We have all participated in conversations among members of a certain group–family, racial, ethnic, sexual, what have you–that deal with the real and imagined foibles of the members of another. In such cases, even the most objective discussion ceases when a member of the discussed group enters the room, because the discussion has been predicated on his exclusion, not merely from the group at hand, but from the virtual community of discourse for whom the conversation is intended. Even the objective truths of such discourse–but it is no accident that such truths are the hardest to determine and/or to have accepted–are not uttered disinterestedly. When we speak negatively–or even “positively”–of another group, we affirm our solidarity by justifying their exclusion from our virtual community.
One might argue that the xenophobia commonly observed in private discourse does not disturb the public sphere; that, on the contrary, it is a lightning rod that serves to forestall public manifestations of intergroup hostility. Yet because our virtual discursive community is in principle the whole of humanity–all humans are mutually linked by language–exclusion from the virtual linguistic community is the equivalent of exclusion from humanity itself, in violation of our most fundamental moral intuition.
The PC phenomenon to which I have alluded many times in these Chronicles is a variant, however snobbish and self-serving, of our postwar/postmodern revulsion against such exclusion. Because exclusionary attitudes led to the exemplary phenomenon of the Holocaust, exclusion on whatever scale is suspect. Generalizations about the racial, sexual, ethnic “Other” become anathema. The postmodern imperative is that the universality of the virtual community be realized in every conversation. When Gentiles assemble, Jews are virtually present; when Whites get together, Blacks are there in spirit.
Because, taken at face value, this is a wholly praiseworthy aim, one wonders why the very term “Politically Correct,” with its overtone of resentful impotence, ever came into being. But just as we have seen that our “love” for celebrities expresses in the first place our rivalry with our less illustrious fellows (see Chronicles 108 and 114), so our declared love for our fellow humans also risks serving as a sanctimonious weapon against our benighted neighbors. The fact that our virtual community should be open to persons of all colors does not prevent a Green’s expression of horror at his neighbor’s disparagement of Blues being construed as an attack on his fellow Greens.
The victimary reaction that always sides with the outsider derives from the Christian exaltation of the victim, but Christianity is not altogether capable of eliminating its ethical ambivalence. Christianity reveals the constitutive power of the victim itself, as opposed to the divinity for which the victim is merely a stand-in. The Trinity, the linchpin of Christian theology, codifies the intuition of the son-victim as a “person”–essentially, a role–of the sacred rather than a mere sacrifice to it. In ethical terms, this means understanding that the victim is “closer to God” than his sacrificers, although one is supposed to love the latter as well.
Although there is no fixed limit to the insight available within a given ethical paradigm, at a certain point the articulations that express its revelatory substance come to be anticipated and “discounted” and thereby lose their usefulness in evaluating our choices. One might think that an ethic that privileges the victim is invulnerable to such “discounting,” since no one could willingly endure victimary suffering merely for the sake of ethical exemplarity–in other words, that the paradox of the crucified divinity is irreducible by the rationality of the social economy. But the development of market exchange indeed reduces the original paradox by carrying out the ever more richly articulated exteriorization of the Christian ethic in the world of consumption. The results of this process, Enlightenment rationalism and even “God is dead” theology, are reflections not of the failure of Christianity but of its success.
And so is the Holocaust. Its very horror is a tribute to the “civilized” state of its European perpetrators. Not only is modern antisemitism a reaction to the freeing of the Jews from earlier restrictions, but modern brutality, initiated in thought by Nietzsche and in deed by so many, is a panic reaction against the fear that in a culture without physical violence, the ignoble internalized violence of resentment will be a permanent and irredeemable state.
The great irony of today’s Left Nietzscheism is its demonstration of Christianity’s triumph over the prophet of Zarathustra. Postmodern victimary thinking merely produces another avatar of the Christianity that Nietzsche railed against. Nietzsche was anti-authoritarian; but the authority he hated was that of the sanctimonious, self-denying priest–someone, in short, with precisely the personality type of those who now denounce “phallogocentrism.” Nietzsche’s anti-victimary revolt has always “succeeded” by becoming a caricature of itself: first a barbaric racialist-“socialist” cult of the Superman, then an academic Phariseeism. Yet Christianity has not been able to solve the victimary problem. The recent recrudescence of fundamentalism reflects the impatience of traditional believers with what they perceive not inaccurately in the mainstream churches as the conflation of Christian reverence for the victim with political liberalism.
Victimage is not simply exclusion. In the ritual scheme of things, victimage is a necessary operation. A victim is not a mere unfortunate, but one chosen to perform an essential religio-social function. When we consider someone excluded from the virtual community in this light, we see him as a scapegoat chased out into the desert with the community’s sins on his back. From this perspective, to condemn his expulsion is to condemn the arbitrariness of all sacrifice, to renew the work of Jesus.
The achievement of postmodern victimary thinking has been to insist on the inclusion in the virtual community of all those previously excluded. Men may no longer come together to condemn women, Whites to condemn Blacks, or vice versa; no dialogue is valid that does not take place in the virtual presence of all
Those who follow the victimary model view the establishment of a genuinely universal community of discourse as predicated on amends made by the oppressor to the oppressed, the persecutor to the victim. The most irritating sign of this first reaction to this universalization of the virtual community has been hypertrophic euphemism, the rejection of any communication from a “victimizing” to a “victimized” group that is not merely not insulting but unflattering.
But we can substitute for the negative model of victimage the positive one of virtual inclusion. According to this model, the one excluded from the community is not a scapegoat, but merely someone not yet accepted–not an exile, but a potential immigrant. No one is definitively excluded from our virtual linguistic community, but in some cases we are not yet sufficiently prepared for their arrival.
From a long-term perspective, PC and the victimary vision it reflects is no doubt but a short-term annoyance. The universalization of the virtual community of discourse is a necessary, positive development; it signifies the “final” triumph of Christian morality. As the novelty of this inclusiveness wears off, we have already made considerable progress toward a frank and clear-eyed questioning of the needs and demands of different groups. As intergroup tensions enter the dialogue that formerly could not be expressed, they purge themselves of their potential for violence. But the price of this pacification is that those who were previously excluded must renounce their claim to victimary status. Within the virtual community, there can be neither victims nor slaughterers, only equals engaged in reciprocal exchange.
Can we really doubt that men and women, Whites and Blacks, hetero- and homosexuals are able to talk about their differences and similarities more openly today than ever before? The strength of liberal democracy is not that it produces harmony, but that its dissonances are channeled away from physical violence into the sphere of representation–and from there into the marketplace. If we have faith–as most of PC’s opponents do–in the ever-expanding inclusive capacity of our social order, we should treat PC’s victimary rhetoric as an inevitable childhood illness rather than a potentially fatal disease.