Wednesday, February 07, 1996

Victim

"DON'T be such a bloody victim," she bellowed. She had a point though: the carpet was quite destroyed. Hard by the headless cadaver the Axminster pattern had sunk beneath a blackish marsh, while further out, the ooze had lengthened into spindly fingers of crimson. Some more droplets had been spurted over the edge of the carpet altogether, and sat glistening on the exposed floorboards like a scattering of old cherries.
He had indeed been a very bloody victim, but he couldn't help that. Could he?

"Once victim, always victim - that's the law!" Thomas Hardy had his literary victim Tess proclaim in 1891, and it is surprising how little society's attitude has changed, even if the role of "victim" has substantially evolved. In the old days, as a result of forceful peer pressure, victims often found themselves participating at events from which they might ordinarily have taken a rain check. Getting burned alive or garrotted were not the nicest ways to go, but these early victims were seen as somehow sanctified, implicated in the cosmic order in a meaningful way.

In the post Christian period, however, the fringe benefits and social status of victims have declined substantially. These days, victims are more likely to be sprawled unconscious on farmhouse kitchen floors than communing in eternal splendour with the goddess Kali.

Victimhood has, however, begun to regain some of its lost prestige, as "victims" became, for example, players on the international art scene. By early in 1995, the word had found a nice walk up in Manhattan, and when the New Yorker critic Arlene Croce took exception to a dance piece about terminal disease by Bill T. Jones, a long lease was signed.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Croce too was a victim, this time of terminological inexactitude, since, as the playwright Tony Kushner pointed out, she used "victim" to mean "politically engaged progressive people".

The real contemporary allure of the word is that it is so closely tied up with the dynamic duo of "passivisation" and objectification. For the word "victim" now forms the background of a crucial, if often unspoken question in everything from criminal injuries cases to gender studies seminars: "Whose fault is this?"

The answer is never more elusive than in cases of what is referred to as "non victim" crimes, those that do not damage another's person or property. It is estimated that in America every year, four million people are arrested for crimes such as vagrancy, sodomy and gambling. The catch is that if you actually lose your liberty for any of these activities, people perceive that you, like Nick Leeson, must have had the word "victim" written across your forehead in bold block capitals: a "victim," as everybody knows, is first cousin to a "loser".

Nevertheless, there is still a gap between being perceived as a victim, and perceiving oneself as a victim, an approach which, paradoxically, can involve making a stand and seizing the power to define oneself. In the end, although nobody wants to be a victim, it is only a word. So long as it is your word, you are back in charge.

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