that the unpleasantness of privileging “oppressed” groups outweighs the social value of “diversity,” even if presumably objective criteria of achievement must be bent just a bit? It is not, after all, a question of hiring incompetents, merely those whom we might have rated second (or fifth) but about whom, on second thought, and with some financial encouragement from the Dean, we might be willing to change our minds, presumably otherwise conditioned to choosing candidates “who look like ourselves.”
This situation presents, as the intelligent reader will have already surmised, a variant of the paradox discussed above. The Left takes a moral stance against the institutional status quo, but on a higher level demonstrates its faith in the fairness of the institution by asking it to validate this stance without abandoning its “objective” policies. We aren’t asked (heaven forfend) to set quotas, merely to promote “diversity.” The Best Candidate will be hired, but it will just happen (more often than in the past) to be someone of the “underutilized” gender. After all, State law prohibits consideration of gender in hiring.
The important difference between the two variants, of course, is that, on the national scene, the moralistic left and the complacent right are evenly matched, whereas on the gender equity issue everyone in the Senate is on the same side. The Girardian who finds elections equivalent to drawing straws to see who will be eaten should surely leap at the chance to assimilate this unanimous group to a lynch mob. But there is no one to lynch, not even those White Males whose retirement is being anxiously awaited. Having dared to speak in skepticism, I was neither stoned nor even hissed, merely politely ignored.
My conclusion is that there is a wisdom in the institutions of democracy, where ideas are exchanged as well as goods, that surpasses that of its members. What need is there for me to deny the ultimate judiciousness of greasing the squeakier wheel? “Gender equity” need not imply, as I feared for a moment, an inexorable political pressure that will not cease until 51% of the faculty are female; it is a means for relieving the excess resentment on the part of a group whose numbers have been increasing rather more slowly than their “rising expectations.” This process will generate a compensatory resentment in males; I need not act on this by anticipation, but may rest assured that the resentments will eventually even themselves out. This has already begun to occur in the general public, with a result that California, and the UC Board of Regents, have banned affirmative action. (I cannot help but applaud this result–Ward Connerly is someone I greatly admire–yet when I see how little these results are respected within the university, how strongly it is committed to circumventing the law in the name of “diversity,” I wonder if the latter ban was not premature.)
These reflections lead me to feel justified in treating burning questions of injustice as conflicting resentments. The beauty of our system is precisely that it neither forces us (Republicans) to accept the equation between resentment and injustice, nor does it prevent us (Democrats) from doing so.
Such reflections do not, however, answer the more apocalyptic complaints of those who see the world on a global scale not as composed of kleptocracies gradually moving toward democratic prosperity but of poor countries being bled by the rich. I’ll try to say something about this in a forthcoming Chronicle.