The Blame Game

Rosalie Crutchley as Madame Defarge in “A Tale of Two Cities,” 1958

The Blame Game

We don’t start life with a clean slate. Childhood is the time we spend figuring out what kind of a hand of cards we’ve been dealt and how to start playing it. What happens to us – inside ourselves – when we embark on the project of blaming others (or accepting blame) for the original hand that they, or we, were dealt?

My mind goes back to a column I wrote some months ago about a girl who looked to be middle class and white and who strolled — preceded at every step by a male colleague with a camera attached to his backpack — the streets of Manhattan clad in a black, long-sleeved, long-legged leotard. She walked the East Side, the West Side, the Village, Upper Broadway and so on.

Now I would no more do that than I would hitchhike to Khartoum. But okay. We are all amateur social scientists. It’s field work. Let the cameras roll.

And roll they did. Film footage that went viral. I even saw it on the evening news. Comments from the male animal dogged her every step. Every man in New York felt the heat of the Blame.

At first, the indignant outcry went all in favor of the walker, our heroine (or hero, if you prefer). But then there was a follow-up outcry, a sort of moral whiplash effect. Soon the outcry went the other way.

It was perceived that the wolf whistles and calls of “Hey, beautiful!” to our leotard-clad walker came mainly from young men who tended to hang out on the street because that hanging out was what they did. The catcallers tended not to hold steady jobs that would have kept them safe indoors in their offices. Surprise! What’s more, their styles of hanging out encouraged overt displays of male sexual desire? Had our walker shown Class or Cultural Bias?

Now we don’t want to say, of a woman who is treated so shamelessly by men on the street that she was “asking for it.” That’s Blaming the Victim and we’ve all signed the pledge never to do that. So her Sisterly defenders quickly spoke up for the walker, explaining that she wasn’t asking for it: first, because she wasn’t that pretty, second, because the leotard was black and therefore hard to see on a bright street, and third, because it was cut up to here. Fortunately, footage of the view from the back, which might been more luscious, was not provided by the Sisterhood.

Myself, I thought she was fetching enough, and went so far as to explain my sisterly thoughts in my column. But then, a day or two after my column was posted, a still more damaging discovery was made by a third or fourth row of Defenders of the Defenseless: the whistlers and makers of remarks tended not to be particularly white! They were the people-of-color, not the people-of-no-color.

That settled it. The bold young woman who had fatigued herself and her film-shooting fellow fighter for the Wretched-of-the-Earth had been fighting against the Still-More-Wretched-of-the-Earth! The girl and her photographer friend were suddenly found in flagrante delicto disseminating a Racist film! Disavowals of responsibility for such a stinker of a film came pouring in from all over, and its creators fled for their socio-political lives.

In the hands of a writer of sufficient talent, this whole comedy could have played off-Broadway to side-splitting effect. Surely I was not alone in taking in the hypocrisy of this rush to fix Blame for real-life experiences shared by every condemner in cyberspace. Did they mean to suggest that a life purged of every asymmetry imaginable could dodge this kind of Blame Game?

Kids, believe me, nobody is immune. Nobody is safe. It doesn’t matter how many Blameworthies you believe you have nailed and brought down. Sooner or later, It will come for you. Ask Robespierre — who was called the French Revolution’s “Incorruptible,” having done his part to energize that orgiastic explosion of Blame-Gaming that was the Reign of Terror – ask Robespierre at the moment he mounted the scaffold to the Guillotine, the same French Head-Chopper to which he had sent so many others. Nobody is immune. Let loose the thought police and they will come for you.

What’s the cure for Blame Gaming, our new epidemic of social madness? The cure does not lie in establishing Safe Spaces, as is being tried on American campuses, where one’s identity can be protected from every perceived slight. If by now you’ve never defended your identity against all the threats the world brings — verbal, intellectual, moral and physical – then you have gained no identity in the only way that it’s gained, battle by battle. You’re like a person without skin. You never grew any. Having learned no defenses in the school of experience, no space can possibly feel safe to you. Get back in the womb. Out here, you need skin in the game.

But really, what’s the best strategy for a woman? After all, we are vulnerable. In hand-to-hand combat, we tend to lose. Hormonally, we tend to be less aggressive than men. Culturally, historically, we’ve been defined as the weaker sex – to be idealized, exploited or despised, as our definers decided. Until fairly recently, even in advanced societies, we couldn’t prevent pregnancy, vote, own property, become well-educated, professionally licensed, go anywhere on our own or quit intolerable marriages. We can still be impregnated against our will.  In much of the world, this is still true. Everyone knows all this. I don’t want to reinvent the a,b,c’s of feminism. It’s worth recalling that the women who, on behalf of other women, first articulated those a,b,c’s suffered cruel persecution and ridicule.

What’s wrong with appealing to the social consciences of men in cases where women’s complaints of unfairness are justified? In countries like the USA, men ordinarily want to be fair or at least to appear fair. Their consciences can be appealed to when we are victimized by some unjust dealings. Isn’t that appropriate?

We did that during the feminist revival that began in the late sixties of the last century and we made strides that once would have seemed unthinkable. Much has changed. So why not just keep on keeping on?

Let’s think about this. Since the civil rights and the feminist movements, the playing field has widened considerably. Victims have been disclosed, or claimants to that title have come forward, who were not noticed earlier. An unseemly – some might say comical – competition has opened between the would-be claimants to victim status.

Despite a newly stylish approach called Intersectionality, which misleadingly asserts an invisible bond linking all the Oppressed, in fact many who come under that head compete with each other for the title and oppress each other without mercy. Marx predicted that the contradictions in capitalism would broaden the ranks of the proletariat until all but a flimsy few were swallowed into the working class. Then the workers of the world would unite and a utopian Happy Ending to History would follow.

Has anyone noticed? That didn’t happen.

In the 1930’s, a diary entry by my father, at that time a Marxist, notes — his dry irony overlaying unspeakable anger — how the German workers were embracing Hitler and shrugging off the mounting Nazi attacks on German Jews.

“Intersectionality” is just the very latest reappearance of Marx’s never-confirmed but never-quite-discarded predictions about history. The Oppressed do not love the Rival Oppressed. They do not spontaneously bond, except when, for strategic reasons, it suits them. And only for so long as it suits them. The Oppressed are not different from you and me.

Meanwhile, in the real world, decisions as to who is more entitled to claim victimhood and who less entitled require a fact-based foundation. Very sorry. Neo-Marxian postulates won’t do. Evidence will be required. It will have to be evaluated in a cool hour. Preference given to one group can unfavorably affect another group. Fair claimants may be denied recognition or help for reasons that have more to do with fashion than with truth.

There were knitting women, called Les Tricoteuses, who sat at the foot of the guillotine while the heads of the hated aristocrats rolled. Don’t join them. It’s not attractive.

What’s a woman to do, who wants to play the game of life as ideally as it should be played by her? Well, we don’t give advice in this column, so I can’t answer that except over tea and a sweet. But I do want to put one more piece on the chess board. Here’s the name of the piece:

Eros. Desire. The Dance of Life.

Keep it in mind. There is a romantic truth about life that will outlast us all. It will even outlast the fantasies of the present hour.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to The Blame Game

  1. Abigail says:

    Life should be this “boring” more often. I certainly embrace what you say!

    Like

  2. Johan Herrenberg says:

    I am part-White, part-Black, and even – as I discovered to my amazement – part-Chinese (not a race, but you get my drift). If I followed the victimhood narrative, I’d have a war on my hands, played out inside me… I choose to be an individual, not a dividual. Ergo: I concur with your rejection of the unseemly competition of the Oppressed. And with everything else you say, for that matter. Boring, I know.

    Like

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