Julia Gillard was not the target of sexism, announced Julie Bishop to the National Press Club recently. Rather, said Bishop, Gillard 'turned herself into a victim and portrayed herself as a victim. That was her choice.'
It's not just Gillard who has been unmasked as fake victim. And worse than just being fakes, all those we once thought of as victims of abuse and injustice are actually victimisers - passive-aggressive narcissists who blame others for their own personal failings. Who can we thank for showing us the shocking truth? According to philosopher Rebecca Stringer, the rise in anti-victim talk coincides with the ascendency of neoliberalism [Rebecca Stringer (2014) Knowing Victims:Feminism, Agency, and Victim Politics in Neoliberal Times].
Neoliberalism's ideal citizen, says Stringer, is one who avoids 'victim mentality.' This ideal citizen assumes personal responsibility for guarding against the risk of victimisation rather than claiming their right not to be victimised. This ideal citizen refuses to be taken in by the victim rhetoric spouted by feminists and other rights activists, including the clearly fanciful notion of structural injustice.
Right-wing think-tanks, such as London's Civitas, and their followers claim that 'victim feminists' treat women as helpless, passive victims. And these claims pack much more punch when parroted by the Bishops than by the Abbotts. What is their underlying message? The message, says Stringer, is that to all intents and purposes structural unfairness does not exist. Oppression, if it exists at all, is entirely in the passive-aggressive, self-pitying, complaining eye of the feminist beholder.
What is going on here? What has happened to the notion that structural adjustments such as closures of manufacturing industries and cutbacks to education, health and welfare impact unfairly on certain sections of society? Since the 1980s, the idea that every individual is wholly responsible for their own life has been replacing traditional notions of structural injustice and the obligation to resist it and to care for those harmed by it.
Why have so many of us fallen for the spin?
The tricky thing is that the idea of individual responsibility contains a partial truth that makes it possible for us to accept what is otherwise a monumental lie. The truth is that each of us is convinced of our own free will and of our responsibility for our choices and actions. And, setting aside the largely academic debate about determinism and free-will, this inner conviction is eminently reasonable. Even if the belief turns out to be based on a massive illusion, the fact is that people behave in accordance with their inner conviction of free will in the same way as they behave as if they are convinced the sun will keep rising. The point here, says philosopher John Searle, is that people cannot live their lives on the assumption of determinism: When the waiter asks for your order, you can't say, 'I'm a determinist. Que sera, sera. I'll just wait and see what happens.'
The yawning hole in the neoliberal argument is that the damaging effects of structural adjustment ripple throughout communities and are beyond the capacity of individuals to solve. Moreover, structural inequality has been naturalised over millennia into invisibility; it is literally hidden in plain view. And, given that our cultural milieu is characterised by massive psychological and socio-political illiteracy, who can blame people for taking comfort in the idea that we can solve our problems through sheer strength of character and personal will? As elusive as the promised solutions remain, it is far more disturbing to acknowledge that some problems are beyond our control.
Yet if we fail, so the neoliberal story goes, we are simply 'losers.'
Even the most victimised of victims tend to refer to themselves as losers, not as victims. To rub it in, many so-called 'self-made' men denigrate the less-than-loaded for being weak. Take, for example, former Australian Prime Minister, Paul anyone-who-isn't-a-millionaire-in-this-country-is-a-wimp Keating. Yet, among the loaded, most start-up capital is bestowed at birth. A few work their way up. Some enjoy Pip-like good fortune in accumulating wealth, and some set about exploiting others for the purpose.
Neoliberal constructions of victimhood categorise victims in one of only two ways: either as genuine victims of 'incomprehensible crime' or as the authors of their own suffering. The latter, so the story goes, have fallen victim to nothing more than their own subjective states of self-pity, passivity, and resentment. Hence, there are no victims of poverty, inequality, discrimination, and violence; the ideal neoliberal citizen either develops the strength of character to rise above their circumstances or admits to being a loser. Bad things are sent to try us.
This coincidence of neoliberal ideology with the most self-erasing elements of traditional Christian dogma is unmistakeable, as is the relationship between neoliberal policies and a vast range of social ills [Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2010) The Spirit Level].
What might it mean to reject the neoliberal lie? Victims of structural injustice, says Stringer, can refuse to swallow the 'loser' line and use the power of legitimate resentment as a generative force for social change.
And, for the record, let's show the 'gender-neutral' Bishops and the 'reconstructed-bloke' Abbotts that the spectacle of prominent women attacking other prominent women is just another cowards' punch.