Victim Politics: The Tyranny of Hurt Feelings
By Alix Dobkin
A revision of an article published in The Lesbian News (LA) Dec, 2000
"Pain is absorbed in growth." - Virginia Woolf in The Waves
"Victim politics" is to feminism as "do-gooder" is to doing good. Victim politics and feminism lead us in different directions. One fosters guilt, the other encourages transformation. One offers deprivation, scarcity and suffering, while the other moves toward love, wholeness and abundance. Because both are reactions to oppression, they seem related, and are often confused with each other.
Perpetrating this confusion, certain queer feminists criticize what they call "victim politics" in order to deny the reality of oppression. By minimizing the crime of rape and suggesting that the responsibility for it lies with the survivors of it, rather than with the rapist and our rape society, they curry favor with the masters, who reward them with media attention, publishing contracts and tenure. At least that's how it looks from here.
But this article is about those to whom a "victim" identity is sacrosanct, from which their entire perspective flows and their self-esteem derives. I want to challenge a competitive "victim politics" that values powerlessness above all else, as in, "I'm more oppressed than you therefore I matter more than you."
Clearly, men make the best, most important victims by far, so eager are we women to put others' needs, wishes and interests ahead of our own. Why? Because, to the women who love (or fear) them, not to mention to their own entitled selves, men appear far more deserving than anyone else. Being more visible and more valuable, carrying more weight and holding more power, many men naturally expect more. When they don't get it they become "victims," using the same strategy to sabotage affirmative action.
Furthermore, men's historic willingness to use violence to soothe their wounded pride (a male version of hurt feelings) have taught women to avoid angering men at any cost. Authentic and perpetual victimization has infused submissiveness into women's very bones, making self-censorship second nature. It's a survival strategy, and those die hard.
In the same way, ingrained fear of hurting men's feelings and being labeled "man-hater" nudges women out onto that slippery slope where hurt feelings slide seamlessly into "oppression." Regardless of who objects to women-only space, the fuss invariably originates with men's wounded egos, their injured pride legitimized by accusations of "exclusion" or "reverse sexism," their cause championed by eager female defenders of angry men with hurt feelings and fears of losing control.
Everyone has a right to self-definition so long as other people's boundaries are respected. This means recognizing when certain identity claims disrespect the identity claimed. Let's name ALL cultural appropriation when we see it without stooping to personal attacks. For decades, victim behavior in our community regularly raises its ugly head to bully, manipulate and intimidate us into submission. We are all familiar with the spectacle of so-called "less powerful" individuals pulling victim-rank to cut down our strong, visible risk-takers.
Power struggles in our community assume a variety of shapes and speak a variety of tongues, but professional "victims" have probably left the bloodiest trails of all, and far too many casualties have been lost to their abuses. Everyone who's been around or done anything of note has sad stories to tell. Those who survive learn to keep a low profile. In Australia they call this "the tall poppy syndrome," meaning the habitual practice of cutting down outstanding individuals. Creativity is silenced, and the fear of being targeted keeps everyone in line. The following are some personal examples to illustrate how intimidation tries to obliterate diversity of opinion within the GLBT community:
- I'll begin with the infamous sentence in a 1998 column of mine ("Passover Revisited"), reading, "For more than twenty years now, men have declared themselves 'women,' manipulated their bodies via experimental surgery, and then demanded the feminist seal of approval from survivors of girlhood." It prompted that year's Philadelphia Dyke March Committee to dis-invite me. I didn't demand their agreement, but only sent the article in a spirit of friendly discourse.
- Nervous that my presence, " . . . might make some transsexuals uncomfortable" (read hurt feelings and wounded pride), the committee withdrew their invitation. My lower score on the oppress-o-meter made me expendable, so rather than accept diversity of thought, I was excluded, a sacrifice to victim politics. They justified their action with the argument that transsexuals are "more oppressed" and "more marginalized" than Lesbians.
- In another instance, a doctor, whom I've considered a good, conscious, activist Lesbian friend for almost two decades, objected to questions and challenges I posed to medicalized postmodern assumptions in some of my writing. She lowered the boom on our friendship in (presumed) defense of certain transgendered individuals whom I had not addressed, let alone attacked. No matter that I expressed strong support for individual autonomy and the right of everyone to control their own body, she chose to be offended on her constituents' (patients'?) behalf. But, I asked her, would she accept at face value a white person's claim to be African American? Her response was to abruptly terminate the discussion and our friendship. What I find interesting here are priorities. The March Committee admitted not even considering MY feelings when they dis-invited me. And did my old friend imagine how her hit-and-run blitz would feel to ME? Victim politics is selective indeed.
- In another example, a major, established, national GLBT organization I used to send money to just recently published an unquestioned, unfounded personal attack against me in their email "Alert" which went out to a huge list of their membership and all press, including straight press. That sort of scare tactic recalls "Red Channels," the blacklisting rag from the 1950's redscare days.
For taking issue with a few "givens" of postmodern queer theory and popular trends, I have been likened to the Pope, accused of "trying to silence" discussion with "paranoid," "transphobic" "arm twisting" and "hate speech" by those with no clue about the fine art of discourse. Being labeled "transphobic" and accused of "hate speech" deprives me of the ability to make a living when I'm blacklisted from those campus groups caving in to intimidation and political convenience. But at least now my opinions can't put me in jail.
Back in the land of feminism, consciousness raising placed women in the center of our lives, illuminated our relationship to, and our position within, male-centered systems. It became the lens through which we recognize who does what to whom--in short, political analysis at its most elegant. Lacking solid theoretical reasoning, activism devolves into censorship and a timid mentality, as my examples illustrate. But developing feminist politics keeps us moving forward.
Not only must we move through women's ingrained terror of hurting (men's) feelings, but we must also resist strong currents of American anti-intellectualism. Rather than a willingness to widen our view to detect connections, shapes and patterns, Americans tend to reduce everything to individual terms. For example, economic "democracy" is commonly taken to mean that the rich and the poor have an equal right to sleep under the bridge. To be sure, aggressive American individualism produces singular accomplishment, but it also produces our disgraceful educational and shameful health care systems. To question who these systems serve and who serves them demands a broader view than Americans are given or apparently want to see.
This country's distrust of critical thinking was intensified by the brutal anti-communism infecting the last century; when questioning authority was forbidden and unconventional thinking was a punishable offense. The residue of that fear lingers today even, and perhaps especially, in our community, historically targeted, along with independent political thinkers of all sorts. The best defense against intellectual terrorism is a strong, analytical mind and the courage to speak truth to whatever power might be, no matter if it's outside our community, or deeply entrenched within it.
I want to help expand the woman-centered perspective developed by Twentieth Century, mostly Lesbian, feminists, and I want to utilize the intellectual tradition of my Jewish heritage to nourish mindfulness. I want us to understand forces of history and how they impact our lives. I want the big picture, abstract reasoning and critical analysis unconfined by the ever-present female fear of offending. It's not as easy as it sounds. Virginia Woolf called it "Killing the Angel In the House".
I will listen to others but refuse to be bullied, or to dim the brilliance of feminist principles. These times demand clear and courageous thinking, and if feminists don't do it, who on earth will? So I collect my thoughts, take my stand, listen and maybe learn something new. And if feelings (mine included) sometimes get hurt in the process, so be it. As long as I remain respectful, responsible and obey my feminist guidelines, I will be able to separate the personal from the political in order to put them back together in a deeper, more complex and wholesome configuration.
When, in the summer of 1957 a bolt of lightning struck the ground less than a foot from me, I decided that lightning was the way I wanted to exit this mortal coil, so exciting was that moment. But years logged as a lightning rod teach me that not every charge is positive. Still, having been raised to question authority and primed to defend unpopular causes, I expect to continue doing just that.
So disagree all you like and I'll hear you, but don't expect me to compromise my truth or to shut up about it. Then, neither of us will be victims.