I have, as they say, a visceral dislike of victimary rhetoric, the sanctimonious denunciation of white guilt in others, or in “ourselves–as I, if not you, have acknowledged.” One cannot ignore one’s viscera; yet, in human relations, at least, they provide no peremptory justification. There have been plenty of visceral anti-Semites. No mode of human interaction is so natural as to escape the mediation of the cultural scene of representation.
Readers of these Chronicles know that I have been trying for some time to situate victimary rhetoric in history; this quest has led me to the notion, discussed more insistently since September 11, of the post-millennial. Before WWII, it was taken for granted that Others, as we call them nowadays, were welcome in some, but not all conversations, and certainly not as a matter of course. After Auschwitz, overt exclusion has become unacceptable. The proliferation of victimary thinking, inspired by the Nazi-Jew model of unequivocal persecution, has led to the elimination of the most glaring institutional or de jure inequalities: colonialism, Jim Crow, and so on. Their disappearance has coincided with the discrediting of what was less than two decades ago the world’s most powerful victimary ideology (“Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!”). September 11, with its demonstration of the horrors that such ideologies can be made to justify, is icing on the cake. We are now entering a post-millennial era in which the oppressor-victim model is increasingly less viable; inequality in a global exchange system is a problem to be rectified, not evidence of oppression.
Although there is more than a grain of truth in this position, some wishful thinking remains to be squeezed out of it before these seeds can take root. The benefits generated by the rationalization of the global economy are differentially distributed across racial, ethnic, and sexual groups. Since the defining ideal of global society is universal reciprocity, the less favored groups have an arguable claim of exclusion from this reciprocity and, consequently, an arguable legitimacy in playing the victim card to bring about greater equality of results. Thus, in the US, and increasingly in other advanced countries, the attack on discriminatory procedures has given way to a critique of unequal outcomes.
As a case in point, in recent years, following a period in which affirmative action programs seemed to be on the wane, American universities have experienced a growing pressure for “diversity” at every level. In 1995, the University of California Board of Regents passed a “Policy Ensuring Equal Treatment Admissions” (SP-1) eliminating racial criteria in admissions; in 2001, it rescinded this policy after hearing testimony that it made “underrepresented minorities” feel “unwelcome.”
No doubt there is a political dimension to this change. California, after a series of Republican governors, has become sharply Democratic in recent years, particularly since Governor Wilson’s politically disastrous support for Proposition 187, which refused admission to state-funded schools and hospitals to illegal (“undocumented”) immigrants. After the passage of SP-1, representatives of the former beneficiaries of affirmative action rallied their troops to put pressure on the Regents. Yet I think there is a real evolution in attitudes about affirmative action that is not reducible to a mere swing of the political pendulum. The old affirmative action was part of the victimary era, and declined along with it. But–here I diverge from some of my previous statements–the end of this era does not spell the demise of victimary thinking, but its mutation. Affirmative action and the like have not simply survived, they have returned in a new guise.
Whereas the early supporters of affirmative action sought to provoke the strong form of white guilt that was a reaction to de jure discrimination, accusations of racism and sexism are counterproductive in promoting the positive goals of “diversity” and “gender equity.” Neo-victimary thinking is aware of the difference between the guilt aroused by a priori and a posteriori status hierarchies. The enemy is no longer Governor Wallace in the schoolhouse door, but the inertia of our collective subconscious. And to counter this less blatant, more insidious adversary, open admissions of guilt like those that put an end to colonialism and segregation cannot suffice. The neo-victimary tone is milder, but its demands are considerably greater.
Fairness is no longer defined as the absence of institutional barriers but as the achievement of “equitable” results; the target is not discrimination but underrepresentation. If a given minority is not proportionally represented in the distribution of a privileged status, particularly one, such as college admission, that is granted according to a well-defined procedure, then, all explanations aside, corrective measures must be taken. The supporter of diversity is merely reminding us of what we are already presumed to know–a reminder all the more powerful for its presupposition of unanimity. Although race/gender quotas, seen as leftovers from the previous era, are generally condemned, there is no respectable way to oppose them when they come packaged under the less aggressive label of diversity.
The lack of any viable opposition to diversity policies reflects more than the left-wing politics that prevail in universities and other large bureaucratic institutions. Or rather, the difficulty of opposing diversity is an effect of the same socio-economic trends that generate this politics. Neo-victimary discourse is asymmetrical; only certain groups are considered to be victims. But, unlike postmodern victimary discourse, which conceived its aim as the abolition of difference in seamless integration, the new variety is concerned with the preservation of difference. Its utopia is not uniformity but proportionality, a state as a general rule unattainable, and unstable even if momentarily attained. At any given moment, ascriptive groups (races, genders, ethnicities) will differ in interests and abilities; there is no reason to assume that at some future date all these groups will fall on the same normal curve. Hence neo-victimary discourse is apt to perpetuate itself indefinitely, changing camps as some groups become overrepresented (e.g., Asians in the University of California, women in language departments). The equilibrium point toward which this discourse tends is not a static peace but a dynamic balance of resentments–a succinct description of political democracy. The peaceful exchange of resentments, now as at our origin, is the prerequisite for the peaceful exchange of everything else. The modern liberal-democratic polity extends without limit the deferred gift-exchange of Hubert and Mauss, expressing the awareness that the market makes us all both victims and persecutors, but not at the same place and time. Hence “diversity” at this place and time must be defined by the inclusion of those who are underrepresented here.
When I find neo-victimary discourse hard on my viscera, the pain subsides when I attend to its implicit reciprocity rather than its explicit demand for privilege. As I said in Chronicle 219 in reference to “gender equity,” the important thing in the long run is to even out resentments enough to permit everyone to participate in the dialogue. As a means to this end, diversity policy has clear advantages over flying planes into buildings.