The progress of political discourse over the last few years has, if nothing else, created a new politics of “virtue.” It is no longer enough to state a conviction, defend a policy, or rally behind a cause. Now, you now must barter with your own virtue.
You cannot protect the poor, without having once been the poorest pauper one ever did see. You cannot defend faith, without professing to be a pious devotee. You cannot support gay rights, without making a public display about just how many “gay friends” you have and how you are:
“like, like, totally, like, the most supportive, like, person, like, ever.”
In the game of virtue, there is no better card than the “victim” card. Within left-wing circles, this trump card has become a staple of public discourse. It is impossible to have a conversation about taxation with someone who, in absence of any informed opinion, will inexplicably link their “decrepit childhood of abject squalor” to any mention of lowering taxes. The Labour Party actively fosters this “victimhood” amongst its electorate. As put by Tom Harris:
“The proud label of “victim” applies to almost everything else that Labour values. Lost out due to the benefit reforms? You’re a victim. Haven’t had a pay increase for years? Victim. Paying back the cost of your university tuition? Victim. Teachers being forced to test their pupils and teach subjects mandated by the National Curriculum? Victims.”
Establishing yourself as a victim, in turn, concretes your ideological opponents as oppressors. “Professional victims” will link a weak and factually unstable argument to some likely invented childhood trauma and use it as a shield against any constructive debate. If their opponents dare question their argument, they will be accused of having attempted to explain away the “victim’s” alleged trauma.
“You don’t believe in raising taxes, ergo you didn’t want me to have had enough benefits to feed my cat, ergo you are the oppressor that killed my cat.” This logical fallacy is surprisingly prevalent at all levels of society and, inreasingly, the Houses of Parliament.
Take for example, when former UCL alumnus and Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi challenged Boris Johnson over his comments regarding the Muslim headress. What first starts as a reasonable criticism about making comments on the use of religious clothing, descends into, what I crudely call, an intellectual guff of hot air:
“…for those of us, who from a young age, have had to endure and face up to being called names…such as towel-head, or taliban…”
This statement does not serve as an argument, merely, an attempt to entrap and ensnare an opponent in a net of guilt and self-loathing. Either your opponent is forced to abandon his argument and grovel, or he must maintain his position and be portrayed as condoning the abuses suffered during Mr. Dhesi’s childhood.
I do not doubt the validity of his claims, but I reject the use of cheap attempts to bargain “virtue” for political advantage. A man who readily dredges up childhood traumas to use as a political “gotcha”, I argue, is probably not as genuinely outraged as he seems. Nevertheless, the Labour benches broke into raucous applause and Boris Johnson squirmed his way awkwardly through a roundabout response. The Conservative benches grimaced and seemed to curse what was obviously an egregious sulfurous emission from the Labour benches. But how times change.
In June 2020, Priti Patel responded to allegations from Labour MP, Florence Eshalomi, that the Conservative government does not understand racial inequalities. Mrs. Eshalomi, a Momentum militant, predictably drew the victim card stating:
“My son turned 3 yesterday…I do not want to have to wait until he’s a teenager before we see changes in this country.”
In response, however, for potentially the first time from the other side of the House, Priti Patel hit back with stories of her own racial abuse:
“It must have been a very different Home Secretary who, as a child, was called a p*ki on the playground…A very different Home Secretary who was abused in the streets…”
The effect of this reversal was, of course, remarkable. The Labour bench fell silent. The Tories jeered in approval. Labour made the realisation that the increasingly diverse nature of the Conservative party was beginning to work against them. Their trump card was no longer as effective and, most importantly, could now be used against them. Conservative media touted this as a success and the clip gained thousands of views on social media.
But a success, this is not. Rather, the Conservatives have caved and now play by the same book as their victimhood-touting opponents. Priti Patel’s response was reasonably high-brow, but opens the door to some less than flattering point-scoring. The Conservatives have now co-opted the language of oppression. The open marketplace of ideas is now the open marketplace of virtue.
What made the Conservative party great is that it shunned the language of the left. It avoided emotive sob stories, characterisation, and virtue signalling. If the Tories wanted to, they could have dragged up their politicians injured in IRA bombs, the harassment suffered by the families of Tory MPs, or the sacrifices made by its military officers. But it rarely did. Instead, it spoke plainly and empirically.
Now, a precedent has been set. The Tories are on the defensive and they have a new card in their deck. The more it is used, the more the Conservative party abides by the language rules of the left. What will start as calling out Labour MPs on their bourgeois roots will escalate into a talent show of poverty. From there, a critique of an MP’s religiously insensitive comments will spiral into members waxing poetic about their days as a religious visionary. The descent is inevitable.
The adoption of victimhood and virtue on the right is negative for society as a whole. Political correctness is enforced from the top down: if a precedent is set in parliament that debate is merely a competition between martyrs, then it will soon take hold of the public discourse. Debate will be further limited and the winner will be the individual who appears the most downtrodden, not the most intelligent.
Though it may be tempting to score cheap wins, it is never advantageous to use the language of the left. Those who most loudly profess their virtue are usually the least virtuous- and the public notices. The Corbyn-era of “victim-in-chief” leadership accelerated the Labour party’s decline in 2019 and now, if left unchecked, could threaten the Tories too.
The ideas represented in this article are not reflective of the values held by UCL Conservatives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely representative of the author.