The writer Daniele Giglioli talked to Kronos on the modern discourse of victimhood: "The figure of the victim has taken the place, as an exemplary figure and object of identification, of the former hero. It's a paradigm shift."
The Italian writer and thinker Daniele Giglioli teaches comparative literature at the University of Bergamo. His recent works are Stato di minorità (Laterza 2015) and All’Ordine del giorno è il terrore (Il Saggiatore 2018). Giglioli writes for Corriere della Sera and Neue Zurcher Zeitung. He lives in Milan.
Daniele Giglioli has talked to Kronos about his book Critica Della Victima (The Critique of the Victim). In this interview, he explains who the victim is, why he was interested in the subject, and the problem with the victimhood discourse. Giglioli notes that many people wish to declare themselves victims of something or someone, but we must distinguish a student who got a bad grade from someone who escaped a genocide. But if we superimpose morality and politics without knowing the past, the results are not brilliant. “History is not moral,” Giglioli says, “knowing it yes.”
How did you get interested in the issue of victimhood? Are there particular historical or contemporary events that raised your interest in the matter?
By itself, I wouldn’t be particularly interested in the subject of the victim. What surprised me is how much the condition of victim has become, in those who are not, an object of desire and competition. In this I glimpsed not so much the umpteenth re-proposal of the rhetorical position of victimhood as an instrument of power (even Hitler claimed to be a victim), but a symptom of the widespread feeling that agency, individual and collective, has become today impossible. The victim is passive by definition. If he or she acts, he or she is no longer a victim, at most a fighter who has lost his battle. It was the subject of impotence, partly real and partly imaginary, that really interested me.
You postulate that the victim is the hero of our times. Who is the victim? Who become victims for which reasons?
The victim is the one (individual, group, people) who suffers an injustice. There can be not any question or possible ambiguity about this. When I wrote that the victim has become the hero of our time, it is because I had the impression that the figure of the victim has taken the place, as an exemplary figure and object of identification, of the former hero. It’s a paradigm shift. We no longer identify with who he did but with who he suffered something. But in the condition of victim there is nothing exemplary, in the sense of imitable, bearer of values. Being a victim is not a value, it is an evil to be avoided. Now, how can an ethics be built not on a good done but on an evil received? It is from the victims that we go today to ask for words of wisdom and comfort. I find all this quite sinister, a symptom of that condition of impotence that I have already talked about in the previous answer. Albert Camus once said to Elie Wiesel: I envy you for Auschwitz (or so Wiesel claims). How can such a thing be said? If Camus really said this, he said something profoundly blasphemous, and I prefer to think that Wiesel remembers badly. The problem is that today that sentence, even if not in the same words, has become a common formula. There is definitely something wrong with our contemporary collective consciousness.
Do you think that we can talk about “real victims” versus imaginary ones?
Of course. Obviously, in the real-world problems are more nuanced. Just think of how many heirs, real or supposed, of the victims of the past, use the victimization of their ancestors to justify reprehensible actions carried out in the present. I don’t think it’s a legitimate move. And this also applies to the individual who has been a victim in his life. Anyone who has been raped has not therefore acquired the right to become a rapist. Transpose this analogy into politics and I am sure you will find countless examples of very similar situations and justifications. The past must illuminate, not dominate the present. Today we all incline to hold ourselves more responsible for past victims than for present or future ones. I’m not sure if anything good can come of it.
Do you think that victimhood is an identity? If so, why?
We live in a time where all identities are in crisis. A lot of twentieth-century philosophy has also taught us to see how much every claim to identity, individual and collective, contains a strong share of the imagination. The victim’s speech would seem to be safe from this risk. I am a victim because something really happened to me. To this something you all owe compensation and recognition. That is why many, and perhaps almost all, wish to declare themselves victims of something or someone. But between a student who got a bad grade and someone who escaped a genocide, well, I really think we must distinguish. Also, because identity has become today in politics, precisely because of its always constructed nature, a merchandise among others, and indeed perhaps the most precious commodity there is. The most successful politicians are today precisely those who manage to sell this merchandise best. Indeed, one would almost say that they give it away. Except that in exchange they demand obedience, charisma, power. What good do I have to offer you? Not much, apart from giving yourself the right to feel like a victim. And it seems a little to you? For that alone you should be eternally grateful to me.
Is victim discourse dangerous? Do you think that victim discourse has a pacifying effect in politics? What is the demarcation line between the perpetrator and the victim?
I have said before, there is no possible ambiguity between perpetrator and victims. Unless the victims of the past behave today as perpetrators, to which the past victimhood gives them no rights. The victim’s speech is dangerous, however, not so much for this, but because it nails the subjectivity of people and groups to what they believe, wrongly, to be legitimately able to do. The victim’s motto should be, and for real victims it is never again. Being a victim is a condition to get rid of. And for this we all, not just the victims, are responsible. Every effort must be made in this regard. The perpetuation of the victim’s memory, however, goes in the opposite direction, also because it offers rhetorical advantages that are difficult to give up. Speaking as a victim, or, much more sinister, in the name of victims, disciplines the behavior of the listener: all of you must listen to me with compunction, without activating your critical faculty, and feel exactly the emotions that are prescribed in this case. The victim’s speech is also dangerous in another sense. If the victim has only suffered, she is obviously not responsible for anything, and there can be no question about that. But don’t being responsible for anything is it not the dream of any power? The danger therefore lurks not in the semantics but in the pragmatics of discourse. I am the president of the United States. Half the country hates me. So, I am right, as I am a victim, and I cannot be called to answer for anything. Dangerous, the victim’s speech is not so much when a real victim speaks, but when the victim’s discursive position is usurped to declare themselves irresponsible, and indeed deserving of love even without having done anything good. While there is no ethical commandment that prescribes us to love the victims, much less the abusive ones, but rather to help them no longer be such.
Recently, many studies in social sciences (i.e., Arlie Hochschild) showed how even the neo-Nazi political movements present themselves as victims? This can be used as a general argument against the rhetoric of victimhood within the political sphere. What do we do about the victimhood of the victims that we consider quasi unquestionable (such as the victims of the Holocaust) in contemporary political thought?
It was inevitable, and I think it is implied in what we already said. As for the question of how to orient oneself in the face of the various actors who resort to the rhetoric of victimization, I believe that the answer can only be the ancient Jesuit motto: always distinguish, examine each position case by case. If the logical dynamics of the discourse can always be the same, the historical and political circumstances never are. I don’t think there is a single recipe. It is necessary to keep in mind psychological and historical factors, power relationships, political contingencies, from time to time. That the neo-Nazis are making victims is something not to shed a tear on. That the Jews still feel threatened after millennia of persecution is perfectly understandable. That the state of Israel can, because of this, do whatever it wants to the Palestinians is instead a historical exploitation for the purposes of territorial power. And so on, case by case. After the First World War, Germany was treated very unfairly in the Treaty of Versailles. This certainly did not authorize Hitler’s atrocities. The only advice of caution that can be uttered is never to generalize. To which perhaps we can add that every time we try to superimpose morality and politics without residuals, the results are not brilliant, but rather disastrous. History is not moral. Knowing it yes.
Some comments on Critica della vittima (especially Die Zeit) present your work as a plea for political struggle. You also claim that the victimhood discourse disarms the (imaginary or real) victims by removing all responsibility from the victims. Do you think your critique of the victimhood discourse allows a more active way of being involved in politics?
At least I hope so. But the logical and ethical scandal of pointing to something bad as a source of good requires a new paradigm shift that cannot be produced only by a book or by the reflections of intellectuals. The wind needs to change. And in some ways, it is changing, albeit in a not particularly pleasant direction. The humanitarian paradigm served to mask a realpolitik that has never stopped operating. The fact that it is now starting to call itself by its name has the advantage of clarifying it, but it does not necessarily give us a better world.
On the other hand, your book is criticized for blurring the line between perpetrators and victims. How do you respond to these critiques?
I categorically reject this accusation. To understand why, it is sufficient to read the book carefully. However, I concede that the theme is so charged with emotion that it can cause confusion. In the mind of the reader, however, not in what is written in his pages. Then there are the cases of bad faith, but we will come back to this when I answer the last question.
If we can talk about a process of victimization, who starts this process? The political power or the victims?
Nobody. No one could deliberately, alone and by design initiate such a widespread phenomenon. However, it is possible to formulate a hypothesis about the historical period in which this mythology began its march towards hegemony. My guess is that this happened in the late 1960s. On the one hand, the assumption of the Holocaust as an ethical-political touchstone of history and universal morality, a process that I believe has harmed everyone, first of all to the survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants. I am a witness, not a prophet or a teacher, said Primo Levi, who wrote the most important books and the most profound reflections on the subject. On the other hand, the transformation of affluent Western societies from a labor society to a consumer society, a program which then saw its triumph at the beginning of the 1980s with the unbridled affirmation of neoliberalism. The consumer is a passive being, like a baby. He is someone to whom everything is due, and who does not have to prove his work in any way. If something has denied him, after he was promised, how to prevent him from assuming the posture of the victim? In any case, I am not indicating these two factors as causes of the phenomenon. Rather like a humus, a psychological and ethical facilitator capable of making the rhetoric of victimization take root more easily.
Concerning the Turkish case, some people argue that a discourse of victimhood became a pervasive political strategy, especially concerning the persecution of journalists, academics, and various civil servants following the failed coup attempt of 2016. Some question the effectiveness of this victim discourse in the face of a situation that continues to worsen. Do you agree with these observations?
Unfortunately, I don’t know the Turkish case well enough to express myself accurately on it. I don’t like what it’s happening there, but I can’t go much further a subjective judgment. In principle, however, nothing seems more hateful to me than a persecutor who tells the victim not to behave or even feel like a victim. I have sometimes seen my book quoted, especially in South America (Argentina, Brazil, Mexico…), by magazines of the army, industrial associations, or strategic study centers, to support aberrant theses, for example that the inhabitants of the favelas should not complain if the army does break in by shooting wildly, or that the natives of the Amazon rainforest should not protest against those who chase away them from their territories because there are resources there that are useful to the whole nation. Anyone can use whatever he or she reads as he pleases, and the author has neither the legal power nor the moral right to prevent him from doing so. But he is in turn free to express all his contempt to those who misunderstand his thoughts in such bad faith.