Why the hostility toward victims? By Alyson M. Cole

Emma’s Commentary:

(Statements in italics are direct quotes from two messages sent to me this week in response to my blog; In Bed With Frida Kahlo. For more information about these comments, go to:  https://inbedwithfridakahlo.wordpress.com/policy-on-comments/)

One of the most astounding experiences with disability, has been the aggressive manner in which (among others) human rights activists, 1. find that attacking my disability is more effective than engaging in real discourse, that it is strategically better to pick on the “cripple” then argue merit, and 2.  assert that I do not really have a disability, that I am faking it, “begging for attention”, mocking people “who are in the situation you imagine yourself to be in”, offering no proof of this assertion, assuming (with surprising accuracy) that others will join in their mockery, on the face value of the accusation itself.

These are strange accusations from activists, who one would assume had spent a lifetime fighting this very set of assumptions, more aligned with right wing conservative posits than any radical challenge to the status quo.  

One wonders, who else “plays victim” in their book: welfare “queens”, members of the labor aristocracy who demand higher wages?  teachers who complain about class size?  women who accuse their dates, husbands, fathers of rape?  the growing number of people incarcerated who claim their innocence? 

Who are these arbiters of merit?  On what credentials do they base their assertions?

What are the dangers to movements for social change if activists perpetuate these stereotypes, these images of people who speak out, who dare to define our own experience, who dare to demand an equal place in the world?

-Emma Rosenthal


Why the hostility toward victims?

Monday, November 27, 2006

IN HIS election-night tribute to the defeated senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, Republican pundit William Bennett waxed eloquent about the senator’s concern for victims — of AIDS, autism, partial-birth abortion, and those in Darfur.

“The poor, the dispossessed, the helpless, the unborn, whether it be here in the United States or abroad,” he proclaimed, “have lost a champion in losing Rick Santorum.”

This assemblage of the weak and vulnerable is rather remarkable in and of itself, but the real irony is that William Bennett delivered this encomium. For more than a decade, Bennett has been at the forefront of the campaign against the “victims’ revolution.” He even blamed “the victimology mongers” for rendering the United States susceptible to evil-doers on 9/11. Indeed, Bennett, among others, is responsible for the doublespeak that warped how Americans have come to think about suffering and sufferers.

Without precedent or much public notice, “victim” has become a term of derision, deployed to dismiss, ridicule and condemn. This sentiment congealed in the early 1990s, when politicians and analysts — like Bennett — instigated an alarmist crusade alerting Americans that an excess of grievances imperiled the nation. Anti-victimists cast those who allege to be victims as shamefully passive or as cynically manipulative. As a result, seeking recognition of one’s injury indicates a deficient character, or even symptoms of a pathology (the dreaded “victim mentality”). Individuals now must use other designations to avoid stigma. The brutalized Central Park jogger accordingly emerged from seclusion to insist that she is not a “victim” but a “survivor.” Similarly, those who died on Sept. 11, 2001 are not “victims” in our collective vocabulary as much as “heroes,” posthumously conscripted as soldiers in the “war for freedom.”

The language of victimization has not so much disappeared from public discourse as recirculated, for it is now routinely invoked to drive attacks on affirmative action, welfare, and even terrorism. Welfare programs, for example, supposedly present a punishing burden on national resources and constrict American freedoms. In this way, victimism injures, indeed victimizes, American society. Though this rhetoric was forged during debates over domestic policies, President Bush applies it to characterize America’s enemies abroad. He postulates that a “culture of victimization” in the Muslim world causes terrorism. Others have gone further, comparing Islamist radicals in Europe to the American “welfare queens.”

Even though conservatives attack racial politics, feminism, and similar movements as “victim politics,” the anti-victim sentiment is not unique to the Right. The Democratic Leadership Council devoted an entire issue of “The New Democrat” to the theme of “Getting Beyond Victimization” in 1993. More recently, in the summer 2006, Bruce Gordon used his inaugural address as the new head of the NAACP to denounce “victim-like thinking” among African Americans.

Paradoxically, critics of the “culture of complaint” also exalt ideal types of absolute innocence and sacrificial suffering — a veritable cult of true victimhood. Like those connected to Santorum’s revered causes, true victims may include the terminally ill, individuals harmed by violent crimes or atrocities enacted by other nations, and, especially, fetuses. The criteria for inclusion have less to do with the veracity of claims or the facts of injury, than with the sufferer’s personal qualities, her character and purity.

The ultimate purpose of the cult of true victimhood is to suppress most victim claims. It implies that the good victim is one who refuses to be a victim. So when in the wake of the midterm elections Republicans resurrect “compassionate conservatism,” it is important to understand how an anti-victim rhetoric scripts public deliberations about suffering, injury, and injustice, and in doing so, preempts these debates altogether.

Alyson M. Cole is a professor of political science at Queens College of the City University of New York. She is author of “The Cult of True Victimhood: From the War on Welfare to the War on Terror.”



2 responses to “Why the hostility toward victims? By Alyson M. Cole

  1. Pingback: My Union Sister in Vertigo « In Bed With Frida Kahlo

  2. Andy Griggs

    Emma’s words are so true. I have seen the arrogance of activist teachers reacting to her disability. This arrogance ranges from paternalistic advice on how to act “correctly” in order to object to humiliation and violation of one’s rights, to making outright bigoted remarks “can’t you take a joke.”
    Some members of the teachers union have rampantly gossiped to others, saying that Emma was not disabled at all, that she was faking it to get attention. This despite the fact that Emma is on a state granted disability pension. As far as we know, no one has been told to stop this kind of harassment by anyone in leadership within the union. On the contrary, one Vice-President approached Emma and myself, asserting that Emma’s insistence on her rights wasn’t helping my career in the union. And still others, in alliance with this clique, used this antipathy to blacklist Emma to resolve pressure brought to bear on the union when a meeting on BDS of Israel came under public scrutiny, making it clear that she would not be permitted to chair conference committees or be associated with UTLA efforts.
    The “anonymous” post Emma received, mimicked the assertions of this clique. But it was easily traceable, and based on this data, we believe it is part of the ongoing campaign against her. This anonymous posting shows true cowardice to engage in discussion or dialogue.
    In her blog, in discussing the events within the union, Emma has been careful to obscure their real identities, focusing on the content of the conflict as it relates to and illuminates disability rights and discrimination; even as they continue to use their prestige to attack her. Despite my repeated recommendation that she name her detractors, she has declined. I do hope this latest episode will convince her that these very public individuals have no right to her protection.
    Their persecution has continued, even with Emma’s retreat from union activism. Her mere presence at an event, as my partner, results in the most extreme cases of humiliation. Not satisfied with blacklisting within the union, and to justify their actions on the BDS (boycott divestiture and sanctions against Israel) matter, the same people from the committee continue this campaign of attacks and character assassination among the larger progressive community, in Los Angeles and beyond.
    The second “anonymous” comment from the same address, was filled with the same arrogant and bigoted vitriol she has had to endure for more than 4 years. I do hope others will step up and demand that this kind of behavior cease. Feel free to contact me for further particulars at andyca6@gmail.com

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