I can vaguely remember the beginning of talent shows like Idols and X Factor in the early 2000’s. If you wanted to win one of these reality TV competitions you had to either sing very well, or be very attractive. Those two factors worked on a scale. If you weren’t that sexy then your voice had to compensate, if you were really super attractive, then you could afford some false notes. Such were the unwritten rules of talent shows in times gone by.
Today however, when you watch an audition, just before the contestant is about to take the stage, the host will inform us that we’ll cut to a video clip in order to get to know ‘Frikkie’ a little better. All of a sudden we are in his house and the music tells us that it is actually a tragic story. We’ll see photos of his dead dog that he loved or hear about financial hardships in the family. When we are eventually back on stage with Frikkie and he gets the chance to sing, then there isn’t a dry eye in the building.
This reveals something about our culture. For Frikkie or any other contestant to be relatable to the modern audience he or she needs to be a victim of some sort.
Which brings me to soccer.
It dawned on me a while ago that we are a country (and a world for that matter) of soccer players. In the recent soccer world cup I found it so amusing to see how the players will theatrically fall to the ground when there is almost zero contact and hold on to their shins and scream to high heavens only to miraculously recover within a split second when they are either rewarded a penalty or play goes on. In the one ‘soccer diving’ compilation – I saw a defender grabbing the hand of his opponent and hit himself with it in the hope of orchestrating a foul and in the process win his side a penalty. The comparison to our political landscape is striking (pun intended).
In South Africa whites will dive, because they are BEEing unfairly side-lined in the workplace. Black people will hold onto their shins and convince the referee that they have been oppressed for centuries and continue to feel the brunt of systemic racism. Coloured and Indian people with a hand over face gesture claims they were not white enough in Apartheid and they aren’t black enough now. All of this in an attempt to earn their side a penalty.
It is however not just a South African problem. In Trump’s America the right claims to be victims of radical political correctness, whilst the Black Lives Matter folks are allegedly continuously subject to various forms of violence. It is also not just a race thing; remember that soccer is played by all genders. Men claim they have to play on a field of eggshells, women says Me Too and demand that a team called Patriarchy be expelled from the game. Not to mention the LGBTQIA+ who are struggling to settle on a team name, but want to play (dive) as well.
It appears that everyone on the planet is a victim. As a matter of fact that is the only thing that unites us these days. Which begs the questions, how did we arrive at this mess? When did the victim apocalypse happen and how did the virus spread so quickly?
Pascal Bruckner ventures a guess. According to him we can trace the modern oppression obsession back to Auschwitz. After 1945 the images of the Nazi concentration camps started to circulate across the world. People were horrified at the industrial scale of the operation. For the first time in human history people were massacred in what resembled a factory of death. Understandably this resulted in global sympathy for the Jewish people to such an extent that in 1948, three years after the holocaust, the state of Israel was declared.
People reflecting on this noticed that there is a link between being victimized and political power, between being massacred and getting your own country – to such an extent that Bruckner provocatively claims that we used to feel sorry for the Jews, but today we envy them.
‘Auschwitz has become the gold standard for human suffering. It has become a monstrous object of covetous lust. What people want is to drape themselves in its moral eminence, its tragic splendour… Suffering gives one rights, it is even the sole source of rights. Anyone who seizes control of it also seizes power. The great superiority of unhappiness over happiness is that it provides a destiny. It also enthrones us in a new aristocracy of the outcast. One has to display one’s own distress and if possible eclipse that of one’s neighbour in order to be recognized as the most meritorious.’
Can this possibly explain the global politics of victimhood?
He goes on to say that the term ‘heirs’ traditionally referred to the children from good families who enjoyed a large fortune, but now the term refers to the transmission of a new patrician value: ‘suffering’, which raises us to an unprecedented aristocratic order. If this is the case, how can we avoid transforming ourselves into lobbies of professional sufferers, competing with others for market share and the martyr’s crown?
If being a victim equals political power, guess who is a victim?
This leads to all sorts of absurdities. You have white South Africans calling crime in their native country a calculated genocide of whites and therefore seek asylum in Canada. You have feminists lamenting the lack of women in the World War 2 epic, Dunkirk. You have Google removing half an egg out of their salad emoji in order to not offend Vegans and if you are a white hippy with dreads, then apparently you are a racist.
We live in strange times indeed when the most powerful words in the English language are ‘I am offended’ and the only feeling that is better than being right, is being wronged.
This tragically results in a case where we no longer take any claim of victimhood seriously. If everything is racist then nothing is racist. If everything is sexist, cultural appropriation, homophobic, fascist then it just becomes a cacophony of outbursts, indistinguishable from the next. We live in a world where #activism is trending and subsequently we have imaginary Jews, imaginary struggle heroes and imaginary suffragettes.
Spare a thought for the real victims trying to be heard in this theatre of victimhood!
A biblical account that can help us navigate this strange time is the Old Testament story of Jonah. This prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel is called to evangelize the people of Nineveh. He is understandably not very keen for this task as they are the arch enemy of his people. The Assyrians fiercely oppressed the Israelites and were known and feared for their harsh treatment of occupied territories throughout the ancient Near East. Hence Jonah is not super excited about any sort of rescue mission to these oppressive pagans.
After a somewhat fishy detour he eventually ends up becoming the most reluctant and successful evangelist in world history. We are told the whole city repented and this greatly angered Jonah. In a hope against hope he sits east of the city wishing God will nonetheless destroy the bad guys. A hilarious dialogue between God and Jonah ensues. Because the oppressors repented from their evil ways, Jonah is so filled with anger that he would rather die than live with the knowledge that his sworn enemies will not me torched by God. He is in fact questioning the justice of God, for having mercy on the enemy.
Here lies the rub: Jonah is so blinded by his victimhood (whether perceived or real) that what he calls justice, is in fact revenge. There are few things that make us as blind, vengeful and unreasonable as self-righteous anger fuelled by a sense of victimhood.
Go figure South Africa