When Did Being a Victim Become Fashionable?

liberal self-flagellation

Feminist leader Robin Morgan’s statement of hatred for her white skin went viral recently. I have seen it popping up on all my social networks and have been struck by the diversity of responses it is getting – everything from cries of support and awe about Morgan’s superhuman empathy, to celebrations of the divine mother archetype (with which some are identifying her), to derisive exclamations that this is just the latest manifestation of “liberal narcissism,” to cheeky jibes that “someone should punch her in the face, then”.

I have a different take – I think this furor shows that we have reached peak privilege-checking. Here is a woman who is being celebrated for a statement of self-hatred – something one would think is at odds with the feminist objective of putting women in touch with their power. How did we go from empowering women to celebrating a woman who grinds herself into the dirt (out of the misguided kindness of her heart)? Who are these sickos who are celebrating those words? I certainly don’t want to meet them.

When did being a victim become fashionable?

The quote’s recent resurgence as a meme on social media networks – and the responses it has generated – show that Morgan has touched a nerve. The woman who spearheaded second-wave feminism – influenced by Critical Theory, Foucault and the Frankfurt school (see Camille Paglia’s criticisms of Foucault here and her comments about the lack of need for poststructuralist ideas in young nations like America and Australia here) – is back in the press for all the wrong reasons. Like Pandora she returns as a symbol and reminder of all the evils that she unleashed on the world.

Morgan’s statement encapsulates the worst of the victim-feminist mentality. All sorts of conundrums about intersectionality, activist one-upmanship and literary social capital (the rules of gaining writerly and activist prestige on the internet today) are thrown into sharp relief by Morgan’s statement.

How does one earn prestige as a social justice activist (sometimes referred to sneeringly now as a “social justice warrior” or SJW) or a cultural critic today? It has become necessary to express this sort of Morgan-style loathing for any contact a person may have had throughout their life with society’s reviled institutions of power: the patriarchy, elite schooling, oil money, or a passport in a colonialist country (like Australia or the US) where an ethnic population was displaced. Morgan does it all in one fell swoop, saying she wishes she could literally peel her white skin off so it was invisible and throw her passport – a gift granted to her by male settler-colonialists who subjected the native Indian population to nasty humiliations like the Long Walk of the Navajo – in the gutter where it belongs.

Her very last statement is particularly vile and stupid: “If I could become part of the oppressed I would be free.” I tried to give Morgan the benefit of the doubt about this. She probably meant it to sound like a romantic statement about the history-shaping power of the oppressed classes, I thought initially. Maybe this was a naive statement about her desire to be part of that.

I tried to tell myself that Morgan has the personal inhibiting factors in her own life on her mind. Perhaps a network of family members from similarly “disgustingly-privileged” backgrounds surrounds her, preventing her from truly throwing in the towel and living out her activist dreams. Perhaps institutional supporters are closing in on her, each with subtly different agendas, and to secure their support she is forced to navigate that politics, to avoid discussion of hot points, etc. She may also feel distressed that she was denied the contact with the oppressed classes where revolutionary potential is truly bubbling and boiling – it takes the anger of the downtrodden to spring a revolution into action.

All these things ran through my head, and yet the smugness and stupidity of Morgan’s statement cannot be denied. There is no freedom at the bottom of the pile. As one Facebook sneerer commenting on Morgan’s picture pointed out: “it was neoliberal backing that made her activist career possible.”

The other reason I bristle at those last words – the equation of marginalized status with “freedom” – is that they seem to me to reveal – unwittingly – the true motivation behind Morgan’s words: a desire to own both the comfort and agency that lets one build a writing career AND also the identification with marginalized classes that would make one’s words (in our era of privilege-checking, Twitter-storms, identity politics and intersectionality) carry heft.

Morgan, like almost everyone in the modern Left, is locked in what Matthew Brett calls “The Vampire’s Castle” – a realm where identity looms large.

[R]ather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.

As a feminist writer with a packed website that flogs her books and encourages you to subscribe to her eponymous program, Robin Morgan’s very livelihood depends on having her voice taken seriously. What looked like a sad attempt to grind herself into the dirt (sad but perhaps romantic) was, in fact, a cynical attempt to co-opt the voice of the marginalized. If she belongs to the same identity group as every subjugated class she will be taken seriously and perhaps more people will hit Subscribe in iTunes on that latest book-flogging podcast episode of hers.

“The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have “identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other,” says Brett in his very insightful article (see the link above). This is the issue the embattled Morgan is twisting herself into knots to try to resolve. I agree with the Facebook commenters on my feed who called her on her narcissism.

Identity politics reigns. It is so rife that people have to jump through some tricky intellectual hoops just to master it. It is no wonder the Big S Struggle (CLASS… which as Brett mentions, rarely enters into the debate. How did the Left lose touch with their mission so thoroughly?) cannot muster any steam.

“The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if – and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought – that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism,” he writes.

Morgan’s public statement invites many questions: Why did you feel the need to let us know that you hate your white skin? What sort of academic or cultural cachet were you trying to buy?

And is a statement of self-loathing really a way to distance yourself from privilege? If Morgan was hoping to secure radical cred AND keep her funders happy by selling some books when she unleashed that sad bit of self-pity on the world… well, she is not going to secure it from me

Let us make feminism about pride in our power and ourselves and our gains. Let us deemphasize victimhood and separatism in general and turn our eyes back to empowerment and community.

Featured Image Credit: “The Flagellants”. Still from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) Source: YouTube

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