On 16th November 2018, an opinion piece by Mariné 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.
By Luke Waltham, Paul Joubert, and Priyanka Govender.
The iLizwi team felt compelled to respond to Bothma’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.
Hence, in the spirit of free, open and rigorous discourse, we attempt to engage some of Ms. Bothma’s key arguments.
What is “victimhood culture”?
In deconstructing Bothma’s perspective, it is natural to begin with her definition of “victimhood culture”.
Firstly, she alleges that “victimhood culture” arises from Postmodernism, which is a oft-repeated but demonstrably false claim. “Postmodernism” is often used by conservative political pundits as a dog-whistle for any ideas in academia they deem “dangerous”.
Bothma briefly mentions “Bradley and Manning”. 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 “type” of society predicated on a shared mentality of “victimhood” and identity as part of a “victim group”. (The term “victimhood culture” seems to originate from these authors, but it is difficult to ascertain.)
Contrasting “victimhood” with values of “dignity” and “honour”, 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 “moral hierarchy”.
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. “victimhood culture”) belittles the experiences of oppressed groups and implies that their marginalisation should not be treated seriously. The authors’ characterisation of actions are also arrogant in reserving the right to assign oppression-status for the non-oppressed.
“Oppression is a competition”
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 Peterson’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 Kimberlé 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 “stack identities like Yu-Gi-Oh cards” and stake a claim to higher privilege in discourse because of one’s “inherent characteristics”.
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 “brunt of everything in South African society.” 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 group’s struggles in order to rectify the deeply rooted inequality in our society.
Moreover, the author’s view on students promoting victimhood being “loud and outspoken” with “no logical reasoning” is deeply problematic. While she refers to marginalised people as “they” throughout her piece, by applying the negative stereotype that black people are “loud and outspoken,” she includes an implied racial prejudice in her argument. Regarding “logical reasoning,” 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 “cave in” 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 “cave in” 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 university’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 groups’ 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 “necessary” for oppression are put in an uncomfortable position of being “forced” to accept “others’ behaviour toward them”. 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 “white fragility”, a concept coined by Robin DiAngelo.
This becomes especially clear when Bothma laments that she is “constantly shut down in [her] attempt to convince women that they are capable of anything [in spite] of their sex”. With this complaint, Bothma assumes the “victimhood” she so despises. Moreover, blunt activism that ignores the historic and current systemic oppression experienced by the a group is counterproductive.
The author’s conclusion regarding consequences of “victimhood culture” 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 “weak and fragile” 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, Bothma’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.
Darrin Hodgetts and Christine Griffin, in their article “The place of class: considerations for psychology”, argue that some psychologists, like Peterson, disregard the demographics and position of people in society. They argue that the social structural domination is not just a figment of our imagination but has real consequences. Simply “taking ownership” and “responsibility” cannot lift one out of devastating positions.
Thus, Peterson and Bothma’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, we know that this is not true. Hodgetts and Griffin’s ideas suggest that this approach “polices marginalised people’s behaviours” 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 Peterson’s reference to Freud’s “repetition compulsion” (where she also lifts a paragraph directly from Peterson’s work). Freud theorised that this compulsion is a mechanism for humans to achieve “mastery” 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 “consequences of victimhood” are factually incorrect and might even be damaging to further discourse. Throughout, she also fails to provide any concrete examples of the alleged “victimhood culture” 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 Constitution’s aims of achieving an egalitarian society.
However, we hope that this attempt to provide clarity on such an important subject has been successful.
The authors would like to give thanks to the lecturers from Stellenbosch University who provided input and assistance during the writing of this article.