Henry James and Victimhood Culture
The classic novelist can teach us about identitarian grievances.
It’s been a bit arresting to see the diversity of opinions regarding the recent CBS-aired Oprah Winfrey interview of Meghan and Harry. Monica Hesse, the Washington Post’s “gender columnist,” was predictably sympathetic to Meghan’s complaints of racism and sexism, noting that many women “can identify with sitting in front of an HR rep, box of tissues on the desk, and being gently asked whether this all might be a bit in their heads.” An op-ed at CNN described the couples’ experience as “traumatic.” The Federalist, in turn, lambasted Markle, a millionaire actress, for trying to be a victim, while satirical website Babylon Bee offered one deliciously-titled article, “Meghan Markle Inspires Millions Of Young Girls With Message That No Matter How Famous, Rich, And Powerful They Are, They Will Always Be Oppressed.”
Are Meghan and Harry victims of the remnants of a bigoted, patriarchal West, manifested in the British crown? Or, more cynically, are they clever entrepreneurs, exploiting their celebrity status and the insatiable activist appetite for woke outrage? Alternatively, should we, as Americans whose nation fought a seven-year war to rid ourselves of British monarchical rule, really care one way or the other? I’m inclined towards the last option, but I would argue that the American response to Meghan and Harry’s aspirations for victim class status reflect something deeply disturbing and illuminating about what our aggressively identitarian culture values.
Not that the bizarre texture of identity grievance is an especially new American phenomenon. As Henry James depicts in his classic novel The Bostonians, there is a long history of American activism aimed at overthrowing the social and political powers that supposedly victimize various oppressed classes of our society. In the case of The Bostonians, the victimology obsession is manifested in the nascent women’s rights movement, seemingly an extension of the reformist energies of the abolitionist movement. Nevertheless, James’s analysis of this 19th-century feminism is surprisingly relevant today, and germane to the broader phenomenon of victimhood.
One characteristic of identity grievance is the tendency to view everything, even the mundane, through the lens of outrage. One character in The Bostonians is described this way: “It was the usual things of life that filled her with silent rage; which was natural enough, inasmuch as, to her vision, almost everything that was usual was iniquitous.” This pretty well describes our zeitgeist, in which the arts, sports, cooking awards and crosswords are carefully evaluated for potential violations of our gender, racial, and sexual ideology. Everything, even bird names, reflect the stench of bigoted patriarchal, colonialist norms. James describes one of his feminist characters as “in love, even in those days, with only causes, and she languished only for emancipations.”
Identity grievance also tends towards hyperbolic caricatures of the enemy. One feminist character asserts: “If the influence of women in the past accounted for every act of virtue that men had happened to achieve, it only made the matter balance properly that the influence of men should explain the casual irregularities of the other sex.” In other words, whatever good men have done in human history, it is on account of women; alternatively, whatever sins women have committed, those are on account of men’s malevolent influence. Reflecting on men’s natural physical dominance, a female character declares: “What is that [strength] — for a man? For what was their brutality given them, but to make that up?” Men’s physical strength is not a divine gift to be used for good, but a threat to be tempered.
This distrust of all those perceived as representative of oppressive, traditional power structures has a cancerous effect on society, as every new outrage exacerbates, rather than mollifies social conflict. “We have trusted them too much,” proclaims one women’s rights activist. “I think the time has come now for us to judge them, and say that by keeping us out we don’t think they have done so well…” Not only must men (or any alleged victimizer) be censured for contemporary and historic injustices; they must be held accountable for the sins of their fathers and their father’s fathers. “She considered men in general as so much in the debt of the opposite sex that any individual woman had an unlimited credit with them; she could not possibly overdraw the general feminine account.” That sounds eerily familiar to the language employed by anti-racists Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, which views white privilege as an inexhaustible source for outrage and a justification for anti-racist ideological objectives.
Yet for all their gusto, victim culture’s understanding of the human person and human nature is limited and impoverished, creating false caricatures of all those in need of the activist’s salvation. One of the women’s rights leaders, James observes, “knew less about her fellow-creatures, if possible, after fifty years of humanitarian zeal, than on the day she had gone into the field to testify against the iniquity of most arrangements.” In this sense, the woke activist tends towards a certain instrumentalization of the purported victims they aim to save. They view the oppressed “even more tragically than they [the oppressed] took themselves.”
Indeed, the heroics of the social activist reach levels that have little, if any relationship to reality or history. James describes a feminist activist who, “had made up her mind that it was women, in the end, who had paid for everything. In the last resort the whole burden of the human lot came upon them; it pressured upon them far more than of the others, the intolerable load of fate… The sacrifices, the blood, the tears, the terrors were theirs.” As Hillary Clinton claimed more than twenty years ago, women are supposedly the “primary victims of war:” Certainly many women suffer in times of war, sometimes horrifically, but who is typically doing the fighting, bleeding, and dying? James labels such reimagined histories “vague, thin, rambling, a tissue of generalities that glittered…”
For those who subscribe to grievance identity narratives, reparations is the appropriate response. “Men must take their turn, men must pay,” asserts a womens’ rights activist. This, too, seems to find contemporary manifestations, not only in attacks on the patriarchy and “dead white men,” but assertions that certain members of our racist, oppressive society must confess their sins against woke ideology and repay all victim classes, be they racial, sexual, or whatever. Yet because one’s very identity is the sin, one can never fully atone. And the very character of the victimhood phenomenon incentivizes ever more grievances against ever more evil injustices (hence the term “microaggressions”).
This hints at perhaps the most essential problem with grievance culture, which is metaphysical. No sex, racial, or sexual identity can bear the weight of our deepest longings and needs, no matter how hard we try. “The winter night was even more cruel than the tyranny of men,” snarkily writes James regarding one female character. Thus she turns to “more talk about the long martyrdom of women, a subject,” a topic she finds “inexhaustible and really most interesting.” But an entire life devoted to defeating such a cause inevitably devolves into absurdity, bitterness and ultimately misanthropy. What is here worthy of one’s gaze, worthy of one’s worship, but the impoverished, navel-gazing self? Or, as James starkly puts it, “They’ve got a capacity for making people waste time.”
What, then, should be our response to such grievance identity and its blinkered narratives? For James, we require a more sobered, realistic conception of the human person and human history. “The suffering of women is the suffering of all humanity… Do you think any movement is going to stop that—or all the lectures from now to doomsday? We are born to suffer—and to bear it, like decent people,” argues one of his main characters. Suffering is a part of the human experience, and one shared by all people, regardless of sex or race. And much of that suffering stems not from oppressive power structures we can dismantle, but our very nature as flawed human beings.
Rather than dividing over who counts as victims, we must unite in our common human experience of suffering and need for something objective and concrete that satisfactorily explains and seeks to resolve the problem of pain. We must stop viewing our society as composed of divisive identitarian binaries, but rather of imperfect neighbors and friends who are all trying to navigate our way through the joys, sorrows, and ambiguities of life. And we must realize that our desire for purpose and salvation cannot ultimately be realized by social and political reform but something transcendent. Indeed, as Holy Week approaches, it is worth considering the possibility that all of us, in our sin and to our shame, have in various ways played the role of victimizer. And who will save us from that inconvenient truth?
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.