I thought I had said about all I needed to say about the dangers and the possible silver lining in the victimary politics of our era, but a recent conversation with Trevor Merrill led me to draw a less optimistic conclusion.
I suggested in Chronicle 461, after complaining about recently emerged (let’s call them) “neo-victimary” practices such as stigmatizing “micro-aggression,” that during the current administration, despite some often rather frightening institutional tendencies, personal relations between blacks and whites, and no doubt between members of “majority” and “minority” groups in general, have improved. But we must remain aware that “personal” relations, when not entirely casual, are subject to the pressure of victimary institutional regulations. This is no doubt most problematic in the sexual domain, as we have seen recently in the publicity given to the claimed prevalence of “sexual assault” in universities and in the military. Since 2011, in campus complaints of sexual assault or rape, the (inevitably male) accused is not given due process but dealt with according to “the preponderance of the evidence.” Here the public and private, institutional and personal sides of the question face off against each other in the most critical sense. On the one hand, sexual relations are the most intimate of all; a young unmarried couple’s decision to engage in sexual activity is certainly not determined by their respective institutional roles. Yet, under pressure from the US Education Department, universities are increasingly regulating these relations independently of the civilian judicial system and without providing the normal safeguards this system grants the accused.
Characteristically, the victimary institutional configuration is presented ideologically as the universal truth of what to the “victim” in the private context might otherwise appear as the encounter of two equals. The notion of micro-aggression, similarly, is not limited to formal settings but provides a means to turn virtually all encounters between members of different groups into potential acts of victimization. If the victim does not notice the micro-aggression, or more likely, shrugs it off, he/she is accused of complicity with the oppressor.
In opposition, or at least in tension with this official discourse is the “natural” human tendency to consider any human relationship as equal absent any overt signs of subordination. The optimistic position taken in Chronicle 461 was that despite official efforts, this latter attitude would prevail, not simply in opposition to these efforts, but because their overall effect, however much specific instances might be oppressive, would be to sensitize the majority to potential offenses to the minority, and conversely, to empower the victimary group in such a manner that its members, whether benefiting or not directly from affirmative action, would increasingly feel themselves the equals of the formerly dominant majority. This is a dynamic that must play itself out before we can judge its effect. Outside the institutional environment (and the jargon it creates), human interactions are in principle self-regulating and may improve, but given the ever-greater inroads of the “Nanny State,” the danger of expanding legal responsibility for micro-aggressions of various kinds cannot be ignored.
“Triggering” is a significant new means to anticipate and prevent micro-aggressions that provides an useful point of reflection; as Jonah Goldberg puts it, it displays a “peculiar madness.” The point of triggering is less to prevent offense to the average victimary member, who is unlikely to be offended by the violence or racism of a literary passage, than to the particularly sensitive individual who will. Its function, in other words, is therapeutic rather than interdictive. Behaviors to be “triggered” are not those “macro-aggressions” condemned as openly offensive. A professor using a racial slur against a student will probably lose his job; referencing such a slur in Mark Twain risks troubling the sensibilities of a few students, to whom the “triggering” is addressed.
So here we have a situation where most students “lighten up,” but where triggering is necessary for those who cannot. But once triggering is considered obligatory, those who had previously lightened up are asked by the system to darken back down and become offended, if not “viscerally” for themselves, then as proxies for the potential sufferers, as the equivalent of those whose dubious sufferings from “secondary” (and now “tertiary”) smoke have led to banning smoking nearly everywhere. The imposition of rules purporting to protect victims earns a dividend in new sources of potential resentment and righteous indignation against offenders. So the question posed by triggering in formal situations as well as by micro-aggression generally is how the process of “lightening up” will fare in competition with the ever-growing occasions for the validated expression of victimary resentment.
The trigger phenomenon is above all a demonstration of the desire of non-traditional victimary groups to assert their right to victimary consideration: those, for example, who are offended by scenes of violence, or by the foul language that the general culture constantly extends to new venues (e.g., the omnipresent expression WTF). And anyone has a right to denounce micro-aggressions to demonstrate that we are all indeed deeply offended by even the most peripheral forms of racism and sexism.
The dynamic of the victimary system is just the opposite of Burke’s preference for the tried and true: there is no aspect of “normal” social relations that victimary politics cannot reinterpret as an example of oppression. In effect, what we have been calling “firstness” is for victimary thought oppressive by definition. Clearly the society has evolved to the point where the normative leadership of the traditional majority can no longer provide a model for minorities to work toward. The statements of extreme victimary thinkers, such as the quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates in Chronicle 461, imply that between groups such as whites and blacks, all relations are oppressive. But indeed, so is every interaction between any persons, no two of whom can possibly occupy exactly the same level in every relevant hierarchy. The only possible exception would be one wholly informed by a vigilance that makes “normal” interaction impossible, as in those satiric sketches of a couple who undertake to engage in sexual activity each flanked by an attorney.
We must not forget that the attack on the normal relations between ascriptive social groups takes place within a context in which other, less symbolic and more structural resentments exist. The most fundamental such resentment has led to the extraordinary success of Thomas Piketty’s recent Capital, which, the book’s intrinsic merits aside, reflects its comforting of the “99%” by characterizing “capitalism” as providing disproportionate rewards for wealth over labor, inheritance over work, being over doing, contrary to the unspoken principle of market exchange that success in the economy is a reward for productive labor. To the extent that this analysis, whatever its value as economics, strikes a chord in the human relations of our era, we are tempted to view the potentially unlimited battle against micro-aggressions as what Girard would call an act of sacrificial substitution for the growing inequality of our increasingly winner-take-all global society.
“Inequality” here refers not exclusively or even primarily to income, but to recognition, the ultimate value for humans, at least for those who have met their basic biological needs. What generates disaffection in a world characterized by ever-growing numbers of billionaires is the increasingly salient demonstration (e.g., in the political influence of George Soros, the Koch brothers, Tom Steyer…) that some individuals possess a significance to the society thousands, millions of times greater than our own.
Kevin Williamson, one of the sharper conservative columnists working today, makes the point in a recent column about the Santa Barbara shootings that such actions are a form of “theater” on the stage of public recognition. He might have alluded to the classic case of Herostratus, who supposedly burnt down the temple of Diana at Ephesus so he would always be remembered; a successful effort, as you see (see Chronicle 177). Herostratus doesn’t seem to have killed anyone; in his day, burning an empty temple got you more publicity than mass murder, since gods were considered less replaceable than humans. Today, in the age of global media, killing a few people in an appropriately dramatic fashion moves you from number 4,000,000,000 on the world celebrity list to the top 10, and even after the publicity dies down, you remain in the top few thousand rather than sinking back down to the lower billions. For some who see their lives as devoid of other satisfactions, this is worth the usual outcome of suicide, (rarely) execution, or life in prison.
These pathological cases may well be no more frequent now than before; they just get more publicity in the increasingly voracious internet-era “24-hour news cycle.” This reflects the fact, which is my real point, that as the means of publicity increase, the famous become ever more famous, and to a far lesser extent, more people become at least temporarily famous (“Everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes”), but most people never become famous at all, and knowledge of the trivial cause of the fame of many, or of the trivial nature of fame itself, even for those who “deserve” it, is an insufficient compensation for the frustration caused by the lack of it.
What once was such a compensation, fully adequate for the vast majority, is best described by a term one no longer hears: respectability, the local but intensely meaningful respect of one’s neighbors, earned by adherence to the very normality that the victimary despises and seeks to undermine. This kind of recognition, although it has not disappeared, is fatally undermined by the communications network of the global society. The local forces that once defended the normal and the (limited) elements of firstness it demanded are swamped and defeated: the proverbial “main street,” the “local scene,” the theater of small-scale social behavior, has been boarded up.
It is in this context that we should understand the genius of phenomena such as micro-aggression and triggering, which permit not only members of victimary groups but other potential offendees to consider themselves infinitely aggrieved, to complain, and perhaps be compensated directly or by publicity as victims; to act, in a word, on a little stage of their own. Similar are the ecological offenses that allow even white males not only to feel and overcome guilt but to suffer vicariously themselves. Not as spectacular as the role of mass-murderer, but theater nonetheless.
The connection between the “winner-take-all” aspect of the postmodern era and its passion for the victimary becomes clearer if we expand the scope of our inquiry beyond the frontiers of the the US and its “capitalist” allies. The resentments aroused by modernity in the global context are far more virulent than those expressed in the white-guilty West, which they nonetheless influence by mimetic contamination. Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and similar Islamic movements are the barbaric expression of traditional, essentially agricultural society’s resistance to “civilization,” exacerbated by the invasive nature of global modernity. The most prominent point of contact between these movements and Western victimary resentment is hostility to Israel, a predictable variant of an older form of “sacrificial substitution.”
Thus “Islamophobia” appears with increasing frequency in the ever-expanding lists of victimary sins along with “ableism,” “transphobia,” et al. These hard victimary attitudes reflect the frustrations of the young in a world of (apparently) declining opportunity—and greater student loan debt. The Islamic connection expresses the most fundamental hostility of all to the Western values that have brought about the winner-take-all world. Young people who don’t want to go as far as the recent SB murderer can find solace in the neo-victimary’s alliance with the traditional anti-firstness movement of antisemitism.
At least for the moment, 9/11 not having been repeated, none of this poses any threat to the “powers that be,” provided they avoid obvious infractions to the victimary (“PC”) code of the sort committed recently by the newly notorious Sterlings. After all, the most curious aspect of this “kerfuffle” (a word borrowed from Walter Scott) is that a brief expression of racial prejudice in a (clandestinely recorded) private conversation provokes expulsion from the NBA owners’ club and a seven-figure fine, but years of slumlord profit-chasing, generating billionaire wealth (and expensive mistresses), result in an award from the NAACP.
All the fuss about victimary affairs, which occupies so much time and energy in all areas of university and corporate personnel administration (e.g., Google’s recent apologies for “imbalance” among racial and gender groups, as though morality is served only when every victimary group is at least proportionally represented in every “prestigious” position), serves as an ideological safety valve in which the society is willing to invest many taxpayer dollars, so long as the overall economy is not greatly affected. In this regard, even the egregious inefficiencies incurred in pandering to the environmental movement (e.g., the Keystone pipeline) are a relatively small price to pay to maintain the overall socio-economic hierarchy.
It would seem then that the inefficiency, not to speak of the hypocrisy and nastiness, of the victimary are costs incurred for the purpose of symbolically mitigating the excesses of “market meritocracy,” the rule of those who make themselves marketable via skills not necessarily wholly describable by the term “merit.” But there is one more key element to consider.
The postwar American self-image was not long ago dominated by a mid-skilled middle class whose lost reign is nostalgically described in the first part of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, and its incipient decline in Paul Schrader’s comi-tragic Blue Collar (1978). The middle-of-the-road situation of this class, its market position buoyed up by labor unions, held the whole society together—smoking the same cigarettes, drinking the same coffee, wearing similar clothes, watching the same movies and TV shows, driving cars differentiated only by decorative luxury. As Murray’s book despairingly illustrates, over the past few decades, the sharp decline, even more cultural than economic, of this “Fishtown” class, whose modest skills are no longer competitive in the global market, has undermined normality and provoked the excesses of the victimary. The fall of the white (and black) working class from “respectability” as defined above both reflects and contributes further to the decline of local modes of recognition. This vicious circle, as manifested in an appalling increase in the proportion of births out of wedlock and other similar statistics, is far from the end of its run.
Piketty’s analysis, which I am not qualified to judge, claims that America’s midcentury middle-class golden age (the French version of which was called les trente glorieuses [années] and the German, das Wirtschaftswunder) was not really characteristic of the market system, which tends toward a class separation of the Murray type. The difference between today’s “coming apart” society and that of the “robber baron” era reflects the greater cultural salience of the 99%, no longer downtrodden, and fully exposed to the winner-take-all examples of both the media and, more tragically, the economic system, which limits the possibilities of all but the highly skilled. The recent inclusion of college graduates in this group (e.g., in the “Occupy” movement) no doubt signals a tipping point.
This suggests that, absent an inconceivable calamity on the scale of WWII, a period of social cohesion like the immediate postwar era will not recur. If this is true, then an exaggerated concern for the victimary is a relatively inexpensive proxy for addressing a human disadvantage that cannot be rectified “symbolically,” a loss of social cohesion that no quantity of transfer payments can address. Today’s poor may be obese rather than underfed, wear $100 sneakers and watch 60-inch TV sets, but they are marginalized in ways that the old working class, white or black, never was, even as the well-off are ever more lionized and aped for their “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” lifestyle. The social divide embodies “aggressions” against the moral model of human reciprocity that university demonstrations against Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Israeli “apartheid” or cisgenderism can do nothing to address. Whence the victimocracy’s originary and ultimate despair concerning the human condition and its fate.
In a follow-up to this Chronicle, I will attempt a sketch of the history of the postwar victimary era in the light of these reflections.