What’s Wrong with Victims?
The public commotion that followed the release of a tape featuring Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s remarks during a $50,000-a-plate Florida fundraiser focused on his dismissing 47% of voters. Pollsters and statisticians dissected his calculations, while strategists and pundits demurred over the political wisdom of these “off the cuff” remarks. The Obama campaign swiftly reproached the GOP candidate for his imprudent disregard of nearly half the population. At first, Governor Romney refused to disavow his comments, but conceded, with feigned sheepishness, that his statement was “ineloquently stated.” A month later, he finally admits he was “completely wrong,” at least with respect to the number of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes.
Amid all the commentary and number crunching, however, Governor Romney’s syntax remains unexamined. He revealed his conviction that individuals who avail themselves of social welfare programs relinquish their autonomy and self-respect by indulging in a pathetic, if not pathological, dependency on the state. Importantly, he characterized all recipients of government support as those who “believe they are victims.” In his formulation, victims are beyond redemption. “My job is not to worry about those people,” Mr. Romney reasoned. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” This aspect of Mr. Romney’s presentation went unchallenged. Even as he chided his opponent, the President never disputed Romney’s characterization of victims. Appearing on The Late Show the following day, President Obama defended the disparaged 47% by asserting: “There are not a lot of people out there who think they are victims.” On the stump in Woodbridge, VA, he reiterated this sentiment: “I don’t see a lot of victims in this crowd today. I see hard-working Virginians.”
What happened to the term ‘victim’ in American political discourse, and how might a question of semantics be important in the upcoming election?
Thirty years ago Governor Romney’s use of ‘victim’ to dismiss, ridicule, and condemn, would have been unthinkable, even among like-minded conservatives. Ever since the 1980s, a cynical conception of victimhood has been deployed to attack the remnants of the Great Society, multiculturalism, the welfare state, and other progressive causes and policies, such as affirmative action. The word consistently appears between actual or implied quotation marks. The victim is always a “victim,” a faux-victim, a participant in a sham to exploit the state, milk the public’s coffers, and reap undeserved compassion. Politicians and commentators across the political spectrum—including, implicitly, President Obama — seem to agree that victims are manipulative, self-indulgent, helpless, hopeless dependents, not “personally responsible,” “hardworking individuals” meriting concern, empathy, or even pity. ‘Victim’ became a term of derision, an epithet.
In framing his criticism of Governor Romney’s remarks in terms of a President’s obligation to represent “100 percent” of the nation, while simultaneously retaining the distinction between “the hardest working people there are” and those who “abuse the system” by “looking for a hand out,” President Obama missed an opportunity. He failed to expose and contest the conservative conceptual apparatus that enabled the dismantling of the welfare state, a campaign that has relied on a particular conception of victimhood. That President Obama sustained rather than questioned Governor Romney’s pernicious use of the language of victimhood and it collateral politics should, perhaps, not be surprising. After all, the Democratic Leadership Council had already devoted the entire November 1992 issue of The New Democrat to the theme of “Getting Beyond Victimization,” which included essays exposing the pervasiveness of a “victim mentality” among African Americans, Latinos, women, gays and lesbians, and even inner-city mayors. As contributor Errol Smith summed up the new Democratic program, “If we do nothing else in the next decade except reject this victim identity . . . the nation will have taken a quantum leap forward. The more detached we are from ‘victim’ mentality, the more responsible for ourselves, the less likely we will become victims.”
However, Mr. Romney’s remarks pushed the anti-victim agenda even further, constituting a brazen, and perhaps strategically savvy, attempt to deny recent history. The problem we face today is not that reckless financial institutions and an indifferent Republican government victimized Americans, leaving millions in the wake of the 2008 meltdown jobless and in financial ruins. Rather, these beyond-repair individuals, who somehow, inexplicably, came to regard themselves as victimized, and in the process developed an acute addiction to governmental assistance, plague the nation. In this way, Governor Romney suggests victims are not merely deplorable, but actually victimizers.
When sociologist William Ryan introduced the phrase “blaming the victim” into public vernacular in 1971 to expose how social reformers collude in the oppression of the poor by finding inherent faults within them, while ignoring the social and economic forces that create and perpetuate poverty, there was at least a tacit agreement between him and those he criticized that something should be done to help the disadvantaged. Now, blaming victims has become a prescription, perhaps most evident in the way in which ‘victim’ is deployed pejoratively. In contrast to most previous uses, the designation refers to an individual’s character, how they grapple with their circumstances, not the injustice they endured. This shift from a verb (‘victimized’) to a noun (‘victim,’ and recent variations such as “victimist,” “victim politics,” “victim revolutionaries,” and “victimism”) has become so prevalent that it seems simply a matter of common sense. No one wants to be victimized, of course, but we seem to have forgotten that, as the political theorist Judith Shklar observed, victimization “happens to us, it is not a quality.”
The imbroglio over another off-the-cuff remark, Todd Atkin’s oxymoronic phrase “legitimate rape,” is one of the few contexts in which the victimization of some has been debated as a real concern during the 2012 election season. Nevertheless, the point of Atkin’s semantic construction was to distinguish true victims of rape from false ones, i.e., those supposedly legitimated raped. Here, as in other contexts, skillful rhetoric performs the profound political work of predicating victim status on complete helplessness and absolute innocence. This highly rigid juridical model of victimhood applies to all types of victimization. In doing so, it stifles the majority of victim claims, radically narrows the scope of those who might rightfully seek victim status, and confines redress to retributive actions by the State.
The crusade to shame victims has been so successful that even those whose victim position would be readily acknowledged under the most stringent criteria, perform linguistic gymnastics to disavow the designation, preferring the designation ‘survivor’ instead. The brutalized Central Park jogger, Trisha Meili, for example, waited ﬁfteen years to come forth to narrate her tale of survivorship, which she describes as a “story of hope and possibility.” Professional victim advocates encourage this trend of renouncing victimhood. A study published in National Law Journal, for instance, found that social workers recommend renaming victims’ services – such as battered women’s shelters – “survivors’ agencies.” This new classification, proponents explains is “less passive, negative and disempowering.”
By investing victimhood with new meanings and rendering it a badge of shame, the Right has made it difficult to address institutional forms of hierarchy or privilege, systemic kinds of domination, pervasive manifestations of social injustice that advantage some by subordinating others. Unremittingly privatizing and therapeutic, issues of institutional power and social inequity are displaced into matters of character. By casting political demands as nothing more than personal attitudes or feelings –individual defects or faults — collective, political solutions can be delegitmized. After all, no one need be a victim, because each of us could be self-determining if only we have the right character, and we can.
This link between victimization and supposed victim mentality should not be taken for granted. After all, acknowledging oneself or one’s group as victimized is arguably a necessary ﬁrst step toward political action, requiring courage and strength, not a symptom of paralyzing dependency, endemic powerlessness, or a boundless sense of entitlement. We must insist on the demystiﬁcation and propriety of the term ‘victim’ in designating social injustice. It is not that the concept of ‘victimization’ has an inherent value that is absent in other terms of injustice such as ‘discrimination,’ ‘exploitation’ and ‘marginalization.’ In dispensing with ‘victim,’ however, we succumb to an ongoing campaign to purge our language, our consciousness, and our public sphere of words and concepts (such as ‘feminist’ or ‘liberal’) that acquired the taint of illegitimacy simply based on their association with progressive politics. We thus diminish our capacity to speak truth to power and to effectively politicize injustice. In 1905, W.E.B DuBois wrote: “What must we do? We must complain. Yes, plain, blunt complaint, ceaseless agitation, unfailing exposure of dishonesty and wrong—this is the ancient, unerring way to liberty, and we must follow it. I know the ears of the American people have become very sensitive to . . . complaint of late and profess to dislike whining. Let that worry none. No nation on earth ever complained and whined so much as this nation has, and we propose to follow the example.”
DuBois envisioned a social movement, emboldening the fight for radical change, but who occupies the White House still matters as well. The 2012 election presents a choice between a candidate who at least has pledged to rebuild a social safety net capacious enough to include the disadvantaged, and one who aims to accelerate the neoliberal project of further enfeebling government by advancing a politically insidious therapeutics that reduces grievance to grief, except, perhaps, when it comes to the complaints of the Tea Party. After all, as he titled his autobiography, Governor Romney believes “No Apologies” are needed. The President may be entrapped in the anti-victim discourse, but his policies, for the most part, have not relied on distinguishing “true victims” from false ones, and he certainly has not cast victims as victimizers. We may tepidly hope, therefore, that he, unlike Governor Romney, will enjoin Americans to resist the temptation to shame victims into silence and that government will be more receptive when self-conscious victims compel his administration and us to live up to America’s democratic promise.
Alyson Cole is Associate Professor of Political Science and Women’s Studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of “The Cult of True Victimhood: From the War on Welfare to the War on Terror.”