In the days and weeks after the awful massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School, a number of students put themselves forward, to the front of America’s ceaselessly reiterated debate about gun rights. That they would have an immediate — even urgent — prominence is predictable. But it is the predictable exception to American political debate, which is usually conducted under the pretense that all its participants — politicians, experts, journalists, and news addicts — belong to a cult of policy expertise. Victims have a unique and growing role in our political culture.
Conservatives also make rhetorical use of victims. The families of 9/11 victims were solicited for their views on everything from intelligence gathering to foreign policy. President Donald Trump, whose political success comes from his intuitive understanding of America’s mass culture, made very effective use of victim politics in his 2018 State of the Union address, drawing attention to, among others, the parents of two teenagers, Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, who were murdered in 2016 (MS-13 gang members have been charged with the crime).
The most obvious reasons for deploying victims in our political life in this way are that tragic news events drive public conversation and that suffering commands human attention and sympathy. Faced with human suffering, we fall silent, or at least think we should. And silence is a reasonable enough proxy for consent. It’s good enough for an activist who wants to achieve reforms, even at the price of cutting deliberation short.
But something is changing in victim politics. It is no longer an emotive call for political reform, or restitution for wrongs done. The young activists whom conservatives call “social-justice warriors” practice politics in a form that looks spiritual, and their Marxoid political theories are effulgent with longings and aspirations that point far beyond what we normally think of as politics.
It’s worth examining the change. At this point, conservative complaints about the political use of victims are a generation old. Twenty-six years ago, in his book A Nation of Victims, Charlie Sykes documented the shift in the American political imagination. Sykes was especially preoccupied with spurious claims of victimhood. Drawing from Tocqueville’s observation that Americans “are forever brooding over advantages they do not possess,” he noted the way in which displeased customers inflated their trivial grievances into oppressions and how some Americans recast their debilitating personal habits as disabilities. My gambling isn’t a moral problem, it’s a disease! The burn from my coffee isn’t the predictable result of my clumsiness, but the fault of McDonald’s. “A community of interdependent citizens has been displaced by a society of resentful, competing, and self-interested individuals who have dressed their private annoyances in the garb of victimism,” Sykes wrote.
He traced the victim mentality to a number of sources, even back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and to our novel belief that no harm can befall us that’s not in some way the fault of society, and that therefore every one of life’s misfortunes calls for recompense from the treasury of resources common to society, or at least from the closest source of wealth.
Although Sykes’s account is thorough, he could not fully anticipate the mutation of victim politics into something even larger and more destabilizing. Some conservatives have tried to explain the preeminence of the victim in our politics as the result of cultural Marxism and the teachings of the Frankfurt school. Faced with the manifest failure of the proletariat to take up its assigned role as the true sovereign of history after the Bolshevik Revolution, a group of left-wing theorists built on the work of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci and came up with a new proletarian class, or classes. Sometimes called “the subaltern,” other times simply “the oppressed,” this new proletariat was defined by its exclusion from hegemonic cultural power. This cultural hegemony has many names, and we encounter them constantly, in a less sophisticated form, when feminists denounce the patriarchy, when sexual minorities critique heteronormativity, and when racial minorities define their mission as the upending of white supremacy.
The new dominance of victim politics has exerted a gravitational effect on all of American political discourse. The shift in Marxist rhetoric from the proletariat to the subaltern has foreshadowed shifts in American politics writ large. In the 20th century, Americans often claimed their rights and privileges as members of the middle class, demanding what was owed to “people who work hard and play by the rules.” Many Americans who were a bit poorer or a bit richer than the middle class still politically identified with that great mass of citizens. It was a rhetoric built around the idea that the middle class works to create wealth and deserves its share of it.
Now, Americans group themselves into ever smaller and more-besieged minorities. “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already,” Thoreau said. In our world, anyone more micro-aggressed than his neighbors constitutes a minority of one. Unsurprisingly, this form of politics is best suited to young people, preferably in college, who live in a world where they are still shaping their identity and their labor is just a notional feature of their life in the future.
Our political vocabulary is now about what is owed to each individual or group, regardless of the value of the work performed by that person or group. And claims for rights are made in a corporate persona. Instead of each person’s speaking for himself, people now issue political demands “as a member of” this or that community. It’s almost as if each individual finds meaning only insofar as he conforms to an abstracted or imagined political model. “Speaking as a woman” simply cannot be done by a female who is not a feminist.
If the abstruse theories of a handful of Marxists could move the world on their own, this magazine wouldn’t exist. But the new victim politics has taken off because it fulfills certain needs of its practitioners. It allows an alternative entry into the heavily guarded political discussion of America’s ruling class. And it offers a sense of purpose and identity that, in another age, would have been found in religion.
The American ruling class broadcasts its soulless utilitarianism when it comes to politics. It tries to make every political problem into a mere technical policy challenge. But there is a loophole for those who are not initiated into this highly abstract form of political discourse. Utilitarianism admits just one criterion for allocating sympathy, resources, and attention: suffering.
So if you want to participate in political debate, but you don’t want to master all the academic studies on your particular problem or interest, take account of all the methodological biases of these studies, and then find a platform where you can make your case — if, in short, you don’t want to become a nerd — your only chance of having a public voice is to become, or represent, a victim. This is the only chance to put passion — or spiritedness — back into a political conversation that is usually lifeless and technical.
It is also likely that the new victim politics is channeling energy that would otherwise express itself in other projects. The ever-narrowing mission of the art world is a likely culprit. Haunted by the corruption of commercialism and disillusioned with the pursuit of genius for its own sake, almost the entire artistic world has looked to politics to find a new purpose. And so every field, from abstract sculpture to film to stand-up comedy, has started to mimic the hectoring voice and social goals of progressive politics. Those seeking to express or sublimate their deepest longings almost inevitably turn away from contemplation and creation and toward activism. Tragedy and comedy are supposed to offer catharsis and make living in an imperfect world easier. But, given an overtly political role, these forms now essentially withhold that salve; their mission is agitation in the service of social reform. We have an art world that satisfies us less and diverts more dissatisfaction into the political realm.
Borrowing from the thought of Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, the Christian social critic Alan Jacobs showed that “woke” social-justice activists often don’t use political terms when talking about the imperatives of their identity politics. Instead, they invoke mythic ones. This partly explains why their response to unwelcome campus speakers takes on the form of an exorcism, with chants repeated in a loud, prayer-like cadence. Sometimes the shouts are enacted as an antiphony — a call and response. At other times, an exemplar is pulled forward to speak and the entire supportive group amplifies that voice by repeating the person’s words.
Here victim politics recasts disagreement as desecration and defilement. Someone who walks into these environments looking for the intellectual parry and thrust of debate is instead told, “Your job is to listen.” The expectation that no one would dare to interject or question the personal testimony of the victim of oppression is not so different from the expectation of silence during the reading of the Gospel in a church service, or during a homily. Your job is to listen.
And it is here, I would suggest, that the politics of the victim touch something deep in the soul of modern man. They are in some ways the residue of Christian thought and ritual in a Western world that offers little traditional religious education or formation. The premise of victim politics is like a mirror image of devotion to the Suffering Servant. Just as in Christianity, so in social-justice politics: The wounds of the primordial victim testify to the broken state of human nature and society at large. For Christians, the cross is a kind of throne, and the crown of thorns becomes a sign of authority. The paradox of Christianity is that the Lord reigns as King precisely because he offered himself as Victim.
Putting this Victim at the center of the social order, in ritual or in preaching, begins the redemption of all humanity. The faithful confess to the ways their sins contributed to the fate of the victim. The ritual is meant to moralize and inspire those who witness it and motivate them to more fully participate in the effort of redemption. It can also provide its adherents with a demonology that fills the world with invisible oppressors and tormentors, making them oversensitive and fearful.
The religious aspect should be evident to anyone who offers a rational critique of some identity-politics shibboleth only to be told “You’re denying my identity” or “You’re erasing my existence.” It’s a mysterious response at first. You offer an argument and are told that you disbelieve in someone’s existence. It sounds like an accusation of atheism, for a good reason: You’re being charged with heresy, and if you do not desist, you reveal yourself as morally reprobate, as one who would, with full knowledge, repeat the Crucifixion. Or if you prefer the current academese, you are one who “reifies the structures of oppression.” You love yourself more than you love the victim-god standing before you, the one exposing his wounds and offering you forgiveness on condition that you recognize his pain, confess your unearned privilege, and promise obedience.
Depending on your disposition, you can take this mimicry of the Christian myth and ritual and its transmutation into politics as either a perverse compliment about the endurance of Christian thought or a kind of demonic parody. Either way, we are not here contending over something exclusively political. Once the explicitly political claims are filtered out, what is left over in victim politics is a churchly way of being in a world that has escaped the bonds of religion. We are contending with a longing for recognition and esteem and for a mission that has a transcendent horizon; no form of human governance can ever satisfy such desires.
And so we must be careful. An anti-PC politics that takes the form of mockery will win converts only among those who are already primed to be disillusioned. Conservatives need to think more holistically. We need a politics freed from the strictures of utilitarianism so that it may admit human passions, in forms other than suffering. The aspirations for transcendence that young people feel so keenly need outlets for expression and cultivation in art and in the devotional life of religion. Young people need to feel that their travails have purpose and meaning beyond the way they might manifest societal dysfunction or be recast as a symbol of political oppression. If we want a politics that is less histrionic, and a society that offers something more empowering than the campus star chamber, what we really need is to re-create our civic, social, and familial life so that people’s disappointments and outrages will be met with compassion and understanding, or channeled into great works of art and humble prayers. No small task, I know.