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Tyrranical Victims

[World, April 23, 1994] 

The American Association of University Women, which last year issued a report equating boy-girl schoolyard teasing with sexual harassment, is now concerned about how schools damage little girls’ fragile self-esteem. The problem is that they don’t have enough role models.

Wait a minute, you say. The last time you visited a school, at least half the teachers looked to be female. Perhaps you can’t take the fact that someone is wearing a dress as evidence these days.

Actually, the AAUW admits, the figure is higher; about 70% of teachers are female. But only 27-30% of principals are women, which little girls apparently brood over obsessively. Worse, only 5-6% of school superintendents are female, which makes girls tremble and break into tears of self-doubt.

Victim, victim, who’s got the victim?

Myra and David Sadker do. They’ve authored a new book, Failing at Fairness, that represents the latest wave in the Politics of Pout. This time the victims are little girls, who are being cheated out of a good education by their teachers. Although most teachers have been drilled in sensitivity until it’s running out of their ears, the Sadkers claim that unconscious bias is giving little girls a substandard education.

Even sympathetic reporters find this bias hard to detect, and the Sadkers say it takes special training to see it. How does this bias manifest itself? Teachers treat little girls as if they were quieter, neater, more attentive, and more cooperative. They speak many more words to boys. Does this indicate bias against girls? Or does it indicate that teachers have some experience with real-live boys and girls?

If girls really were receiving a substandard education, would they represent 55% of all college students, 59% of students in Masters programs, and about 40% of students in Doctorate, law, and medical fields? Does the ability to learn more quietly perhaps give girls a lead? Does it seem reasonable to holler for a bigger piece of the pie, when you’re already taking over 50%?

But this is how social progress is expected to be made in the 90’s: claim you’re a victim, point to an oppressor. Instead of a united society, making patient change through the paths opened by citizenship, we have the neo-Marxist model of rage. Every problem is due to the conflict between powerful and powerless, and conflict will be manufactured where it doesn’t exist, if necessary. Some call it Tantrum Tribalism.

How did we get this topsy-turvy arrangement, where claiming to be a victim gives you power? Perhaps it began with the Great Society notion that the poor were helpless victims of poverty, unable to climb out under their own power, and in need of buckets of cash. It was a one-two punch to the human spirit. First: you are the victim of circumstances so beyond your control that any exertion on your part is futile. Second: here’s your reward.

Next we were told that criminals were victims of their environments, and instructed that they deserve our pity, not our condemnation. Victims are sinless. For example, a man accused of battering his baby to death in a drunken rage stood behind the boo-hoo defense that he had a toothache and, too poor to see a dentist, had had to medicate himself with alcohol. Oh, now we understand.

Victimhood became such a powerful weapon that soon the field was crowded with victims, where before there were only people. We have grown used to tiptoeing around land mines of ageism, ableism, sizeism, lookism, and so forth.

But what of those not lucky enough to be born victims? You might think that being white, educated, and wealthy would be a barrier to victimhood, but you would be underestimating human ingenuity. The women’s movement in the early sixties sprang from the restless dissatisfaction of upper-class, educated women. (A sharp tongue once complained that the feminist movement is nothing but "Rich white women riding around in limousines, giving each other awards.") Feminism hit the victimhood jackpot: half the American population automatically qualified.

But even a prosperous, white, upper-class male can now enjoy victim status too, by claiming an attraction to other men. And anyone left out so far—for example, Roseanne Arnold, undeniably laden with worldly power—can become a victim too by claiming she remembers abuse at the hands of her bewildered and heartbroken parents.

About the only group excluded are the devoutly religious—because devout religion, by its very nature, makes judgments and exclusions, and rejects limitless tolerance. Yet for the victim congress, Tolerance is the guarantor of all their claims; if this goddess is challenged, the house of cards falls. Because religious people have a higher God, they are feared and stifled.

Since religious people insist that there are absolute standards, and refuse to bow to the procession of victims, we get cast in the marginalizing role of being, not victims, but oppressors. Catch the irony here: when we are labeled oppressors, we are refused tolerance and are feared and silenced. Some news sources always refer in capital letters to the Religious Right—as if a monolithic force with terrifying powers were hovering, cackling, invisibly nearby. It recalls the packaged action figures at the local toy store, labeled "Heroic" or "Evil." Next visit we’ll see little plastic Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells in shrink-wrap packages, stamped in scarey, jagged letters: "Religious Right."

But power victimhood has a terrible price: because all your problems are someone else’s fault, your only power is to go on being powerless. There is no place for hope, initiative, and self-control.

My youngest son was a boisterous and creatively-naughty toddler. Whenever we caught him in mischief he would protest: "I couldn’t help it! My bones made me do it!" (This was a slightly more sophisticated response than the earlier favorite, "The monster did it!"). He was a powerless victim of his compulsions, in need of our indulgence.

But over and over his father and I would explain, "You are the boss of your bones." For grownups as well, no matter what your bones would make you do—sink into self-pity, sexual sin, sloth, or bitterness—you can choose instead to tell them what to do.

Christians don’t need to join the victim parade. We have a leader who won eternal victory in the very act of submitting to an unjust victimization. We walk in a similar mystery, instructed to rejoice and leap for joy when we are persecuted—not instructed to go on Oprah and sniffle. It’s a calling with a lot more dignity, and more potential for effective action. Absurd charges of victimization will continue to trudge by, but we don’t have to fall in line. We’re following a different Way.

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