Defining Ideas

The Politics of Victimhood

Thursday, October 16, 2014
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Gabby Giffords, the former Democratic Congressman from Arizona who was shot in the head at a campaign rally in 2010, has come under fire recently for exploiting her horrific experience for political gain. Using her celebrity as a famous victim of gun violence, Giffords has created a Super PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, focused on gun control legislation. Her group has produced political ads for Democratic candidates that feature other victims of gun violence, and that suggest the candidate’s opponent supports policies that contribute to such violence.

Even supporters of Giffords’ own party are uncomfortable with this electoral tactic. At Politico, Alex Isenstadt wrote recently that Giffords “has unleashed some of the nastiest ads of the campaign season, going after GOP candidates in Arizona and New Hampshire with attacks even some longtime supporters say go too far. And Republicans on the receiving end are largely helpless to hit back, knowing a fight with the much-admired survivor is not one they’re likely to win.”

Exploiting one’s personal experiences is, of course, nothing new in politics. Ancient Roman candidates were expected to show off their scars earned in fighting for Rome. Marc Antony fired up the Roman people after the assassination of Julius Caesar by brandishing his bloodstained and torn toga. During Reconstruction in the United States,  “waving the bloody shirt” became common among radical Republicans who used the casualties and suffering of the Civil War as a weapon against Southern Democrats.

In those cases, however, it was service and sacrifice in war that were used for political advantage. Today, any sort of suffering from any cause, especially on the part of those considered victims of historical oppression, is used to obscure rational discussion and debate with clouds of pathos and emotion.

The questionable assumption we often accept about suffering is that enduring terrible experiences automatically make one an expert on the broader issues related to the causes of suffering. That’s why like other public victims of gun violence, Giffords has spoken out as if her experience has made her an authority on gun policy. Thus she has attacked politicians for disagreeing with her on the issue of guns not by making a coherent argument, but by conjuring up her own experiences and sentimentalizing other victims of gun violence. Having created a fog of emotion, she then argues for policies, such as more restrictive background checks for those buying guns, even though there is no evidence that such procedures keep guns out of the hands of those determined to get them. After all, the man who shot Giffords had undergone a thorough background check. Worse yet, such emotionalism sets aside the critical Constitutional issue––the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”

Focusing on any one citizen’s unfortunate experience obscures the fact that public policy affects millions of people with differing views on what aims we collectively pursue and put into law. Moreover, policy must adhere to the constitutional limits on government action and conform to existing law. The complex clash of conflicting beliefs and respect for the law requires clear, coherent thinking of the sort difficult to achieve when issues are clouded with emotion and sentiment. It also requires open deliberation and debate, which are short-circuited by indulgence of the ad misericordiam fallacy, the use of pity, compassion, or sympathy to entice, or browbeat, people into accepting a conclusion not earned by argument. Giffords indulged this fallacy last year when the Senate did not pass gun-control legislation she favored. Speaking of Senators who had voted against the bill, she later wrote, some “looked into my eyes as I talked about being shot in the head at point-blank range.” It may sound harsh, but as National Review’s Kevin Williamson writes, “Being shot in the head by a lunatic does not give one any special grace to pronounce upon public-policy questions.” Nor does it give one the expertise, knowledge, and sober arguments necessary for public political debate on contentious issues.

Another example of the deleterious effects of using personal experience to trump sober reasoning was Republican Senator John McCain’s campaign against waterboarding, in which he freely exploited his own harrowing experience of being brutally tortured as a prisoner of war for six years during the Vietnam conflict. The pathos and horror of that experience made it difficult for critics to appeal to the simple fact that waterboarding was not torture under the U.S. law defining torture.

Yet calling on his own experience at the hands of the North Vietnamese, McCain clouded this critical discussion with lurid emotional appeals to most people’s lack of knowledge about what defines torture in U.S. law, and to their understandable sympathy for McCain’s six years of suffering. As a result, McCain’s efforts gave bipartisan cover to President Obama, who on entering office issued Executive Order 13491, which forbade waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques that had successfully yielded actionable intelligence from enemies of the United States. As a result, our interrogation tools have been severely limited, which has lessened the value of capturing terrorists for interrogation. McCain’s remarkable fortitude and courage in surviving such an experience are worthy of our admiration, but they did not make him an expert on the legal complexities of interrogation, and the grim imperative to extract from terrorists information that could save lives.

Both Giffords and McCain personally suffered horribly so it’s understandable that their experiences would shape their responses to relevant political issues. Yet others use suffering by proxy as a political trump card. In particular, those endorsing identity politics depend on the historical suffering of their group in order to gain political leverage and foreclose deliberation and debate.

Proponents of identity politics define individuals by their race, ethnicity, or sex, which in turn are defined by a history of oppression and exclusion. This history casts members of those groups as victims, no matter how far removed they actually are from oppression today. As victims, then, these groups have grievances that they claim the larger society has a moral obligation to address, mainly in the form of various kinds of reparations, such as affirmative action, government transfers, or other government set-asides based on race or sex. In the political arena of deliberation and debate over policy, the emotions aroused by that historical suffering bestow a specious authority on the self-proclaimed victim, who now is beyond criticism or accountability for the coherence or validity of his arguments. Critics are instantly branded as “insensitive” or “uncaring” at best and “racist” or “sexist” at worst.

Attorney General Eric Holder has been a prominent example of this mentality. During his tenure, he aggressively has attacked states that have legislated voter identification requirements. In his retirement speech he said that protecting “voting rights” was his “top priority” as Attorney General, and he pursued this priority even after the Supreme Court upheld voter identification laws in their 2013 decision of Shelby vs. Holder. His efforts on this issue were predicated on the past history of Jim Crow era restrictions on black voters, a backbone of the segregation outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Holder has consistently referred to that history of discrimination last practiced more than half a century ago. In a 2012 speech before the Council of Black Churches, he subtly linked the Jim Crow voting restrictions to the photo identification laws when he said that these “discriminatory” laws threaten “some of the achievements that defined the civil rights movement”—achievements that “now hang in the balance.” Later on he added, “We have to honor the generations that took extraordinary risks” to gain equal access to the polls, and warned, “this fight must go on.”

In July of this year, Holder repeated his commitment to this crusade: “I will not allow people to take away that which people gave their lives to give, and that is the ability for the American people to vote.” These references to the Civil Rights movement suggest that asking for a photo ID before voting is similar to the exclusionary legal restrictions such as literacy tests common in segregated states.

Supporters of Holder’s position have taken the same tact. Commenting on Florida’s pending voter ID legislation in 2012, the Advancement Project warned, “We are particularly concerned about the impact of this election year’s voter removal practice on eligible voters of color protected under the Voting Rights Act, given Florida’s documented history of erroneous discriminatory purges in the past.” The suffering of blacks during the Jim Crow period, which included lynching, legal exclusion, and everyday incidents of brutality and humiliation, has become a proxy for what in fact is, under state law, the mild inconvenience of acquiring a photo ID necessary for scores of other public transactions.

Like Giffords and McCain, Holder also appeals to personal experience. His sister-in-law was one of the students who in 1963 desegregated the University of Alabama, as Governor George Wallace famously blocked the “schoolhouse door.” Linking his own political efforts to this family history and iconic moment in the Civil Rights movement enhances Holder’s authority and provides cover for his constitutionally dubious and politically partisan efforts against red-state governments. Similarly, like many affluent and powerful blacks, Holder is fond of referencing personal experiences, such as being pulled over by the police for no reason, to gain some credibility as a victim of ongoing racism.

By using suffering as a political trump card, people like Holder not only cloud sober debate with sentiment and emotion, but also shut the debate down by accusing critics of being racists attempting to undo the achievements of the Civil Rights movement. In July of this year, Holder leveled this charge against those protesting his arguably radical politicization of the Department of Justice: “There’s a certain level of vehemence, it seems to me, that’s directed at me [and] directed at the president,” Holder told ABC. “You know, people talking about taking their country back. . . . There’s a certain racial component to this for some people. I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver, but for some there’s a racial animus.”

Some of Holder’s supporters are less restrained. Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at Georgetown University, recently claimed that Holder has “weathered the storm of an enormous racial backlash against black people in power at the top,” and has had to endure “vicious and acrimonious, if you will, articulations by people in the Senate” disturbed by “American power in a black man.” Such ad hominem smears short-circuit a public discussion of the issues and policies Holder and others pursue.

The trump card of suffering might be politically useful, but using it is a dishonest tactic that inhibits informed deliberation and debate. Relying on emotion and sentiment, no matter how understandable they are as a response to suffering, have since ancient Athens been the agents of bad policies and dangerous political decisions, and tactics for pursuing political advantage at the expense of the public good. They have no place in our already conflicted and divisive public political discourse.