The recent dust-up between transgender activists and what I suppose we would have to call “paleo-feminists” (who are retrograde enough to believe that to be a woman is to have a vagina) brings to the fore, in real time, the question of hierarchies in victimage. Is it a question of who is more “oppressed” (according to what measure)? Is it a question of who is able to leverage some blind spot in another’s victimary claim (so, to the extent that an anti-Islamophobia activist could point out that a black American really, in his defense of the primacy of race, shares assumptions with straight white Christian males devoid of all victimary credentials, Muslim would trump black in that case)? Is it a question of sheer political utility, on the part of leftist political groups (from the Democratic party all the way down through the splinter queer groups on a college campus)? Is it a question of being the latest on the scene? The most aggressive, or pathologically uninhibited? Surely the answer is “yes” to all of these questions, so we have not yet succeeded in putting order into the current victimary scene.
I’d like to bring to bear my recent inquiries into “civilization” and see if that can help. Part of being civilized is being tacitly aware of the fragility of the boundaries protecting civilization, and therefore being trained in the detection of transgressions of those boundaries. The boundaries are fluid because in distinguishing our own level of civilization from that of others (whether to learn from or elevate ourselves above them), we introduce new gradations (I think most college instructors can point to a process of learning how to point to student errors or deficiencies over time, as we come to feel the barbarism implicit in criticisms that emphasize the institutional rather than functional authority of the teacher. To learn how to say something like, “let’s try another way of looking at this” instead of “no, you’re misreading it,” is to introduce a civilizational gradation—even while “no, you’re misreading it” introduces a civilization gradation from a rap on the knuckles.).
But this means that one can always find something barbarous in what passes as civilized behavior, and that this capacity will be subject to (barbaric) mimetic law, i.e., competition. It’s not so hard to look around at what people do and imagine there’s no way anyone will still be doing that 20 years from now. The policing of civilized behavior contains the elements of new forms of barbarism, in the form of competitive displays of moral exhibitionism (a form of conspicuous consumption). To one caught up in such competitive displays, what is to be avoided at all costs (what makes one a loser) is to be exposed as naively accepting some civilized norm as unproblematically present. Think of the liabilities one opens oneself up to with a naïve outburst like “We treat women pretty well in this society—look at what things are like for them in the Islamic world!” One includes oneself in a “we” that presumably has the prerogative to treat women well or not, one claims, complacently, to be overlooking all of “us,” as if mistreatment of women in many places may not be much worse than one thought, one scores points for oneself through an invidious contrast with an other (and how did they come to be “other”?) rather than looking to better oneself, etc., etc. Anyone involved in the oneupsmanship of moral exhibitionism instantly sees someone resting on the laurels of civilizational gradations others have introduced, rather than introducing a new one himself.
This game is a source of endless conflict because in order to introduce a new civilizational gradation one must take for granted the whole mass of gradations already sedimented within our civilized way of life—we are all, at some point, like that guy who says “We treat women pretty damn well!”; and there will always be someone who can acquire moral capital for himself by locating that vulnerable spot. What, most fundamentally, one accepts tacitly, and can never completely root out, is the basic premise of civilization, one embraced by the most radical academic, with the lifelong marriage, single child brought painstakingly from elite daycare through the Ivy League so as to acquire the cultural capital of the 1%, a nest egg to last decades of austere retirement: deferral and discipline, in particular self-restraint regarding being a judge in one’s own cause, brings prosperity. This is both the most fundamental and the most vulnerable claim of the civilized order, because in actual fact it is very often false; it may even be false more often than not. Plenty of people work hard, play by the rules, and fail; plenty of times they never really had much of a chance in the first place. Indeed, civilization could only have been installed under conditions where its premise could only be true for a small minority. And yet the bearers of civilization (parents, teachers, rulers, thinkers, professionals, etc.) must insist that everyone act as if it’s true—even if, in their own individual case, it wasn’t.
This is where civilization, at its most basic, qua civilization, produces its victims. The roots of victimary thinking lie not just in the Shoah, but in an appropriation of that event as the irrefutable demonstration of the reversibility of all civilized norms in the name of exceptions licensed by the norms themselves. The victimary claim, in other words, is that the extreme barbarism of the Nazis was carried out in the name of the precepts of civilization, reduced to their essence: the white, heterosexual, Western, bourgeois, etc., man’s “burden” to civilize the world. The Nazis just saw this required measures more extreme then, but not conceptually incompatible with, European imperialism, or the American conquest of North America. What rouses the victimary ire, then, most elementally, is the demand by one party claiming to have achieved the discipline of civilization that another take that discipline upon him or herself. References, even when mediated through impersonal, institutionalized practices, to the “irrationality” of women, the promiscuity of gays, the higher crime rates among blacks, and so on, are advanced from the position of one demanding that another submit to the discipline whose acquisition is, tautologically, demonstrated by one’s demand that the other submit to it.
So, I can now propose the following hypothesis: any victimary position will be accorded greater protection to the extent that counter-attacking on its behalf exposes the vulnerability of the civilizational demand for discipline to further civilizational gradations that defer that very demand for discipline. This hypothesis accounts for the vulnerability of normal, civilized, people to those more skilled at creating civilizational gradations, i.e., to the white guilt purveyed by the competitive moral exhibitionists, and the receptivity of the hyper-civilized White Guiltists to the actual (if often self-appointed) victim groups, who intuit that the former have no source for their civilizational gradations other than their grievances. It also accounts for the paradox of a cultural development that on one level loads us up with deferral, the material of civilization (more refined “rules of engagement” in everyday life), while more fundamentally releasing the most destructive desires and resentments. Once the demand for discipline is seen as the source of violence (once the civilizing process has been completely forgotten), there is no way out of this paradox. The ultimately, largely unacknowledged, goal of the victimary revolution is the totally therapeutic order, in which all desires and resentments undergo an incessant process of absolute exposure, universal recognition and reciprocal adjustment. The fantasy is that the results of civilization can be preserved without the discipline.
So, we can see the various victimary grievances orbiting a single center of imperious commands to submit to discipline, and each becoming, under specific conditions, the center or periphery of the constellation of victimary grievances mobilized to counter-attack—grievances that are potentially unlimited if not necessarily practically so. (I wonder, in fact, if the heavy investment in the Pickett’s Charge of the transgender movement—which cannot really get much popular traction, being so obviously marginal and idiosyncratic—won’t turn into a kind of Waterloo—to mix military metaphors. Certainly not a fatal defeat, but perhaps a debacle sufficient to slow the momentum and dent the perception of inevitability—not coincidentally, the same thing we are waiting for with the Islamic State.) Insofar as this constellation coalesces and acquires some stability, it take the form of a kind of fluctuating early feudalism, with everyone scrambling around to see which of the lords of victimage can actually grant the protection one needs to navigate daily life. As with any system of fealty, it is essential that you ostentatiously attribute all your successes to the grace conferred by your victimary protector. Whatever one has been able to do is due to the courage of those victimary revolutionaries who have broken this or that boundary. Perhaps we will find out next year if victimary feudalism has thoroughly infested the American political system as well.