At Stanford, our political discourse, the parameters of which both the Left and Right accept as given, has been reduced to the quest for victimhood and sucked dry of any substantive notions of justice or truth.
Examples of this phenomenon abound. In the debate over police brutality and racism, one side argues that Black Americans are the true victims and police officers their oppressors, while the other maintains that the opposite is true. Hence the competing slogans of victimhood: Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.
In the debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the pro-Palestinian camp contends that any Palestinian violence, even against Israeli civilians, is justified resistance because the Palestinian people are victims of Israeli expulsion and occupation. The pro-Israel side, in turn, insists that Israel—a safe haven for the Jewish people, surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors and constantly bombarded by Palestinian rockets and suicide bombers—is the real victim in this endless conflict.
Even the debate about free speech on campus, which ramped up with the November appearance of Robert Spencer, is framed within a prism of victimhood. One group asserts that political correctness is oppressive and even physically violent, while the other argues that hate speech is psychologically damaging.
Though the Right and Left rarely agree on substance or legislative agenda, they have both, self-defeatingly, I might add, accepted the terms of contemporary debate: powerlessness implies moral legitimacy. Might makes wrong.
Despite its alluring simplicity, this framework of power and victimhood is problematic. First of all, using powerlessness as a measure of moral correctness does not withstand historical scrutiny. Throughout history, numerous political movements have emerged to liberate powerless minorities. Not all of these movements, however, were righteous. To take just one example, the Cuban Revolution, led by Che Guevara and the Castro brothers, ended in tyranny and neglect for human dignity. The Cuba Archive project estimates that over ten thousand people have been executed by the Communist regime since May of 1952. This movement on behalf of the “powerless,” ostensibly motivated by noble causes of equality and liberty, was no more just than the “oppressors” it sought to overthrow. Being powerless, and challenging those in power, is no guarantee of being good or just.
Furthermore, righteous movements, like the Civil Rights and Feminist movements of the 1960s, did not emphasize the powerlessness or victimhood of those they represented. Quite the opposite: the yearning of these movements—the very reason why they marched and sang—was for societal respect and legitimacy, or, in other words, power equal to that of others. African Americans and women did not surrender their moral claims once their rights were enshrined in law and their detractors were cast to the fringes of society. Instead, they viewed their empowerment as evidence that the “moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
What these aforementioned movements embraced, and what contemporary campus debate desperately lacks, is a positive conception of justice not tethered to power structures or oppression hierarchies. Beyond mere historical inaccuracy, equating victimhood and justice results in moral blindness and polarization.
Central to the idea of victimhood is the absence of agency. Accordingly, proponents of “victimized” causes are wont to blame any moral failure on the perceived oppressor, since the victim, by definition, has neither agency nor responsibility. What’s more, claims of victimhood are non-negotiable, as they are rooted in subjective experience and demand exclusive allegiance. Lacking any way to mediate between these absolute claims, political debate becomes an echo chamber of grievance-airing and finger-pointing.
Powerlessness as a moral standard is not just wrong, but destructive. But what, one might ask, is the alternative?
What we need, it seems, is a shared, objective standard against which cries for justice can be measured. For the Civil Rights and Feminist Movements, this standard was found in the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence—bedrock principles of liberty and equality that no American could ignore.
But herein lies the problem. At the heart of the push toward victimhood is the belief that this kind of objective standard no longer exists. Thus we resort to vacuous claims of power and victimhood (as described above) to settle questions that in fact require substantive conceptions of ethics and justice.
This problem is most acutely described using an analogy that Alasdair MacIntyre draws in the opening pages of his magnum opus, After Virtue. MacIntyre imagines a society in the wake of a Know-Nothing revolution that succeeded in abolishing scientific knowledge. In this culture, “Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all.”
Macintyre believes we are living in this society. Except instead of science, it is moral language and knowledge that have been destroyed. Regardless of whether one accepts MacIntyre’s entire thesis—he believes that the successful Know-Nothing revolution was the Enlightenment and that the true scientific knowledge it destroyed was Aristotelian teleology—it is difficult to dispute his assessment of contemporary discourse as fragmented and his classification of moral language as twisted and decayed.
But our discourse has evolved somewhat since 1981, the year After Virtue was first published. At that point, people still clung to substantive notions of justice and morality, though these notions were incompatible with each other and were used primarily to mask personal desires and manipulate others (MacIntyre’s “emotivism as a theory of use”). Nowadays, we fail to even pay lip service to notions of duty, virtue, or rights. We speak in a common language—one of power and victimhood—but this language is removed from moral principles and is insufficient to resolve our disputes. Our post-scientific society has recovered a unified conception of science, but it “is not natural science in any proper sense at all.”
Any meaningful, constructive discussion of those divisive but important issues—issues that are in some way tied to ethics and justice—is contingent upon our ability to revive a shared moral language based on principles, not power. By shared language I do not necessarily mean an objective moral or political standard, but at the very least a common vocabulary that allows for productive disagreement, not cacophony. This task may seem daunting, even hopeless. But doing away with a politics of victimhood and power is a good start.
Image: Associated Press, Pioneer Press