Warning : This post does not present an argument that there are no victims and aggressors. Also, it does not intend to propose that people who portray themselves as victims, in whatever context, most often are not. The purpose is to explore the logic behind the growing popularity of victimhood narratives across the political spectrum. Other readings that raise such insinuations or arbitrary deconstructions suiting various political positions are either malevolent or uninformed.
Think about it, why does a media showman like Arnab Goswami known for aggression, machismo and complete disregard for journalistic ethics, describe his newly found media as a defensive venture against the oppressive liberal elite? Why does an introduction written by Arundhati Roy to Ambedkar’s Anihilation of Caste, attract extreme wrath from certain Dalit intellectuals and activists. This campaign which was objectively more visible in the social media circles, was projected as a tirade against oppression by the so-called Savarna elite, way more than a grass root level resistance against caste motivated physical attacks?
We must ask ourselves a question. Has the world suddenly gone so bad and horrible, that narratives from all kind of political positions are centered around how bad they are treated? The left, and quite unsurprisingly so, maintains that the people from working class are the victims of the cruel machinations of the global financial capital and imperialist state policies dictated by an elite political class. The new left, or the more identitarian version that sprung from 1960’s (the self described social justice fighters), describes their politics as a resistance to the oppression by the hetero-patriarchal, white (or Brahminical in India) hegemony that is all pervasive. And now, the right has learned the trick and describes themselves as fighters against the oppression of the nexus of academic liberal left, biased liberal media and villains from outside their civilizations, hellbent on destroying their glorious traditions. The villains of the right changes religion as we cross national boundaries, even though the liberals of various hues and colours remain a constant. If all of them are to be believed, we are really screwed from all directions! Is that so?
Has the world gone bad?
Steven Pinker argues in this 2011 book, The better angels of our nature, that extreme forms of violence have been decreasing with the passing of age. The book in itself got quite a bit of ire from various sources, from postmodern theorists to Nicholas Taleb. However, one argument that it raises is still worthy of consideration. Even if we cannot assert that extreme violence has not gone down (substantially), it can certainly be asserted that there is no upward trend. This may not sit well with the political propositions of the new left, which is only bad for them. Another important thinker, Yual Noah Harari argues in his book Homo Deus that:
“In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.”
If we go by any available statistics it is unmistakable that with all the challenges, humanity as a whole is not worse off today than it were 25 years before. What is true for the world is true for India too, though there is a huge variation among the people who reaped the benefits of the political changes and technological advancement. If such is the case, why are political positions and justifications increasingly built up on victimhood premise?
I want to consider three possibilities here:
- The success of left wing’s victimhood narrative in establishing dominance in the high culture spheres has made the right wing follow suit. It is just a catching up phenomena.
- The increasing awareness of own rights, isolation and growing ability to express due to social media, in that order is responsible.
- Though extreme violence might not be on increase, more subtle forms of dominations are on the rise because overt violence is not cool. Therefore, the new victimhood narratives are the result of growth in repressed violence combined with democratization of media.
Let us take case 3 first. The idea is explained through the block diagram below. Simply put, this proposition states that because of the process unleashed by technologically driven modernity, the left and the right are more mean to each other than ever before. There is heavy polarization in ideological lines with little space in between. The moral consciousness prevalent inside the society makes violent expression of the same distasteful if not highly infrequent, unless the tag of enemy is given. Hence all political positions are more passively aggressive against each other. A sense of victim hood comes from this ground reality. We are more vocal than ever, but so are others around. There is no currency for showcasing dominance through overt power displays. Hence there is a psychological phenomena at play, so that one’s inability to display dominance translates to a feeling of powerlessness. In real sense societies are becoming more egalitarian though people consider themselves oppressed, more than before.
There is a large and expanding media space today. This means that there is enough opportunity to vent this passive aggression. People who are subjected to repressed or overt violence can easily connect with such a narrative than evaluating political propositions. It is a truism that emotions connect people to politics than logical propositions. This also explains why the traditional left and classical liberals, who relied more on analytical method, are failing. It is not because Marxist theories are objectively more wrong than that of Donald Trump’s ideas that the former has less appeal. Personally, I do not believe the fact that grand narratives are unable to explain the whole complex world today is any proof that multiple lesser grand narratives are better off than them at any level. But the failure of the grand narratives have given the inward looking, self centered and sympathy seeking narratives more edge. All the political entities are recognizing it.
The individualist drive
The proposition made in case 2, can be described as the individualist drive. The flowchart of the argument is given below.
This argument is similar to the previous case, except for the fact that the emphasis is not on the group dynamics that has resulted from the technologically driven modernity. Here the focus is on people at an individual level. Whether part or sympathizer of any political ideology or not, individuals at large are becoming more self-centered every where. The growing appeal for the victimhood narratives is like a cry in the dark, against isolation. The growth of media in the information age has catalyzed and currently is accelerating the effect.
Ape the ‘masters’
It is undeniable fact that left, both mainstream and identity politics groups, have traditionally been the champions of formulating political propositions based on victimhood narratives. Although classical Marxists chartered the path by defining the need of revolution as to give historical justice to the oppressed classes, the real success story has been the social justice politics that emerged in the mid twentieth century. Right wing groups had often played the victim card, very disingenuously and dangerously, but not as the primary political plank. The Nazi party’s ideology had very little to do with whether Germany was betrayed by Jews, Communists and other non-German ethnic groups. That part was just a mobilizing plank. It was supposed to serve only the initial phase. But right wing parties too have learned from the workings of the modern democratic politics. Today it is not cool to be a recognized totalitarian. Still, continued presence in the democratic spaces need a tool to remind people that they need you. A real or invented sense of victimhood really fits the bill. The argument is that right and other segments of political spectrum are in effect aping the left who made remarkable changes in the social and cultural sphere during the last century. Even if left have become electorally less relevant in many places, their contribution within society lives on. Right on the other hand has nothing to claim for itself. Their presence can only be guaranteed by capturing the imagination of the society; they need to be the shining knights in armor! And that means, they need to create a damsel in distress.
In my opinion, all the three processes are at work. It is difficult to put a number on their respective weights. As far as rightwing parties are concerned, the ape the masters theory is more relevant. Repressed violence and individualist drive perhaps explains the preference of people at large for victimhood stories and imaging to be part of it, often wrongly. Political left of various hues are following the course of the social trend, which was initially unleashed by them. People’s preferences does affect the right, but it is not in line with the cultural hegemony that they generally subscribe to. It is not because many people who might sympathize with the right feel victimized that they comes up with that narrative. The story of being victimized by the academic left, though mostly cooked up, does not follow from the trends in society. It is their way of turning the table in light of the left’s own arguments. An interesting case study at this level is the American presidential election 2017 when the populist alt-right turned the traditionally left backed victimhood narrative on its head.
I do believe that a lot of the narrative spins are created by processes over which individuals or political groups have very little control. Having said that, it is my opinion that the academic left should be held responsible for unleashing a victimhood fetish. The culture has percolated into the media too. Now, this is not to say that there are no reprehensible power structures or that certain identities and individuals are not treated sub human in ways. This is only to say that the outcomes of these discourses are often too simplistic and create a typical Hollywood style good guy vs bad guy story, and a horribly inaccurate one at that. Though two decades late, the right has understood this. While all these things happen, as individuals we are psychologically feeling more pressure and isolation even when as human beings we are doing better and powerful than ever. It is a complex tale, but one that must be analyzed carefully.