Opinionista Heidi Swart 27 August 2014

Of victims and victimhood

Lately, we seem to find ourselves in a climate where one is guilty of victimhood – where it is a swearword, not simply a state of having experienced something at the hands of another. But if we are, as a country and continent, to strive towards recovery, we need to remove the shame and stigma attached to suffering.

It is dangerous time to be anything other than straight in many parts of Africa. Many people who openly live as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and intersex are facing government-sanctioned, religiously endorsed, media-fuelled, and publicly embraced persecution.

So recently, responding to a media invitation, I attended a symposium about the crisis facing LGBTI persons in Africa, hoping to write a newspaper story about the art exhibitions and literature that were a core focus of the event. But more imporantly, I wanted information about the personal life experiences of LGBTI persons from different parts of Africa – the artists, academics and activists attending the event. I explained all this to the symposium co-ordinator and got the green light.

After completing my first interview, I started setting up more interviews. Suddenly, the co-ordinater approached me, visibly upset. Someone had been offended about how I spoke to him. Surprised, I apologised to him profusely, but the damage was done.

That evening, I received a text message from the co-ordinator in which she told me that my questions were “intrusive”, “not well put”, and that my “narrative was that of victims and victimhood”.  I had made the “distinguished guests” who were “contributing to making a change on this continent”, “uncomfortable”.  I was also told that, if I wanted “a different narrative they offer”, I should not return.

I had to decline the offer to return because, frankly, I had no idea how to complete the assignment without asking questions that the distinguished guests may find intrusive or not well put. “What would you say is driving the hatred against LGBTI people in your country? What is life like for LGBTI people – can they walk around freely? What is the public’s attitude towards LGBTI persons? Are you currently living in your home country, or have you been forced into asylum? What are you doing to fight this? How does this affect your relationship with your partner? How do you stay strong? How do you relax? Is there any place you can still go to in drag and have a beer?”

The questions I had posed to the “distinguished guests” were the type of questions that I have often asked people in interviews when stories had the aim of shedding light on injustice and its effects on individuals’ personal lives. Usually, these people were in a lot of pain. Women who had been raped. People who had had their land and riches stolen from under their feet. Men who had lost their friends, their kin, their sons at Marikana. Miners discarded by mines, dying of silicosis.

These interviews could not have been easy for these people. Although one needs a degree of empathy and compassion during such interviews, they are by no means a counselling session. The latter is led by the interviewee, not by the interviewer, and is meant primarily to bring healing to that person. A newspaper interview is something completely different. There is a cold, technical side to it. It is led by the journalist,  in the sense that there is certain information which one must obtain to write a decent article – one that leaves no questions unanswered for the reader. If there are any questions left, you have to make it clear that you could not find the answer.

And although the person you are interviewing has the right to opt out at any point during the interview – and this should be made clear to them – those who decide to stay walk a tough road. Those who decide to stay, want to tell their story. I remember one elderly mine worker who spent two days driving around the Lonmin mines with me right after the Marikana shootings to find out who had shot his friend. He was sure that the police had shot the young man in the week before the massacre. I know he wanted to tell the story, because he certainly was not going through all the trouble for my sake. I could tell he couldn’t stand the sight of me. He only spoke to my translator. He never made eye contact with me, and when he did, it was with disgust. He never said a word to me – not a hello or a goodbye. When I arrived at his house on the second day to complete the story, he was in bed. He said that he felt sick, because he was upset by our search the previous day, and by the loss of his friend. Despite this, he got out of bed to help me with the investigation, and we ran the story that week.

So I wondered: If an old, sick man could get out of his bed to tell the story of his friend, why could the intellectuals, academics and artists not step out of their “narrative” to tell the story of their continent? How is it possible that the voice of a minority in crisis, which could have been clearly projected by a credible publication throughout a significant part of the continent, was stifled by the very people – the intellectuals – who are supposed to champion the cause?

In the end, the question became: What made these academics, artists, and intellectuals different from all the other people I had interviewed?

I can only speculate, but I think part of the answer lies in the privilege of their education; I have had this experience before.

When I worked as a social worker, I organised group sessions for traumatised, tired community volunteers. They ran nursery schools, feeding schemes, programmes for street children, counselled victims of domestic violence, and the like.  Not all of these women had finished school. Only one lady, a teacher, had attended university. But, they knew who they were, and they knew where it was at. They knew how they felt. They also knew why they felt the way they did. Most importantly, they were not ashamed of their experiences. They just stood up and said it out loud. Since then I have often seen that type of immense strength and emotional intelligence in people who were poor, struggling, oppressed, victimised, and usually had little education.

By contrast, when I was in my fourth year of studying social work, our class had attended a group trauma counselling workshop to learn how to facilitate such sessions. (Incidentally, the same facilitator who had run the trauma workshop with the volunteers years later, had run this training programme). But to learn the ropes, we had to jump them ourselves. We had to be willing to look at our own trauma in the group situation. Our reaction, including my own: total revolt! We were angry. We criticised  the course facilitators for making us do these childish exercises. Who the hell do you think you are to make me construct a poster with magazine cut-outs and crayons about all the crap I experienced in my childhood AND to ask me to talk about it openly? After all, we were honours students on our way to graduation.

The big joke: The four years of social work, sociology, and psychology, the models, the theories, and perspectives – all the academic jargon in the world – meant jack shit when you had to go and talk to a group of 13-year-old boys (with drug problems) about sex and HIV. Going into the field was like landing on Mars, or perhaps in Tokyo. ‘Lost in translation’ was putting it mildly.

Nonetheless, we believed that we were not the victims, as our clients were. We were the saviours.

Which brings me to what I think lies at the heart of this whole academic blanket we use to protect ourselves: It’s about this unacceptable notion of victims and victimhood. It is not ok to be weak. It is not ok to view yourself as a victim.

This is nothing new. The view exists that there needs to be a change in the way Africa is depicted. A shift from a continent of poor helpless folks – victims – to people who can take their lives back and do things for themselves – survivors. It’s the reason why we are always hearing the word, “empowerment” thrown around.  This is not a new concept.  It is runs parallel to the strengths perspective in social work, which was first championed by social work pioneer, activist and Marxist, Bertha Capen Reynolds, during her long career spanning from 1908 until shortly before her death in 1978. Bertha was one tough cookie. She was into strike action and fighting the good fight. No soup kitchen for her, nor cuddling abandoned babies.

The strengths-based approach emerged very strongly in the 1980s as a reaction to the rehabilitative approach which largely spawned from psychology and the medical field: the patient is ill and needs to be fixed, in crude, simple terms. The strengths-based perspective turned this around: the patient was a client with their own strengths, positive traits, and ability to beat the odds. They were the experts, and we needed to understand their perspectives and experiences to help them find their own solutions. No more pills. Problems were externalised – the fault no longer lay inside the person, but with the environment and oppressive forces and stressors.

This is a fantastic approach. It’s the only way to go, really. People have to help themselves. I have never, ever been able to make a positive impact on someone’s life who did not really want change in their lives. You can help, but the driving force comes from that person.

But there is a problem with this. With the idea of strength and a move away from victimhood, it somehow has become almost shameful to be a victim. Somewhere along the line, the concept of “victim” has become politically incorrect.

So let’s go back to basics. If you look it up in the Oxford dictionary, the word “victim” has a few definitions: 1. A person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action. 2. A person who is tricked or duped  3. A person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment.

The problem, then, is with the last definition. A victim is someone who is too pathetic to help themselves. Someone who sits in a heap and cries. Someone cowardly and weak, lacking will and agency. You are, in fact, guilty of being a victim.

But what about the first and second definitions – the ones written in the passive voice? Are they now null and void?

And this is where I think the danger lies: for a person who has suffered trauma, the starting point of healing is rock-bottom – admitting that you are a victim. The point where you realise that you are not strong enough to do it alone and stuck in a heap of misery. This is a well-known principle in the helping professions. It lies at the heart of trauma counselling: Victims have to overcome their shame to talk and reconstruct their experience of helplessness – like being physically or sexually assaulted, kidnapped, held up at gunpoint – before they can become survivors. If they don’t do this,  they run the risk of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders…the list goes on. This is why the first thing you tell a rape victim is: It is not your fault. But this shame is also the reason why many people today – learned and not – suffer in silence: they remain alone because they are ashamed of their victimhood. And with shame, there is no room for empathy directed at yourself. Without that, you are – in a nutshell – screwed.

So, while we need to tell the story of strength, triumph above adversity, and regaining power, we need the foil of victimhood for it to make sense.

But all of this is based on one assumption: That our clear-cut model of ending victimhood always works. Which brings me to the real horror.

You can reach a point, if you have suffered so much cruelty, that you disappear. You lose your agency. You lose the ability to choose to be a victim, and to walk that hard road to survival. You get pushed into a realm that you can never come back from, because your mind (some say spirit) is broken and you are stuck, as if you were stuck far away from home with both legs broken. This is the reality of the biochemical changes that occur in your brain and your body because of events that you simply were not strong enough to withstand. Events that no living being can be expected to survive. Tidal waves. It is what Ben Okri so wonderfully captures in the magical realism of The Stars of the New Curfew.  This is what Arundathi Roy said so well in The God of Small Things, when she wrote:

“[in ] the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterised, laughing numbly at his own temerity. Inured by the confirmation of his own inconsequence, he became resilient and truly indifferent. Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered. It was never important enough.”

In the face of this insanity, we cannot afford not to talk, as much and as often about we can, about victims and victimhood. While we have, in our country, the luxury of talking about it, we cannot afford to let any such opportunity pass by. Which is why I wished that I had had my wits about me at the symposium so that instead of apologising, I could have said what I should have: “Let’s talk about your victimhood, so we can talk about your strengths. It will be intrusive. It will be difficult. But let’s do it while we still have the privilege to do it.” DM


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