The Victim

a dialogue between

Alice Abrams & James Soderholm

AA: We live in an age of victimhood. Political turmoil, an aging population and skyrocketing rates of mental illness seem to subject almost everyone to some kind of unjust misfortune. We all appear to be constantly violated by so many forces larger than ourselves that it seems impossible to escape victimization. This sense of victimization must be more than a political fad, but we must wonder how it truly operates, and how it came to be. Does it have a moral basis? Is it wrapped up in our evolution?

If to be a victim is to be subject to unjust misfortune, it can be said that we are all born victims. We are all born helpless to satisfy our own needs. Most other animals do not have this problem, and can survive more easily on their own from birth. But humans must be born suffering our helplessness, and have no choice in the matter. This misfortune is not deserved, it is not a punishment. It is simply a feature of human existence that we must be tortured by our own underdevelopment for months after leaving the womb. We depend on a caregiver to recognise the fact that we are victims to our own biology in order to survive.

It can be seen throughout history, that when people are made victims by their bodies, we care for them. Upon noticing this victim status of another person, we become able to see them as someone in need of care, and are motivated to help them survive. This can be seen in the 4000-year-old skeleton of a girl from the Arabian Peninsula, who appeared to have suffered some kind of neuro-muscular disease, and would have required around the clock care. She lived to the age of eighteen, and even had rotted teeth, most likely from her family feeding her too many sweet dates! If others had not recognised her underserved suffering she would have surely died. Even though her illness could have made daily life more difficult for the rest of her community, they still looked after her. It was others being able to recognise her victimhood and need for care that kept her alive.

It is often argued by biological anthropologists that, because human babies are born so vastly underdeveloped, humans had to evolve self-awareness and strong social bonds in order to help children survive. If we had not been able to recognise the suffering of innocent babies as victims to their helpless bodies, the species would have been unable to thrive. It seems then, that victimhood may be built into humanity. Perhaps it is a necessary part of life?

JS: I suppose I would immediately want to construct a sliding scale of ‘victims,’ from the most clear-cut cases to the most dubious and gratuitous. On the one hand, I would put the history of Jewry, for example, and the various persecutions suffered by Jews in the last 3000 years. On the other hand, I would put the people who have turned taking offense into a minor (very minor) art-form and who claim the status of a victim if someone touched their knee at a cocktail party fifteen years ago. Is that unasked-for attention to the knee really a matter of ‘unjust misfortune’? Possibly, but can the word ‘victim’ be justly applied to two such grossly different kinds of misfortune? I hope not. Otherwise words can mean pretty much whatever you want them to mean and language loses both precision and explanatory power.

I don’t think helplessness or being underdeveloped necessarily makes us victims. That’s just too vague and general, in my book. To be a victim, mustn’t one be deliberately persecuted by a more or less malevolent being? The word ‘victim’ began as something describing a ritual sacrifice. Then the word referred to someone who was hurt, tortured or killed, and then broadened to cover someone taken advantage of, and now finally refers to someone who feels slightly wronged by a bit of flirting at a cocktail party. That looks like a decline into fatuous imprecision and gratuitous vagueness, does it not? How fiercely should we hold onto older, more substantial meanings? Has the word ‘victim’ become a cliché: stale from overuse and deployed generally to cover ludicrously different cases?

AA: I think it can be questioned whether deliberate malevolence is needed for someone to be victimised. In the case of the ritual sacrifice, the person performing the sacrifice does not have the goal of doing evil, and in the context of his or her religion, neither is he or she acting unethically. In a religious sacrifice there is a teleological suspension of the ethical, as Kierkegaard may suggest. The sacrifice is thought to be a pious act, not a malevolent one, and is performed with the end of showing righteous devotion to a deity in mind. The abstract, ethical considerations of the sacrifice are not considered whilst it is happening. Despite this lack of malevolence, the sacrificial animal is still considered a victim today. For many reasons, the killing of the animal can be viewed as unjust and misfortunate, but this is not what is considered when a person is performing the sacrifice- he or she acts only with piety in mind, and has few problems with the idea of the sacrifice, perhaps because the animal is not recognised as a moral subject, so the person doing the sacrifice does not have an (un)ethical intention whilst performing it. This same reasoning can be used in context of revolutionary purges. The Soviets and Maoists suspended ethics for the goal of getting rid of all perceived threats to the revolution, and did not act with the desire to do what is evil, only to achieve their goals, although as outsiders we may judge their actions to have been evil too.

I think that this shows that victimhood is highly situational, and is dependent on the perspective of different ethical theories and religious stances. A sacrificial animal can only be called a victim (of unjust misfortune) if you accept that animals have some degree of sentience, or in some way deserve to be treated morally and that the deity they are being piously offered to does not exist, or does not care for sacrifices.

Creating a ‘sliding scale of victims’, along precise definitions as a method of testing out who is truly a victim, would not be a meaningful use of intellectual resources. As I have suggested above, the way in which victimhood operates and is understood changes slightly, depending on the context and perspective. Although an acid attack survivor in London and a North African refugee sold into the Libyan slave trade are both considered victims today, and both suffer social degradation and fear as a result of the misfortune they have unjustly suffered, the two victims are different: they exist in different ethical scenarios, the misfortune they suffer has different impacts, and is part of different wider phenomena. In cases like this, would it really be right, or even possible, to try and tease out who is more or less of a victim? Can it not be said that both are victims, but differently? In order to create a sliding scale of victimhood on which we would judge and arrange every case, we would have to consider so many variables that it would be impractical. Would animals count as victims too? How would we account for situations in which we, as Westerners, believe someone to be a victim, but their society deems them to be honourable? What if somebody fits whatever diagnostic criteria of victimhood we tap out, but are not recognised, or do not recognise themselves in that way? Through what ethical lens would we judge? Even if we were to try to do so based upon instinct alone, how would we justify doing it from our perspective, and not from a different one? Politically, if we were to try and create a sliding scale of victims, we could end up deserting issues that we do not realise have more of an impact than we think, or abandoning important causes just because they contain a relatively diluted version of victimhood.

In terms of how victimhood is used in political movements, I would agree with you that in some cases, the claim of victimhood is dubitable. But I think we should note that in politics, on both the left and the right, victimization has come to be a tool to highlight that a group feels harmed by something, increasing the emotional weight and sense of injustice behind their cause. By claiming themselves to be victims, a group cries out ‘We have suffered unjustly, this is wrong! Help us to put things right!’. The victimization is an attempt to increase the attention to the group’s cause. This use of victimization is disingenuous at times, such as in how far-right groups use it to increase the weight of their claims that society has been corrupted by non-whites, immigrants, and queers. It can also be seen in how, very occasionally, a person may consider him or herself as a victim of unwanted sexual attention when somebody so much as looks at him or her lustfully. This is not just personal oversensitivity, but an attempt to relate to and support a political movement expressing the idea that the practice of using someone as a mere means to gratify one’s sexual desires without first considering the other’s moral subjectivity is unethical. Perhaps, instead of trying to figure out who is or is not a victim, we should try to understand why the groups who use victimhood as a political tool are doing so. Sometimes, victimization appears in politics in a way that clearly expresses a sense of unjust misfortune, such as in the March For Our Lives against mass shootings in the USA.

I think that if we dismiss this use of victimization as a throw-away term, or an imprecise use of language, we miss out on trying to understand why it is used in this way.

I believe we can agree that being a victim involves some kind of suffering. If a group claims status of victim, it claims that it has been burdened with suffering. Maybe, through persisting despite this burden, a group is seen to possess strength and resilience, which we often value to be virtues. In seeming virtuous and persevering we are compelled to support the group. I believe this can be seen aptly in Jewish history, which can be characterised by the Jewish People suffering endless amounts of unjust misfortune, but persisting and finding means of cultural and religious expression despite this. In and outside of Jewish communities, this resilience and contribution to culture is often celebrated, and, though Jews have been victimised, their reaction to this contributes to a positive image of the group.

Whilst I do think that this is a way in which victimization can be made into virtue, I do not think that it operates in the way described above in the modern political landscape. When a group calls itself victim, and highlights its perception of its life as being one of unjust suffering, it implies that some other force has harmed it in some way. People who are victimised by themselves or society may be (but most certainly are not always) in vulnerable, powerless positions. Through victimization, a group can highlight its vulnerability and powerlessness, and in doing this, can make itself seem to be a group in need of encouragement, pity and protection. In order to do this, the group must first make itself seem virtuous and deserving of such responses. Perhaps, because victims usually have little power, and the victimising force is often perceived as malevolent (although that force tends not understand itself that way) the victimised group creates a divide between itself and the perceived victimising force. This makes the force seem evil in contrast to the innocent, victimised group.

In light of this, do you think that a person’s propensity to victimization can depend on social and historical context? If a grammar school were to unjustly expel a promising poor student, it would leave him or her much more a victim than a promising rich student subjected to the same fate. This is because the richer student is much less vulnerable to misfortune due to his or her privileged social position, wouldn’t you agree?

JS: I suppose the ‘disingenuous’ attempt to make symbolic capital of vicitmization is what I find most objectionable. I do think much of victimization is ‘situational’ but not all of it. ‘Situational’ is too generic and elastic. Everything is in situ, but some forms of victimization (Jews in the camps) are far more compelling than other forms (the outlying cases of #MeToo). I don’t really care how far the latter represents a cry for help because I don’t think the offended (‘victimized’) parties require much help, except perhaps mental help. Therefore, I would say that we are witnessing forms of rhetorical victimization, driven by political correctness, and they must be persistently distinguished from actual forms of victimization, driven by nefarious individuals who may, for example, spend their days trafficking girls into sex slavery. There may be, as you suggest, historical and psychological reasons why certain groups feel the need to represent themselves as victims. Just as there are intellectual and ethical reasons to reject some of their claims for being gratuitous and disingenuous.

AA: Well, I certainly agree with you that a kind of symbolic and rhetorical victimization is being used in politics at present, and that it is important to be mindful of how psychological, historical, intellectual and ethical factors impact this phenomenon.

Yet I would hesitate to think that this kind of victimization is really driven by political correctness, due to the fact that some of the groups who engage in this victimization are radically opposed to such notions. As I mentioned earlier, groups on the far right, who see themselves as victims usually hold ideologies that are totally incompatible with political correctness. This is because of how their ideologies are often based upon the systematic dehumanization and rejection of the ‘undesirable’, which seems pretty politically incorrect to say the least. For disingenuously victimised groups that do champion political correctness, I can understand how you may see that believing in political correctness and feeling offended (whether this offence is justified or not) could help create a climate of victimization. However, the fact that we see victimization all over the political spectrum, and in non-political contexts gives the impression that the motives for victimization are generally much broader than this.

Just to make it clear for the reader, might we may also consider that disingenuous claims to victimization should not be rejected entirely? For example, we may reject the victim claims from those who believe that the world has been taken over by ‘cultural Marxism’, or that being looked at the wrong way at a bus stop is equitable with horrendous sexual assault, but this does not mean that we should completely reject, ignore or devalue the causes that those making these disingenuous victim claims are championing. Saying that somebody is just ‘playing the victim’ when their cause or claim appears to involve a case of disingenuous victimization could easily be used as a somewhat fallacious way to attack a group’s arguments, without actually trying to adequately understand their thought processes or beliefs. If we focus solely on how some political movements and groups claim to be victims, we risk ignoring important political viewpoints, even if engaging with those viewpoints just means debating the group’s central beliefs, or reflecting on a wider societal problem.

There is of course an important distinction between the more obvious types of victimization and the more subtle and disingenuous ones, in terms of the significance of the suffering and injustice involved. However, the truth of whether a group is a victim or not does not have as much impact as we would imagine when it comes to how much political attention certain groups are given. Whilst a lot of attention is often paid to disingenuously victimised groups at the expense of groups who are more certainly victimised, this is not entirely a result of the disingenuous group gaining attention as a result of a claim to victimhood. The experience of women in Pakistan or Honduras is far more a tale of suffering and injustice than the experience of women in the UK, and although both may rightfully claim to be victims, we seem to discuss and attempt to combat the problems of women in our country more than the problems of women in other nations. This is not only because we receive more news about the problems of women in our own country, but because we feel more emotionally connected to, and can more easily work to change the experience of women here. It is not occasionally disingenuous victimization that causes certain groups to get so much attention over more deeply victimised groups, but the way in which we consider and relate to them. Because of increased progress and liberty in ‘Westernised’ nations, it just so happens that the claims to victimization that we may make are often weaker and more disingenuous than those we see in other countries. Ethically, I think we can agree that we should be paying more attention to these more obvious victims than some of the ones closer to home.

However, attention must be paid to why we tend to feel like victims nowadays, peering beyond the bleak state of social politics at present. Perhaps this more general sense of victimization is just a symptom of a societal problem? We live in an age where companies constantly bombard us with dazzling images of how our lives should be, whilst we continue to suffer the pain of never living up to either our own or our society’s ideals. Our liberal democracy is rightfully celebrated, but continues to betray and poorly represented the people, forcing us to suffer increasing political polarization, tribalism and resentment as a result. We congratulate ourselves on the huge number of opportunities and resources the individual has access to nowadays, yet our jobs are often precarious and our qualifications are rapidly being devalued. In short- life in ‘the West’ is not all that it is promised to be, and many see that this gap between the way life could, or even should be and the way it actually is as a tragic injustice.

But is this sense of injustice and disappointment enough to make us feel like victims? Perhaps not. What may really break us down is the fact that we believe ourselves to have little agency to change the injustice of society. We don’t see the kind of leader that we really want step into 10 Downing Street, and if we do, we soon become dissatisfied with the mass of promises that the government fails to fulfil. If we are involved in some kind of activism, we often find that it leads to little substantive social change. We feel powerless. We often find ourselves unable to soothe our society’s suffering. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we feel victimised?

But what do you think we could do about this? Is there really much use in our frets and theories over the nature of victimization if we neglect to discuss how it can be overcome?

JS: Although I—and many like me, I suspect—do feel fairly powerless to change the world or soothe suffering on a grand scale, I do not in any way think this makes me a ‘victim’ except in the loosest possible sense. I continue to resist what I see as a slurring of cases and examples in order to make the weak case seem stronger, which is pretty much the definition of sophistry.

As far as this sentence—“As I mentioned earlier, groups on the far right, who see themselves as victims usually hold ideologies that are totally incompatible with political correctness”—I suppose I need a concrete example of which groups you are referring to.

What strikes me about the current ideological landscape is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the far right from the far left: they both seem tendentious, censorial, hidebound, and fairly Puritanical. I am not happy about either side claiming the status of the victim every time something doesn’t go their way. Trump was wrongly eviscerated by the media for saying that the violence in Charlottesville came from protestors ‘on all sides’. The left media insisted that violence could come only from the far right despite the presence of Antifa protesters who have a clear history of violence at such demonstrations. To return to the beginning of our dialogue, I think anyone can claim ‘unjust misfortune’ and therefore the status of the victim. I simply don’t always believe their claims.

AA: It appears that we may have differing understandings of what victimization is. I understand it as a sociological phenomenon, like tribalism or patriarchy, that seems to exist across cultures, but in different situations, levels of society, with multiple purposes and to different extents. What I have argued is that there is some extent to which we can all be identified as victims in some way - there are just some who are more obviously victimised than others, and these are the people who we may with more certainty call victims. I have also addressed that presently, claims to victimization are being used as a political tool in order to grab attention for causes that otherwise would not receive so much attention. I have linked this, as well as a more subtle and pervasive feeling of victimization that is present in many people, back to a sense of disappointment and powerlessness- this world is not living up to our expectations, we feel we are suffering beyond what we expected and deserve.

You may of course correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that you think of victimization from a different standpoint. It seems that you understand it as a moral concept, rather than a sociological or anthropological one. Whilst I know that victimization can be understood from a moral perspective, I am understanding it as a social tool and identifier that impacts how victimised people think, are thought about, and are treated. victimization is a loose concept, that depends upon perspective and relation in its application. For example, if you lived in the Aztec empire several centuries ago, and were about to be sacrificed to the gods, your people would not view you as a victim, due to believing that your death was very much justified, and that you would in some way, eventually return to Earth again. But if you were a Spanish Catholic looking on, you would be horrified, and view the sacrificed person as being victim of a strange and sinful practice. Of course, nowadays the majority of people agree that human sacrifice is immoral for a whole myriad of reasons, and those who were sacrificed in the past are sometimes considered victims now. But this was not the case then. Victimhood is not just a status that is bound by commonly held moral concepts- it is a label that functions as part of social identity and relationships, within the boundaries of the morals that those who identify someone, or themselves, as victims, have been socialised into.

If you could identify more specifically, what parts of my argument can be considered sophistry, other than the idea that the concept is loose, I would be happy to respond defending or reforming my argument.

Groups on the far right do victimise themselves. This is seen in how the Nazis spread the idea that Jews had ruined Germany and its economy, leaving the’ Aryan race’ to unjustly suffer the consequences, and in how the white-supremacists at Charlottesville chanted ‘White lives matter!’ and ‘You will not replace us!’, highlighting their fear of being overpowered by non-whites in society, and the sense that whites are being devalued. This does suggest a sense of victimization: these white supremacists felt that they were being unjustly pushed out of society by ‘undesirables’- they saw themselves as the victims of social progress.

Concerning your comments on Charlottesville- claiming that the role of anti-fascists in the counter-protest suggests that the far-left and far-right are hard to distinguish, and that the role of these anti-fascists not being emphasised suggests that the left-wing media falsely paints the left as completely non-violent, fallaciously equivocates between fascist violence and anti-fascist violence. It indicates that violence and threats from anti-fascists at a protest are equivalent with the violence and threats coming from the fascists themselves. Fascist violence usually goes against the ethical concept that an action must actually be possible in order for a moral agent to be obliged to perform it. For example, a fascist puts a negative moral judgement on those who are not white, simply for not being white, despite the fact that non-whites don’t have any choice but to be non-white, so their existence as a non-white person does not deserve moral condemnation. A fascist or white supremacist may punch you and morally judge you on the grounds of you not being white, attacking you for something that you cannot possibly change about yourself. An anti-fascist uses violence… against fascists, who I hope we can agree can possibly choose not to be fascists, and deserve to be morally judged for their disgusting beliefs. Regardless of the extent to which you see violence in and of itself to be justifiable, there is still a moral difference between fascist violence and anti-fascist violence. In terms of Charlottesville specifically, the fascists murdered a counter protestor, whilst no equivalent violence emerged from the anti-fascist or counter-protester side.

The idea that the left-wing media argued that such violence could only come from the far-right is a straw man. The role of anti-fascists in protests and demonstrations has been criticised by the left-wing media, such as The Guardian and Vox, suggesting that elements of the left-wing media do not see violence as only coming from the far-right. In terms of Charlottesville, the media mostly argued that the violence was very much noticeable on the right. During the demonstration, the fascist protestors carried weapons and torches whilst chanting mantras condemning people for things that they cannot control about themselves They also injured eight and killed one with a car. There appeared to be much less, if any violence from the left. You are correct that there were anti-fascists at the protest, who, just as the white supremacists did, carried guns. But the left did not fire these guns at the ground, or use other forms of weaponry, like the white supremacists did. It was incredibly difficult to even find information on the ‘far-left violence’ at the Charlottesville rally, besides from a few scattered photographs and reports. Trump was not entirely wrong in saying that there was violence on both sides, but in saying so he implied that the violence is comparable or of the same nature, which is completely untrue and only spreads the false belief that anti-fascists are comparable to fascists.

The statement that the far left and the far right are ‘difficult to distinguish’ from one another is questionable. Of course, both are similar in that they are puritanical and dogmatic, but aren’t such things expected from ideologies that are politically extreme? To argue that this makes them ‘difficult to distinguish’ is like arguing that rhinos and elephants are difficult to distinguish from one another, just because they are both grey, herbivorous and can be found in Africa!

JS:  Recently, a former Langton student, now studying at Oxford, went to attend a talk by an invited speaker—Steve Bannon. At the door, shrieking students from the left barred her way. She could not get into the lecture. She walked home, furious at being denied entry to a planned event at a school that is—like most universities—a bastion of liberal thinking. Truculent behaviour such as this, coming from leftists who have clearly abandoned liberalism, leaves me indifferent to whether they are rhinos or elephants. Who is ‘the victim’ in the scene I have sketched above? Was the student ‘violated by a larger force’? But when she told me this story, she in no way was claiming the status of a victim, vastly to her credit. She simply would not think in these terms. Why? Because she is a rational adult. I am fairly certain, however, that the social justice warriors screaming at her and barring her way would consider themselves victimized by the mere presence of Bannon, and that is how they would put it. Why? Because they are not rational adults.

AA: Whilst I have some agreement with your claim that the students saw themselves as victimised, I would hesitate to think that this was their main reason for protesting. In a statement from the organisers of the demonstration, the students claimed that they ‘came out to oppose fascism’ and the’ Oxford Union’s continued insistence on inviting fascists to speak’. This suggests that they were protesting out of alarm over views that they understood to be deeply unsavoury, and opposition to the Oxford Union platforming those who hold such views. Although Bannon is not a fascist, this statement highlights how the students’ protests did not come out of a deeply internal sense of being unjustly harmed, but instead out of a sense that it was wrong for their university to platform somebody who the students did not think deserved such a platform. The students seemed to be disheartened that the union would platform people who they opposed, ignoring the will of the student body and the impacts and implications of platforming Bannon. This sense of discontent is seen in how Oxford Student Union’s president, Joe Inwood thought that ‘it is disappointing that the Union have come so far from the mainstream of student thought and student opinion at Oxford.’, highlighting how the student protests occurred out of a sense that the students were not being given an appropriate amount of choice regarding who they wanted to speak at the union.

There is a sense of injustice displayed by the students here, but there is only a very slight sense of suffering and personal attack. This may suggest that whatever claim to victimization the students may or may not have presented with would be relatively insignificant- although as I have said previously, this should not mean that we should ignore or refute the wider issues at hand. However, this victimization is not central to the demonstration, as the students’ reasons for protesting appear to be more to do with disappointment and anger at their union’s choice to platform Bannon, rather than a sense of having suffered injustice.

Of course, other left-wing demonstrations may display more of a sense of victimization, especially when the action concerns harm done to people in that group, and things that are deeply impactful upon a group’s rights, such as demonstrations advocating for gay marriage, abortion rights, or an end to police violence. The demonstration against Bannon being invited to speak did not concern harm done to the students, although it may have to an extent concerned the issue of whether they should get a choice over who speaks at the Union, meaning that it did concern some of their rights within the institution. So, whatever sense of victimization that could have existed in the protesters was not overly significant.

The leftists certainly had reason to protest Bannon’s appearance- they were not being irrational. At the time of Bannon’s speech, a small group of fascists appeared, emboldened by Bannon’s presence, performing the Nazi salute and harassing two stewards.

It can be said that in protesting Bannon being platformed by the Oxford Union, and indeed, by preferring not to have his views be engaged with, the students were shutting out Bannon’s views. Shutting out minority viewpoints risks the creation of echo-chambers, and for that reason I think that the students should have either sat in the chamber and openly challenged Bannon, or asked the University’s staff to find a way to engage the students in Bannon’s viewpoints without having to platform his views, so long as they could find a way to justify the idea that platforming his views would be harmful to the university, union or to academia more generally. This would prevent the creation of an echo chamber.

I am interested to know what you mean when you talk about ‘rational adults’. Is rationality not just having logical reasons for acting or believing something? Whether or not these ‘social justice warriors’ are correct in their actions and beliefs, it can be empirically observed that many of them base their beliefs upon logically valid arguments based upon facts, meaning that they do have logical reasons, and so are rational. Unless you mean rationality in the more colloquial definition of being ‘sensible’ or ‘cool headed’, I must disagree with your claims. What exactly do you intend to convey by claiming that they are not rational adults? Of course, the students could have coped with the situation in a way that displayed their dissatisfaction with the union and with Bannon’s views without denying your friend entry to the chamber, but I don’t think that their behaviour makes them irrational. 

victimization, whether disingenuous or genuine, severe or mild, can be overcome. In being a victim, or even in simply claiming to be a victim, one is harmed. One has something valuable, whether it be strength, autonomy, freedom or material possessions taken or damaged. Perhaps in moving out of victimhood, one must be strong and grow into something new. Even if it is self-victimization, this must be done in order to transform the parts of the self that encouraged it. Cultures, artworks and ideas have emerged as a reaction to victimhood. Think of how black Africans sold into the horrors of the Slave Trade have used African identity and heritage to create popular music and fashions or of the many works of art and literature that came from traumatised soldiers after the world wars. In becoming strong, one can also learn to fight against and cope with injustice, without becoming trapped in the sense of bitter, self-pitying victimhood that can arise from suffering. Or are there other ways out of victimization? What can we do as a society? Tell me, what do you think?

JS:  Those barring the door to hear Bannon do not manifest, empirically or in any other way, any of virtues you mention above. I am at a loss to know the ‘facts’ upon which their censorial attitudes (they are attitudes, not arguments) rest. The fact is that Bannon, as you observe, is not a fascist. What, then, are the ‘logical reasons’ for de-platforming him? Yes, Bannon is pretty far to the political right and believes in strong nationalism, but he hates the KKK and Nazis, has international standing and has worked in The White House. Those credentials alone make him worth listening to for an hour before, perhaps, taking him apart in the Q&A. And what of the ‘victim status’ one could plausibly claim in ‘an age of victimhood’ for being unjustly called a fascist? I myself have been called a fascist but in a million years I would not claim to be a victim. The word is too important to be stretched to cover such cases, I would argue.

It’s the self-pitying, pseudo-victimhood that I have no time for. Other victims of cruelty—or the cruelty of extreme poverty—deserve all the attention we can give to them. I am full of admiration for anyone who can find or fight his or her way out of the injustices of the world.  

I think we basically disagree on who can plausibly claim to be a victim in a time—as you wisely surmise—where the idea of being a victim is being used (I almost said ‘weaponized’) to further certain ideological interests. I am happy for you to have the last word here and my often tart replies to you should in no way be taken as a sign of disrespect. On the contrary, you have complicated and educated my views throughout this dialogue. My argumentative horns are slightly sharper for the experience.

AA: There are logical reasons for wanting to de-platform Bannon. His beliefs, speech and presence in positions of power has encouraged fascist beliefs, despite his dislike of such groups. The fact that the KKK and other far right nationalist groups celebrated Bannon’s entrance to the White House, and the presence of fascists performing the Nazi salute at the student protests against Bannon being platformed are evidence of this. Bannon’s presence and power encourages the celebration and performance of beliefs that are in fact fascistic, and should not be encouraged in the political sphere. Bannon himself seeks to legitimise bigotry and intolerance, seen in how, at a gathering in Northern France in support of Marine Le Pen, he told the audience ‘let them call you racist, xenophobes, nativists, homophobes, misogynists- wear it as a badge of honour!’, openly encouraging bigotry. From what I have gathered, the protesters against Bannon had reasoned that: We ought not to encourage things that are immoral. Fascism and bigotry are immoral. So, we ought not to encourage bigotry and fascism. Giving Bannon a platform appears to encourage bigotry and fascism. So, platforming Bannon encourages something that is immoral. It is immoral to allow things that encourage immorality to happen. So, platforming Bannon is immoral- we ought not to do it. This argument is valid- its conclusions follows from its premises. But we may question whether or not it is sound. We can doubt the premise that ‘it is immoral to allow things that encourage immorality to happen’ in such a case. This is because platforming Bannon has the positive impacts of allowing students to engage with his views, and platforming him in accordance with his invitation to speak would protect his freedom of speech, despite the negative impacts of how platforming Bannon encourages fascism and bigotry and that such views can prevent tolerance and harm the substantive access that marginalised groups have to their freedom of speech. Are the negative impacts of platforming Bannon worth the positive impacts?

Here we can see the Paradox of Tolerance as presented by Karl Popper- we must question whether or not we ought to tolerate intolerant viewpoints. If a society has complete tolerance for intolerant views, then that society’s tolerance will be destroyed by the intolerant. To protect tolerance, we must rationally engage with the intolerant and speak against their views, but when the intolerant are unwilling to engage in rational argument or listen to the views of those that they are intolerant towards, it may be permissible for us to use force as a last resort to protect tolerance. Although Bannon was intolerant, he was willing to engage in debate with those that he disagreed with, and so attempting to stop him speaking was not really necessary as a means to protect tolerance. I do think that Bannon should have his views challenged and understood, so that they can be properly refuted. This is what the Oxford Union claimed to be aiming to do by platforming him. Whilst I think that the student protests were a little extreme, and that listening to Bannon would be a preferable way of challenging him, they do have a point that the university should be giving its students choice over who comes to speak, and that Bannon’s views could spread bigotry. Who knows whether questioning Bannon’s beliefs would be enough to counteract the spread of intolerance that they may cause? Whilst Bannon himself could be challenged, and was willing to rationally debate, the fascists and bigots who breed off his political and intellectual legitimacy often are not, and so it could be thought that de-platforming Bannon was a necessary step to preventing those even more intolerant than him from gaining power and destroying tolerance, although this is debatable.

I do not think that those barring the door for Bannon had the virtues as described above, due to the fact that these virtues can be created through escaping victimhood, not in victimhood itself. On top of this, the protesters didn’t really seem to see themselves as victims, as I have mentioned previously. 

I agree that the term ‘fascist’ can sometimes be stretched and used as an insult towards those who are on the right, and I think that we ought to be careful in how we use it. However, just like the term ‘victim’, calling someone a fascist can be a vague indicator of the political views and situations of both the describer and the person described, and so may be useful for making judgements about a political situation. Of course, a person could claim to be a victim if they were aggressively being accused of fascism despite not even being significantly right wing, as their political and intellectual reputation would be tarnished and misrepresented, yet this would not be a particularly profound form of victimhood, as long as the person was not unjustly harmed by the allegations. Say for example, that a classical liberal who had never expressed intolerance to marginalised groups was called a fascist and received death threats and life-long political ridicule as a result, this person could be called a victim, as they have suffered a significant misfortune without good justification. Yet if a person who believed in eugenics, ethno-states, white superiority and other concepts allied with and contained in fascism, was called a fascist and had their intolerant views supressed for the sake of maintaining a tolerant society, that person would not be a victim, as the claim that they were a fascist, and the action taken as a result would be justified, and the suppression of their views would only be a small misfortune for them, and would protect the people more generally, so the claims to victimization that this person could make would be rather disingenuous. There are many grey cases between these two extremes that I have presented, but I think it can be seen that claiming that another person is a fascist can sometimes make that person a victim, and sometimes less so, but either way, the use of the word is an indicator of political tensions that should not be ignored.

I think our disagreement is mostly about the ways in which victimhood is and ought to be used. I think that you see it as a status that needs to be protected so that we can give those who are deeply victimised the attention that they deserve. To an extent, I agree with you on this, and believe that this should be one of the main ways in which victimhood exists in our society, and that we must give those who are victims the help that they deserve. Yet I think that victimization is also a tool used to signal political injustice and tension, although this usage can have negative consequences when the victimization is disingenuous. I also see victimhood as a tool for social relation, and a state from which the escape can cultivate virtue. 

Thank you very much for this dialogue- it has been a pleasure to converse with you on such an important topic.