Victimhood and sacrifice

There is a very interesting article by Barbara Hewson that takes a critical look at the whole concept of ‘victimology’ and, interestingly enough, the idea that justice can be a form of therapy.  Although the article is now two years old, it is in fact eerily prescient with regards to the current furore (and dare I even use the word hysteria?) over allegations of sexual harassment and the whole #metoo phenomenon.  There seems to be developing an increasing toxic atmosphere of intolerance in which, as always, truth is the first casualty.

Hewson’s article focuses on the idea that when it comes to cases of sexual abuse and harassment one must always believe the complainant – or rather, in this case the victim.  And as Hewson points out, this distinction between complainant and victim is crucial, because the concept of ‘victim’ implies there is already a culpable party, i.e. the ‘perpetrator’, who has committed a crime or at least a serious misdemeanour.  The problem here, of course, is that this has effectively turned the whole concept of innocent until proved guilty on its head.  The onus is now on the ‘perpetrator’ to prove their innocence, rather than the other way round.

At this point we need to take a step back and ask why should we necessarily believe the victim purely on the grounds that they are making allegations about another person?  Of course, one simple answer to this is that there have been all too many occasions in the past when the opposite has been the case; in other words, victims of sexual crimes and harassment have all too often been disbelieved.  The problem here is that going from one extreme to the other doesn’t actually resolve the problem of trying to get to grips with what actually happened.

However, there is perhaps a more insidious reason at play here, and this is the idea that we must believe the victim because they are a victim, and therefore their testimony must carry authority.  Whether or not they are telling the truth becomes almost a side issue.  In fact, in the world of victimology, truth becomes equated with the narrative of particular individuals or groups.  In other words, depending on who makes the allegations they must be true by virtue of who the person is.

Hewson makes the point that: “Victims’ rights advocates view justice as a form of therapy. This is to misunderstand what justice is designed to achieve, which is to search for the truth…”  I will come back to this idea of justice as therapy a bit later, but for the moment I would argue that it does raise a rather interesting point with regards to notions of truth (and justice) within the therapeutic space.  Many therapists, and especially perhaps those operating within the humanistic and person-centred traditions, appear to have a tendency to believe that whatever their clients are saying is ‘true’, no matter how strange or delusional it might appear to an outsider.  The problem is, this particular idea of believing the client/ victim now appears to have spread into the wider culture and even, it would seem, into the criminal justice system itself.

However, there is a fundamental misunderstanding here regarding what ‘truth’ is within the therapeutic setting.  It is not a case of ‘believing’ the client, but rather recognising and accepting that the client’s narrative is their truth, and an important part of the therapeutic process is to work with the client’s idea of truth, with what they believe to be true.  This is not the same as believing the client in the sense of taking at face value that what they say, for example, about what happened to them in their childhood actually happened, or happened in the way they described it.

The problem here is that what is appropriate within the therapeutic space is not appropriate in other types of space.  However, we now seem to be in a situation where my truth = the Truth, and we end up with some form of collective narcissism or psychopathology.

But this still begs the question as to why it’s the victim’s narrative we are supposed to believe in all this, rather than anyone else’s.  Is this perhaps because no-one wants to identity with being a perpetrator?  Or, taking the argument one step further, is this because we all secretly identify with being the victim?  In other words, does the victim’s narrative resonate with us all at some, unconscious, level, and in some way ‘we are all victims now’?

It’s also instructive to look at the origins of the word ‘victim’, which comes from the Latin victima, which was originally a creature sacrificed as part of a religious ritual as an offering to the gods.  In Lacanian terms we could see this as the victim as an offering to the Other; or even, as a self-sacrifice, the victim as one who offers him or herself to the Other.

And it’s also critical here to think of the word ‘sacrifice’ itself and its link to the concept of the sacred.  At this point the victim becomes a sacred subject, who is to be revered and even worshipped.  Now perhaps it starts to make sense why we must always believe the victim: they have divine status and are beyond criticism.  The problem here, of course, is that it always ends badly for the victim, because at the end of the day they still have to be offered up, or offer themselves up, for sacrifice to the Other, to the Symbolic order.  Quite who or what this Other actually is at the moment is unclear, because it certainly isn’t the Other of yesterday, the Other of patriarchy, or even the Other of religion.  At the moment the criminal justice system appears to be filling this void left by the death of the Father, but it’s not clear how sustainable this is, especially in the light of recent mistrials and wrongful convictions due to overzealous police investigations which neglected the basics of evidence collection.

Of course, there is another way. The subject could stop being a victim and start trying to adopt a different subjective position.  In other words, they could try and find a different relation to the Symbolic order so they don’t have to keep sacrificing themselves to the Other.  But in doing so the subject becomes confronted with the very trauma they were trying to circumvent by being a victim in the first place, namely that the Other does not ex-sist.1

The crucial point about being a victim is that, by definition there must be the Other of the perpetrator.  In other words, victims need their perpetrators as much as perpetrators need their victims in order to sustain the ex-sistence of the Other.  And perhaps this explains the real function of sacrifice: not so much to appease the gods but to convince ourselves that they are still there.

Which brings us back to the question of the victim’s testimony and the question of truth.  What is it that the subject (as victim) is trying to tell us?  And why is it particularly in the realm of sexual relations that the question of the subject’s testimony becomes so critical (and problematic)?  Perhaps because it is precisely in the realm of sexual relations (which, to slightly mis-paraphrase Lacan, are impossible in the first place) that one encounters to limits of meaning, the limits of one’s identity.  Sexual (non) relations are traumatic by definition, in spite of all our  efforts to control and master them.  Furthermore, as both Freud and Lacan recognised, sexual relations are closely equated with the death drive, with jouissance.

And one possible ‘solution’ to the trauma, to the Real, of sexual (non) relations is to construct an Other in order to have such relations with in the first place.  This is also the basis of Lacan’s theory of transference: at the very moment the subject encounters the Real, the trauma, in their psychical life they make a shift, a ‘transference’, to the Other, to the subject-supposed-to-know.  As Pierre-Gilles Gueguen points out, transference effects a closure of the unconscious at the moment of the encounter with the Real, and this is done through an interpretation by way of the father.2 Gueguen gives example of Freud’s text on the Acropolis, when in a moment of ‘strangeness’, a moment of loss of a sense of reality, Freud ‘spins’ the story of his rivalry with his father and his guilt of having socially surpassed him.  Transference is effectively a way to bring the subject back into the Symbolic order by way of the Name of the Father.

The key point here in relation to the question of victimhood and sacrifice is that by being able to construct a narrative of a sexual encounter, albeit unwanted, deeply unsatisfying, and in some cases downright abusive, at least there is a still an Other to blame, a Symbolic order within which to situate and make (some kind of) sense of that encounter.  In other words, the narrative of victimhood brings the subject back into the world of the Symbolic order, which often at this point takes the shape of the media in all its different guises.  It may also take the shape of the criminal justice system.  And perhaps this explains the idea that I touched on earlier: that of justice as therapy, in the sense that by turning to the criminal justice system the subject is able to make some kind of sense of their experiences as well as to exact retribution on the alleged perpetrator.

The problem here, however, is that the subject remains in the position of sacrificial victim, and at some point the gods must be appeased.  This may sound somewhat paradoxical because isn’t it supposed to be the perpetrator that that is the one who is to be sacrificed, not the victim?  But this is to misunderstand entirely the nature of victimhood and sacrifice.  The (alleged) perpetrator may well be convicted and sentenced, but this is not a sacrifice and the gods, the Other, will not be appeased by such an act.  Rather they will keep asking for more victims and more sacrifice.

  1. This is to adopt Heidegger’s concept of existence, also used by Lacan.  Ex-sistence as in to stand out, to project oneself out into the world []
  2. Pierre-Gilles Gueguen (2008) Paradoxes of the Births of Transference, Psychoanalytical Notebooks, (17), pp. 41–45. []