Year of the victim
In the court of public opinion, the Louise Woodward case quickly became a battle to see whether the British nanny or the American parents of baby Matthew Eappen could successfully lay claim to that most prized title of our age, 'the Real Victim'. In this contest hard facts and evidence count for little, while feelings and emotions are all that matter.
The prosecution side was supported by the American child abuse establishment: a collection of social workers, doctors, legal experts and journalists with the mindset of the inquisition and a predisposition to see every child as the victim of abuse. For them, Louise Woodward was a witch.
Meanwhile, from the editorial offices of the national media to the Rigger pub in Elton, Cheshire, the defence side was championed by the moral crusaders of the New Britain AD (After Diana). For these people victim support is now a national sport, with Louise Woodward allotted the role of first martyr of the post-Diana era.
As the two equally unsavoury, quasi-religious cults competed to show which side had suffered the most, the row surrounding the Woodward case came to symbolise the mood that has made 1997 the Year of the Victim.
The defining events of the year were of course the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Diana was the patron saint of victims. Her credentials for being 'Queen in people's hearts' rested upon her own public proclam-ations of how terribly she had suffered, and the ability this supposedly gave her to empathise with other unfortunates. The huge emotional reaction to Diana's death reflected the maudlin state of the nation.
If 1997 has been the Year of the Victim, however, it has only been the culmination of a longer term trend. The national trauma which followed Diana's death brought to the surface what had been bubbling away below for well over a decade.
For many of us associated with LM magazine, it was the defeat of the miners' strike way back in 1984-85 that marked the first turning point, signalling a sea-change in the nature of society's struggles and solidarities. From then on the big issues were no longer to be about people standing up and fighting for their demands together, but about poor, put-upon victims queuing one at a time to plead for charity, compassion, counselling and compensation. The pathetic Big Issue seller became the 'street fighter' of the new age.
The victim culture has advanced fast on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years. In Britain, the mileposts have been a series of personal tragedies which became the excuse for national outpourings of mourning and emotion: most notably the killing of two-year old Jamie Bulger by two 10-year-old boys on Merseyside in 1993, the massacre of 16 schoolchildren and their teacher at Dunblane in Scotland by a crazed gunman in 1996, and the death of Diana in a Paris car crash in August. Although she herself is a convicted killer, Louise Woodward has now been given honorary membership of the Great British victims' club where, by definition, what you have or have not done is much less important than what you claim has been done to you.
When it comes to claiming victim status, there is no longer any political divide. It is not merely a case of lefties supporting the underdog. All shades of opinion now buy into the cult of the victim. 'Who are the real victims?' is not only the key question in the debate about the Woodward case. It is the question posed on just about every issue these days.
All sides have learned that the most acceptable way to put your case is to couch it in the language of victimhood. Typically, the much-hyped 'gender war' in the USA often seems like a childish squabble about who can make themselves look the most put-upon - those who claim that women are the helpless victims of male violence versus those who claim that men are the emasculated victims of feminism. This year in Britain, meanwhile, we have seen the debate about a tragedy like the Hillsborough disaster degenerate into a squalid row over whether the police who were present or the families of those who died are the most deserving of compensation.
The victim has been put on a pedestal, apparently replacing the traditional hero as the focus of society's ambitions and admiration. The feeling today is that the loser takes it all, and everybody appears keen to cash in on the victim culture.
Have you noticed how almost the only people who seem motivated to fight for anything these days are those who claim victimhood and their supporters? What campaigning energy there is in society tends to be expressed not on militant protests but in candlelit vigils. At a time when most have lost faith in our ability to change things for the better, the suffering of victims has been turned into the one great cause worthy of a crusade.
Victimhood is now the most powerful claim on moral authority anybody can make. Those who took the lead in the Woodward campaign were jetted off to America to stand outside the courtroom, where the fact that they came from the same little village as a teenage au pair was apparently enough to elevate them overnight into commentators on the US legal system who had to be taken seriously by the world media. In much the same way, an association by proxy with suffering has enabled a Dunblane woman (not even one of the bereaved parents) to become widely accepted as Britain's leading authority on the need for gun control.
Now there is talk of turning the Louise Woodward defence fund into a permanent Di-style charity for victims, while the bidding war for the newspaper and film rights to Woodward's own story gets under way. Others who got caught up in recent tragedies have already found that victimhood can be a ticket to a whole new career; the teenage nursery teacher made famous when her class was attacked by a machete-wielding maniac last year has since gone on to become a radio disc-jockey, a writer...and a part-time TV pundit commenting on the Woodward case.
There are those who see something positive in the emergence of the victim culture and the new politics of emotionalism. People from the village of Elton were only too happy to tell the media how weeping and screaming together over 'our Louise' in the bar of the Rigger (in front of the big satellite screen especially rigged up by Sky TV) had been a wonderful way of forging a renewed spirit of community. Similar claims of moral renewal were made on a wider scale after the national grief-fest which followed Diana's death.
But what does it really say about our society, when the only way in which people seem able to relate to one another is through a media-orchestrated circus of mawkish sentimentality? What kind of communities have publicly to convince themselves of their togetherness by inventing new ribbon-wearing candle-holding flower-laying record-buying rituals?
Worse, it is a short step from proclaiming a moral consensus to witch-hunting those who remain outside of it. The new 'communal' codes of conduct are authoritarian and brook no dissent. One woman in Elton was reportedly beaten up for refusing to wear the obligatory yellow ribbon. Anybody who has dared publicly to question the canonisation of Diana or the innocence of Louise Woodward risked being treated like a drunk driver or a child killer themselves.
Instead of taking a critical distance from all of this, too many in the media have themselves become caught up in the cult of the victim, seeming to abandon their role as reporters or analysts in order to take up the sword as moral crusaders. So primetime TV news broadcasts were turned into platforms for the 'Louise is Innocent' campaign, complete with staged champagne celebrations of the judge's decision that she was guilty of Matthew Eappen's manslaughter. Even venerable broadsheet newspapers felt obliged to print the address to which campaign donations should be sent at the end of purportedly straight reports of the trial proceedings.
In the Year of the Victim it seems that the Journalism of Attachment now influences the everyday news agenda of the British media. And that means preaching what is deemed the morally correct line before reporting the facts.
The issue that should concern us here is much bigger than the rights and wrongs of Louise Woodward's conviction or release. The cult of the victim clearly has far wider implications. It represents a statement about all of us. It says that we should not expect much, that simply to suffer with dignity is about the most admirable thing we can hope to achieve in life.
Perhaps most dangerously, the dominant mood of our times says in one way or another that we cannot trust ourselves or each other: not to look after a baby without harming it, not to sit on a jury without wrongly convicting or acquitting somebody, not to own a gun without running amok in a classroom. The flipside of elevating the victim is to degrade us all - and so to pave the way for the introduction of yet more restrictive laws, rules and regulations, all for our own good.
The cult of the victim can be seen growing more powerful as the gaps between the national carnivals of irrationality and emotionalism grow shorter. LM has made a point of plotting the advance of this grim current. After Dunblane, we noted that 'British society has an insatiable appetite for victims and horrific crimes...Bring on the next moral spectacle' (May 1996). When that spectacle arrived a year later, with the reaction to Princess Diana's death, we argued that she 'may well be "irreplaceable" to those who worship her; but rest assured there will be another tragic victim along shortly' (October 1997).
After Diana, Louise. And she will not be the last, so long as the Maudlin Tendency holds our anxious society in thrall.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
This is a double issue, back in February
Reproduced from LM issue 106, December 1997/January 1998