Monday, 12 May 2008


i read this post by dr sapna samant today, in response to a discussion on the aotearoa ethnic network (see here if you'd like to sign up).

while i'm not interested in the substantive discussion around payment of extra's and the response of the group to it, i've been thinking about the "victim mentality" sapna talks about. i'd have to admit that her post grated on my nerves, and it took me a while to work out why.

it's because this is one of those concepts, like "political correctness", which is used to silence dissent. so when a group is pointing out, for example, instances of racism or seeking redress for past wrongs, they're told to snap out of their victim mentality. complaining is seen as whining; we're told that we're living in the past, we need to put that past behind us and just move on. except the one's usually telling us to move on are the ones who would have to face a consequence should justice actually be done.

of course, some in the minority group (the alan duffs and john tamaheres of this world for example), will join in, telling their own people that it's time to snap out of victimhood, to stop looking for handouts and stand on their own two feet. i just hate the language, the concepts, the framing of this argument. seeking justice is not equivalent to expecting a handout. and seeking justice does involve going over past wrongs, it involves dwelling on the negatives and hence it does inflame passions.

we need that inflamation, firstly to encourage action, secondly to ensure that the same wrongs don't keep occurring. i can accept that there is a point when we need to move on, but that point only comes when justice has been done and real change has been achieved.

it's interesting that this term "victimhood mentality" is not used in terms of gender issues. i'm not sure why. we tend to accept that women have been victims and have been victimised. seeking justice has been a difficult process; seeking to change societal attitudes has been a struggle. but the complaint against women these days is not that we're victims, but that we have too much power. that claim is based on the fact that a few high-profile women have achieved positions of power, and that boys are doing badly at school compared to girls.

yet it seems that many women still feel powerless. i know that i often do. i feel powerless against the increasing sexualisation of women in advertising, music videos and many tv programmes. i feel powerless against the constant messages telling women how they should look and how they should think if they want to be acceptable. it's difficult to get across an alternative message, and those who try are treated badly. yet even though i feel powerless, i don't feel entirely helpless. at the least, i can say how i feel in as many forums as possible, on-line or in real life. it might not change the world, but it might make a few people stop and think.

it's important to speak out when injustice is occurring. i love the way the women at PAS are quick to point out when there's sexism or misogyny. this does not come from being victims, but from being empowered, from feeling strong enough to speak out. and i think that is why i disagree with sapna's post. the concerns expressed on the issue she discussed came from people that were feeling strong, not feeling weak or victimised.

having said all that, i must make clear that i love sapna's writing, and the fact that she's never afraid to raise issues that many of us steer clear of, out of politeness or sometimes lack of courage. it just happens that in this case, i disagree with her.


Anna McM said...

I couldn't agree more with this! I think the 'victim mentality' accusation is one of a host of backlash tactics which has been used against feminism and other progressive movements at different times.

In the last couple of decades, the neoliberal turn has emphasised individualism - as if to say that the world is one big level playing field, and if you can't seize the opportunity and do well, there's something wrong with you.

So we've seen bizarre examples of 'empowerment' - Alan Duff held up the paragon of Maori success because he writes books which denigrate Maori, Christine Rankin showing what an exemplary solo mum she is by getting a job imposing cruel policies on beneficiaries...

stargazer said...

thanx anna. i also want to share these comments from dr nabeel zuberi, sent to AEN yesterday, and which i rather liked:

Why blame the victims? This idea of the 'victim industry' is actually part of the anti-multiculturalism/difference agenda of government and capital enterprises in many parts of the world right now. There are victims that don't appear on Oprah. Can't we call ourselves 'victims' anymore? To sound out of place saying that you're a victim demonstrates the success of a freemarket individualist ideology that you are entirely responsible for your own problems or it's a freak of nature. It's mostly your own fault and there's nothing wrong with the system of power relations that you inhabit. You are Big Brother watching yourself. Reality television peddles the same discipline. Victims stand proud.

George Darroch said...

It seems to me that yes there is victim in a situation like this.

But in asking for acknowledgement of wrongs, and redress, the victim is able to get the other to surrender their position of power. Given the relative weakness of the victim, this is normally through shaming and appeals to morality, or the use of a higher power (the courts etc.)

Asking the victim to abandon their claims is a double marginalisation. The victim is first wronged by someone more powerful. They are then asked to abandon their claims to justice, as if the wrongdoer did nothing wrong, on account of the discomfort of the wrongdoer.

stilltruckin said...

You raise some interesting points, Anjum, especially about the language of victimhood and women. :)

I feel the Doctor's post is grating to you (and me) because it contains a kernel of truth, but he takes that truth and uses it to bludgeon all discussion about racism in a most unhelpful manner, just as you say, because he paints all discussion on racism as negative victimhood. But sometimes, and in most of my limited personal experience of the matter, discussion of racism is a case of positive assertiveness.

Psychologically speaking, the "victim" in the sense he's talking about is an object- someone who things are done to. If you accept being a victim and don't act to change things, but take advantage of guilt along the way, then you are most certainly in the situation he talks about. You've circumvented your right to take positive action and instead perpetuated tension in your relationship with the person you feel has wronged you.

But by asserting your rights for yourself, you cease to become a victim and start becoming an activist- you take on an "rescuer" role for other people in your situation, and your oppressors take on the victim role if they engage in backlash, trying to paint you as a persecuter. That, however, is not necessarily bad. There is no need to have a healthy relationship with people who will not accept your rights as a matter of principle.

He is right, however, that the rescuer-victim relationship as he's described it is pathological. I just don't think it's as pervasive as he believes. Anyway, the relationship he describes is bad because it's a case of allies overstepping our bounds by not giving you your rights freely, and perpetuating oppressed people acting like objects instead of people. Allies are the support staff. We necessarily have to be the back lines- we're supporters but it is dangerous for us to be the front voice of a movement. Women need to lead feminism. People from racial minorities need to lead the fight against racism. If we let those movements be hijacked by guilt from privileged groups, we enter a perpetual relationship he warns us about, in which everything the "victim" owns is a gift, and they must be grateful for it, which becomes another, more subtle form of domination, and is not much better than the situation we started in.

As for victimhood not being associated with women? Well, I'd guess that's because agenthood is now acknowledged for all races- you're expected to think, act, and do things independently regardless of race. You can't be painted by their backlash as overstepping your rights as a minority if they don't recognise you as taking independent action. ;)

But independence of action is not really accepted in the same way for women. They don't want to demean women for acting as objects because sexism dictates that women are supposed to be objects in the first place. Women are responsible for what happens to them, not what they do.

Of course, I could be speaking out of the same anatomical orifice as their dear Doctor in that guess. :)

stargazer said...

teehee, i'm reminded about julie's post recently regarding titles. dr sapna is a woman!

but i really like your point about the activits/rescuer. it's so much more positive, and put the right words to my thoughts.

it's funny when you say "Women need to lead feminism. People from racial minorities need to lead the fight against racism." because i've tried this argument on men, saying that men need to lead advocacy on male issues (such as the fact that boys are not performing well in schools, or men's health concerns). but the response was that this kind of attitude means women are abdicating their responsibilities. wierd.

stilltruckin said...

Anjum- That's because I'm a feminist in terms of buying the whole philosophy behind the movement as well as in terms of supporting women's rights. ;) I totally agree with you that where men have gender concerns, men ought to be leading on those issues, and is part of why I started writing online.

I'm glad you felt my expansions on your point were welcome. :) It helps that all the women in my immediate family have a background in psychology. ;)

I also think it's really misleading to talk about women NOT leading on men's issues, because many feminist ideas advance both women and men! Part of the reason I support feminism is because I think it breaks men free of some of the pathological stereotypes we hold about ourselves. (For instance, I get weird looks whenever I start talking about colour co-ordination in public. Apparently I should have no sense of style as a dude. That stereotype is stupid and seems to have no real reasoning behind it, as there are so many guys that, had they been born in a different body, would totally be fashionistas.)

Women aren't abdicating any of your wider responsibilities. You've given fair priority to issues that affect both genders, while still maintaining passionate advocacy for your own exclusive concerns. Now, if we had a widely organised men's movement making their own concerns known in paralell which most women didn't support, then there'd certainly be room for criticism. But that isn't the case.

Apologies on masculinising the doctor, by the way. I think that was actually a bit of racial bias slipping into my writing, sadly- because of poor conditions for women in eastern countries, I think some non-english names just make me think "man", and university papers have gotten me out of the good habit of writing "they" as a third-person pronoun most of the time. Obviously I have internal biases to correct :)