On 16th November 2018, an opinion piece by MarinÃ© Bothma was published on Netwerk24. In this piece, Bothma attributes the emphasis on transformation and inclusivity on campus to students’ unwillingness to adapt to difficult situations. While she fails to name or characterise the group perpetuating the victimhood culture, it takes no stretch of imagination to know she is referring to people of colour, along with other marginalised groups. The iLizwi team felt compelled to respond to Bothmaâ€™s article because of the growing popularity of her line of argument on South African campuses. We used the opportunity to elucidate why marginalised groups rightfully express outrage at being consistently characterised as lacking in logic and accountability for their lives, write LUKE WALTHAM, PAUL JOUBERT and PRIYANKA GOVENDER.
Hence, in the spirit of free, open and rigorous discourse, we attempt to engage some of Ms. Bothmaâ€™s key arguments.
What is â€œvictimhood cultureâ€?
In deconstructing Bothmaâ€™s perspective, it is natural to begin with her definition of â€œvictimhood cultureâ€.
Firstly, she alleges that â€œvictimhood cultureâ€ arises from Postmodernism, which is a oft-repeated but demonstrably false claim. â€œPostmodernismâ€ is often used by conservative political pundits as a dog-whistle for any ideas in academia they deem â€œdangerousâ€.
Bothma briefly mentions â€œBradley and Manningâ€. She is probably referring to either their 2014 paper in Comparative Sociology or 2018 book. In these publications the authors postulate the existence of a new â€œtypeâ€ of society predicated on a shared mentality of â€œvictimhoodâ€ and identity as part of a â€œvictim groupâ€. (The term â€œvictimhood cultureâ€ seems to originate from these authors, but it is difficult to ascertain.)
Contrasting â€œvictimhoodâ€ with values of â€œdignityâ€ and â€œhonourâ€, this proposed cultural typology thus refers to a culture that ascribes high moral value to victimhood, with those that are more victimised having higher value in the â€œmoral hierarchyâ€.
Criticism of this typology include that the dichotomy between cultures that represent the status quo and those that represent a reaction against it (i.e. â€œvictimhood cultureâ€) belittles the experiences of oppressed groups and implies that their marginalisation should not be treated seriously. The authorsâ€™ characterisation of actions are also arrogant in reserving the right to assign oppression-status for the non-oppressed.
â€œOppression is a competitionâ€
Bothma relies heavily on the thought of psychologist cum conservative YouTube pundit and darling of the alt-right, Jordan Peterson, who has achieved worldwide infamy for, among other things, justifying psychological and economic sexism, slandering his ideological opponents, and misunderstanding Postmodernism. A few paragraphs are even lifted verbatim from Petersonâ€™s 12 Rules for Life.
Bothma and Peterson both argue that Intersectionality is seen as a competition to determine who is more oppressed, and therefore, who has the moral high ground in a space. They also insist that identity should not be used as an excuse to be a victim anymore. This perception of Intersectionality – and oppression – being a competition is far from the truth.
Intersectionality, as coined by KimberlÃ© Crenshaw, is a framework of analysis that describes oppressions as resulting from intersecting power hierarchies. The basic axiom of this framework is that the victims of intersecting oppressions experience oppression that is very different from the effects of each power structure considered separately. It is important to note that Intersectionality is not, as is often claimed by detractors, a system that allows one to â€œstack identities like Yu-Gi-Oh cardsâ€ and stake a claim to higher privilege in discourse because of oneâ€™s â€œinherent characteristicsâ€.
KimberlÃ© Crenshaw, mother of the term Intersectionality, has said multiple times that it’s a systemic analysis tool. Not a method of stacking identities like Yu-Gi-Oh cards so you can be an asshole and pull gotchas.
Knock it off.
â€” Blood Quantum Entanglement (@LammaticHama) March 8, 2018
In the South African Constitutional Court judgement of Rahube v. Rahube, the judges took the objective approach and found that black women have faced the â€œbrunt of everything in South African society.â€ They concluded that it would be impossible to establish a basis of inequality without the race, gender and demographics of people affected by inequality and discrimination. Thus, it is important to identify the intersectionality of a person or groupâ€™s struggles in order to rectify the deeply rooted inequality in our society.
Moreover, the authorâ€™s view on students promoting victimhood being â€œloud and outspokenâ€ with â€œno logical reasoningâ€ is deeply problematic. While she refers to marginalised people as â€œtheyâ€ throughout her piece, by applying the negative stereotype that black people are â€œloud and outspoken,â€ she includes an implied racial prejudice in her argument. Regarding â€œlogical reasoning,â€ it is critical to recognise the importance of both subjective and objective factors. Nevertheless, the Constitutional Court (in Rahube v. Rahube) clearly identified the importance of identity and demographics in tackling issues regarding inequality and discrimination.
Student relations within the institution
Bothma has an inaccurate idea of student movements on campus. She assumes that both the students and university institutions â€œcave inâ€ to student demands without critiquing it. This is a false narrative and frankly insulting to the many students who have faced much adversity when they were part of movements such as #OpenStellenbosch, #FeesMustFall and #EndRapeCulture. The institution – and its student supporters – did not â€œcave inâ€ either. Rather, they resisted the movements and supported suppressive mechanisms to silence marginalised groups. In fact, many marginalised bodies involved in student movements suffer from mental health issues due to the draining processes of achieving justice and equity.
It is unfortunate that a Student Representative Council member is not aware of the disciplinary systems in place for dealing with instances of discrimination or hate crimes. The author might have no experience with the universityâ€™s Centre for Disciplinary Committee (CDC), but this institution has a lengthy and bureaucratic judicial procedure in which students must provide written and vocal evidence as witnesses.
Orientation week and consciousness sessions
In her piece, Bothma expresses distaste towards consciousness sessions for newcomers during Orientation Week. However, these discussions provide students with platforms and vocabularies to debate, learn and grow, rather than ignoring true injustices.
In a response to Helen Zille, Professors Botha and Slade expressed the importance of understanding the context and power structures at Stellenbosch University, since ignorance results in the disregard of marginalised groupsâ€™ humanity and lived experiences.
Discussions about difference, core to ideas about citizenship and democratic education, can assist all of us to become better human beings and contribute to better worlds. This is, in fact, one of the purposes of higher education globally.
Hypocrisy and Freedom of Speech
There is a notion supported by Bothma that people who are not marginalised and do not have characteristics â€œnecessaryâ€ for oppression are put in an uncomfortable position of being â€œforcedâ€ to accept â€œothersâ€™ behaviour toward themâ€. In this view, Bothma portrays privileged people as the victims simply because they cannot handle the reality that equality encroaches on their privilege. This is referred to as â€œwhite fragilityâ€, a concept coined by Robin DiAngelo.
This becomes especially clear when Bothma laments that she is â€œconstantly shut down in [her] attempt to convince women that they are capable of anything [in spite] of their sexâ€. With this complaint, Bothma assumes the â€œvictimhoodâ€ she so despises. Moreover, blunt activism that ignores the historic and current systemic oppression experienced by the a group is counterproductive.
The authorâ€™s conclusion regarding consequences of â€œvictimhood cultureâ€ was rather short-sighted. She states that students do not take responsibility for their lives, that the right to freedom of expression is being limited, and that this culture produces â€œweak and fragileâ€ students.
Firstly, it is important to realise that not everyone can take ownership of their lives when entire demographics are prevented to do so by prejudicial structures that have not yet been transformed. In this context, the vestiges of apartheid are a very real influence on most South African lives.
Secondly, Bothmaâ€™s argument regarding the limitation of freedom of expression needs to be viewed in light of the South African Constitution: Section 16 limits our freedom of expression to prevent hate speech and incitement of violence. Of course, it is clear that the writer is not suffering from any limitation since she has published her views on a national platform and, as a result, the public may express their views on the piece.
Hodgetts and Griffin, in their article â€œThe place of class: considerations for psychologyâ€, argue that some psychologists, like Peterson, disregard the demographics and positions of people in society. They argue that the social structural domination is not just a figment of our imagination but has real consequences. Simply â€œtaking ownershipâ€ and â€œresponsibilityâ€ cannot lift one out of devastating positions.
Thus, Peterson and Bothmaâ€™s focus on individual factors in solving problems creates an assumption that structural inequality and social injustices do not exist, and everybody in society has an equal chance. However, Hodgetts and Griffinâ€™s suggest that this approach â€œpolices marginalised peopleâ€™s behavioursâ€ through the use of Psychology as a control mechanism, and is deeply rooted in a superiority complex based on class and race.
Bothma briefly mentions Petersonâ€™s reference to Freudâ€™s â€œrepetition compulsionâ€ (where she also lifts a paragraph directly from Petersonâ€™s work). Freud theorised that this compulsion is a mechanism for humans to achieve â€œmasteryâ€ over a situation and it involves deriving comfort in the familiar, even if at times the familiar is destructive. It is thus not a return to the past trauma alone, but also refers to a pleasurable and familiar past experience.
From critical analysis it becomes clear that the psychological, philosophical and political arguments in favour of the â€œconsequences of victimhoodâ€ are factually incorrect and might even be damaging to further discourse. Throughout, she also fails to provide any concrete examples of the alleged â€œvictimhood cultureâ€ she sees on campus.
Moreover, there is no doubt that this is the newest example of conservative attempts to downplay the struggles and lived experiences of marginalised groups. This approach attempts to prevent institutions and society from achieving transformation and the Constitutionâ€™s aims of achieving an egalitarian society.
However, we hope that this attempt to provide clarity on such an important subject has been successful.
Luke Waltham is a writer for News24 and Celeb Mix. He is a law student and the chairperson of the United Nations Association of South Africa at Stellenbosch University.
Paul Joubert is one of the founders of iLizwi. He is a computer sciences student and the Vice-Chairperson of QueerUS at Stellenbosch University.
Priyanka Govender is one of the founders of iLizwi. She is an electrical engineering student and a non-positional leader on campus.
The authors would like to give thanks to the lecturers from Stellenbosch University who provided input and assistance during the writing of this article.
iLizwiÂ is an independent online publication run by students with the goal of advancing progressive discourse; to write about and publish ideas, problems and events in a manner that seeks to provide platforms to debate, learn and grow.
The views expressed in this article are the authorâ€™s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.
Featured image via Raeesa Pather.