Toronto Star

Saturday, July 31, 1999

Nobody dares to be a victim these days

By Michele Landsberg
The Toronto Star

YOU'VE PROBABLY seen the commercial: A good-looking blind man with a guide dog enters a subway car, sits down beside an attractive woman and accidentally brushes her arm with his hand. Smiling, he deliberately repeats the gesture. She looks at him tenderly, takes his hand, and gently guides it to her wedding ring.

It's a commercial for a skin cream, and the ad execs must be breaking open the champagne since the spot was singled out for a big feature in last Saturday's Star. ``Edgy,'' ``egalitarian,'' ``progressive'' are just a few of the admiring adjectives heaped on this 30 seconds of advertising.

And why all the rapture? Because the blind man is ``not a victim.''

He's ``confident, in control.''

Aside from the fact that I find the ad creepy rather than edgy. (How edgy would it have been if the blind man were ugly? Or the female he fondled were a grandmother? How would you feel if any guy on the subway, sighted or not, began to stroke your arm?) I was also struck by the odium that clings to the word ``victim.''

A couple of days later, another Star story about ``victims'' caught my eye: A Waterloo therapist who treats adult men who were sexually abused as boys explains that the men resist therapy. Why? ``They don't want to be viewed as victims. We have trouble here in our culture: We can't be a victim and have our manhood at the same time.''

Face it: We have trouble here in our culture. We can't be a male, female or child victim of anything and have our humanity at the same time.

I've been puzzling over this for a long time - how did ``victim'' become such a despised category? - and these two stories, which so directly equate manhood, confidence and control with ``not being a victim,'' gave me the attitudinal clue.

It began, dramatically, with the women's movement.

In the 1970s, women began to break open the secrets our society had long kept muffled up and stuffed into the closet. It wasn't easy: Stories about child sexual abuse, incest, wife beating, rape, from the female perspective, were all denied and resisted by those who controlled the media.

Wife battering was ridiculed as the drunken habit of low-lifes whose brutish ways were beneath our notice. Even rape had been kept largely secret throughout the '50s and '60s. When it was reported (rarely), it was usually made to seem the fault of a reckless girl who dared to dress provocatively or take social risks. Rape was always an act committed by a stranger. If it was your friend, your office colleague, your boss or your husband who brutally forced sex on you when you didn't want it, it was sex, not rape - life, not crime.

Women were angry, outraged, desperate. With little help and no government aid, the pioneers began to open shelters, set up rape crisis centres, organize self-help groups. Feminist writers, activists and academics began to probe, document and demand an end to the abuses.

Society did respond. More and more people began to recognize and reject date rape, sexual harassment and sexual violence. Governments took on more responsibility for protecting the victims of violence.

Then, and we might have predicted this, the political consensus swung hard to the right. Recession made people anxious to back off the tradition of mutual help, and self-serving tycoons and pundits leaped to take advantage of public fears. We were encouraged to be weary of compassion and its costs.

How to square that with our old-fashioned Canadian social conscience? An answer was close at hand in America's macho ethos of self-reliance and aggressive capitalism: Each man for himself. Conservatism has always demonized anyone who might make a claim on the public purse. Now this scorn would extend even to those who claimed only respect, empathy or equal justice.

I'd say the media have co-operated in doing a pretty good job of tarring and feathering anyone who commits the inconvenience of becoming a victim. (``Victim feminism,'' a sneer directed at groups who fought against woman abuse or sexual violence, was a particularly effective insult.)

Now we've regressed to a positively pre-Dickensian state of mind: If you're a victim, you whining, whinging, cringing creep, you have only yourself to blame. Weakness is loathsome. You don't hear us media types (with our cushy jobs) complaining, do you? So bug off. Don't bother us: We're busy studying our investment portfolio and groping pretty strangers on the subway.



Michele Landsberg's column appears Saturday in the Life section and Sunday in the A section. Her E-mail address is mlandsb@thestar.ca.

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