I have never been a good listener. When I read victims’ stories pouring out in the media, I often become upset. While it is easy for anyone to publicly accuse perpetrators and reveal their victimization in the media nowadays, for a victim to be able to speak out, there must be listeners who are willing to listen and respond to them. However, as I read posts by sexual violence survivors or comments expressing empathy and support for them, as well as anger and demands for punishment towards the perpetrator, I often feel confused with uncontrollable emotions. Accusations of being a secondary perpetrator lacking empathy or an honorary male who has internalized the perpetrator’s logic ring in my ears. Am I truly judging and blaming the victim from the perpetrator’s perspective? In reality, memories of my own experiences with violence flood back every time I read the victim’s narrative.
Recalling forgotten negative memories that are not revisited on a daily basis can be painful. However, reliving my own memories did not make me harbor anger toward those who come forward to report their experiences of sexual harassment, molestation, and assault committed by family members, superiors, or co-workers. Rather, my emotions of guilt for not being able to support these courageous victims without hesitation, my desire to escape the confusion, and my sense of injustice became tangled and intensified my confusion. In an effort to resolve the confusion, I feigned a critical intellect. While online hashtag activism against sexual violence and the #MeToo movement continued, I made efforts to identify ethical leaks that may arise in such a tumultuous era. To do so, I read newly emerging posts from victims and the ensuing responses of support and criticism towards them. When people urged for the separation of victims and perpetrators and advocated for harsher punishments for the accused, I suggested that it’s more vital to collectively discuss the ethical questions facing the community than to single out the perpetrators. My argument sounded plausible and important, but it also seemed trivial at times. When the accused person was an artist, I utilized my expertise and knowledge to insist that the work did not solely belong to the creator and therefore should not be discarded, even if the he was penalized.
My statements are grounded in logical discourse and are not unscrupulous. While my words may not have been inappropriate, I felt a strong compulsion to speak them. Instead of standing in solidarity with the victims during the #MeToo movement, I tried not to melt in the heat of the movement. I became fixated on analyzing my emotional responses, including anger, pain, avoidance, and justifications, that were not clear to whom they were directed. As I reflected, I realized that as a victim myself, I had felt anger toward other victims. I questioned why discovering victimization in someone else’s story that I had already faced alone made me so irate. Can I explain all this confusion with the vehement denial of victimhood? I was disturbed by the idea that I might be denying the experience of victimization and lacking the courage to confront it. I found myself making excuses to myself for my denial and cowardice. Then I realized that I had raised the issue of “another unexpected victim swept away by the history of turbulence.”
In retrospect, I wish I had been able to connect with the stories of other victims and immediately feel the sense of solidarity that comes with shared experiences of victimhood, marginalization, and alterity. Unfortunately, I was unable to do so, at least not during the first wave of accusations, confessions, and appeals from sexual violence survivors on social media. It was reckless and irresponsible of me to fail to stand in solidarity with the victims making obsessive self-justificatory excuses. However, this writing does not aim to express regret for my actions. Instead, I want to shed light on the voices of the confused victims (or non-victims) who have not “yet” spoken out about their own victimization, who have chosen to remain silent “indefinitely,” or who refuse to speak out as a victim because they have already spoken “internally.” I want to write about the fact that being someone who speaks out about harm means experiencing the victim’s complex dialectic and that listening to the victim’s story as if it were my own is an experience of the victim speaking on my behalf. This involves the inherent contradiction and pain of speaking as a victim.
The film “Bombshell: The Story That Changed The World of News” (Jay Roach, 2020) depicts the 2018 Speak Out of a female Fox News anchor who sued the CEO of Fox News for sexual violence, leading to additional lawsuits from her victimized colleagues. While the lawsuit by the prominent anchor (Gretchen Carlson) is underway, another anchor (Megyn Kelly), who also experienced sexual violence from the same boss, struggles with whether to come forward. Her concerns go beyond mere gossip and bullying from those who deny the harm and label the victim as a liar. As a high-profile anchor, she is also afraid of being stigmatized as a helpless victim if she joins the lawsuit. In other words, in order for victims not to perceive themselves negatively, matters they have to fight and recover from are not limited to attacks, bullying, and slander from others. Sexual violence dehumanizes victims. Speaking out against it and identifying oneself as a victim, and ultimately, as a survivor, can only be achieved when one has the self-awareness of having experienced a violation of their dignity and being in a vulnerable position. Paradoxically, to assert one’s dignity as a human being, victims must testify to the violation of their dignity, the perpetrator, the circumstances, the incident, and the violence. They must prove themselves to be human beings with undiminished dignity through proof of harm. However, public sympathy that portrays the victim as a “crushed fragile flower” fixes the victim in a perpetual state of weakness. Referring to victimization as "an incurable wound" indicates the victim's wounded dignity. Unfortunately, this is common in both the court of law and the court of empathy. We believe that courts and societies that actively listen to the testimonies of victims, who substantiate and emphasize the severity and permanence of the harm they have endured by describing their experiences as “daily nightmares,” are those with human faces. This is a desirable and valid argument. That’s why representing and expressing the past, present, future, impact, and resilience of the harm becomes increasingly challenging.
The trial of Nazi officer Eichmann in Jerusalem was a momentous event that brought forth a deluge of evidence and survivor testimony about the atrocities committed by the Nazis. However, in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (translated by Kim Seonuk, Hangilsa, 2006), Hannah Arendt was reserved in praising the courage of witnesses who testified in court to criticize the evil of the Nazis. Instead, she questioned the legitimacy of the Jerusalem court, which had abducted Eichmann to try him, and did not raise the issue of Jewish compliance with Nazi atrocities. In particular, her argument, which examined Eichmann’s actions and subsequently relativized his responsibilities as one of the architects of the “final solution” by employing phrases such as “banality of evil” and “thoughtlessness,” remains a topic of debate even today. The Jewish community’s vehement condemnation of Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” was not just because of the phrase “banality of evil,” which appeared only a few times in the book. Arendt criticized the Eichmann trial for failing to fulfill the primary task of the law, which is to assess the defendant’s sentence, pass judgment, and administer appropriate punishment, and for “satisfying the victims’ demands for revenge.” At this point, Arendt refused to consider or sympathize with the suffering of her fellow Jews in the name of the law.
Additionally, Arendt argued that the trial of Eichmann failed to properly address the unprecedented Nazi crime of “crimes against humanity” as it was reduced to a trial that focused on the suffering of Jewish victims rather than on the community’s values and “justice.” Although Arendt believed that Eichmann’s trial should not have been limited to a trial on the same level as an ordinary criminal trial, she did not make it a task of justice to reflect on the suffering of the victims. Gershom Gerhard Scholem, a Jewish philosopher, sent Arendt a letter stating that she did not speak “in a thoughtful manner” as “a Jew’s daughter.” Following the publication of her book, Arendt was accused of betraying her ethnicity, being a Germanized Jew, a detached intellectual, and a woman emotionally supportive of the perpetrator. Hannah Arendt was a German philosopher, a Jewish person who experienced the concentration camps, an American author, and an observer caught between the perpetrator of a historical disaster in which a third of her people were exterminated and her fellow victims appealing of pain in and out of courtrooms. Arendt published a book about her most beloved woman on an impersonal subject, “Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman.” She made an effort to distinguish between pity and solidarity. During Eichmann’s trial, she would watch television that were broadcasting the proceedings from the public gallery. As a political philosopher, Arendt tried to distance herself from the victims. She must have found it challenging to witness Israel’s nationalism fueling media sensationalism that consumed damage. Didn’t Arendt refuse to trap the Jew in images of suffering and damage not because she was German, but because she was Jewish? Wasn’t Arendt indirectly questioning the dignity of those who have suffered harm? Can we contemplate the dignity of a victim who has become a victim without considering the dialectic between passive suffering and active assertion of pain, as well as between damage and restoration? Being simultaneously vulnerable, damaged, in the midst of anger, yet refusing to be consumed by that anger, courageous, and a fighter is the unique struggle of victims. Paradoxically, victims possess a special dignity in the minute possibility of becoming all of these beings at once.
Christine Angot is a well-known French author who gained fame with her novel “L’Inceste” (1999), in which she recounts her personal experience of being sexually assaulted as a child by a family member. She is known for being a controversial figure in French literature and frequently appears on television talk shows. In 2017, Angot sparked a public outcry after appearing on a late-night talk show where she criticized Sandrine Rousseau, a female politician who came on the show to introduce her book, “Parler,” an essay about sexual violence within an environmental political party. Angot accused Rousseau of having a poor narrative and argument and of “trying to trap women in the status of victims.” Her vicious remarks were met with fierce criticism from the public. The politician was merely making a very commonsense argument that could be made in an atmosphere that emphasized the healing meaning of a victim’s speaking out. Rousseau revealed that she had written her book in response to “the shocking lack of speaking about sexual violence in France” and emphasized the importance of education and response to create a culture in which women can speak out (about their experiences). Angot, on the other hand, believed that only the victim herself could speak about the rape she suffered and criticized the politician for speaking in the name of women in general. During the talk show, Rousseau burst into tears and said, “I wrote what I’ve been through. This is my story,” and the audience booed Angot, who had become uncontrollably agitated blurting out “My rape.” Later, some decent media outlets referred to two women, two victims, two pains, and two ways of speaking, but the public reaction was not much different from that of talk shows on television. To the public, Angot appeared no different from a perpetrator attacking the victim again, particularly in the #MeToo era where victims’ voices have finally found a public space. This scene, which may be dismissed as another media episode by a controversial author, deeply shocked me. The irreconcilable psychological violence existed between the two witnesses who had experienced two different forms of victimization and their own suffering, as shown in the tears shed by both witnesses on and off the stage. Angot was reported to have left the recording site and burst into tears in the waiting room after being booed. It also existed among the listeners who were taking pity, feeling angry, condemning, and standing in solidarity with the victim while listening to her.
How might Mari Oka have responded to this episode, given her critique of the imperialistic tendencies of Western feminism to represent the experiences of Third World women by proxy and her recognition of the close relationship between the act of writing and the representation of others? Would Mari Oka think that in the name of representation, the writer (Christine Angot), who had the privilege of writing that could represent her experience of violence, inflicted violence against the victim who had voiced her own pain?. Meanwhile, on the talk show, Ango quoted Rousseau’s writing which used somewhat clichéd descriptions and figurative language to describe victimhood, exclaiming, “Your book has a story, but no discourse!” Can the relationship between the two victims in the Western world be compared to that between a Westerner who holds the power of utterance and an individual in the Third World who is deprived of the ability to speak? Oka reflected on Hannah Arendt’s distinction between pity and solidarity, and she wrote that listening to the testimony of others and becoming a witness to the suffering of others is not about receiving “information” about the events experienced by others, but rather sharing the incident as someone who is completely helpless over other people’s incidents. She insisted that the condition for finding words of empathy is not identifying with the person who is in pain but rather acknowledging the impossibility of truly feeling their pain. If Oka were in that situation, how would she have spoken about it? Could it be argued that only those who do not feel the winds of the new era coming in distinguish between solidarity and pain? Isn’t the new era in which everyone can speak out an era in which everyone assumes they can speak on behalf of others?
In this article, I have explored my complex and confusing experiences of becoming a victim. Hence my writing is full of questions. My own experience of victimization is “unique” to me, yet “no different” from anyone else’s experience of damage. We interpret the experiences of others with good or bad intentions and sometimes use institutional language to imagine those experiences as universal. Fortunately and unfortunately, as an individual, I am well-versed in claiming the right to represent myself as a modern subject, armed with the knowledge and language to articulate my claims, reinterpret my wounds, and write. I would probably fear the fragmentation of the modern subject assumed to recognize oneself transparently. It is unclear whether I was simply confused and couldn’t stop asking questions or whether I remained lost and unable to find an answer. Nonetheless, writing about this uncertainty is also a form of speaking out. As the story of a victim starts with “my” story and becomes everyone’s story, I decided to write about it.
- Writer LEE Nara
The author is an image culture researcher who explores film, contemporary aesthetic theories and attempts critical writing on contemporary image works. She has published multiple works, including “European Cinema Movement,” “Alexander Sokurov” (co-authored), “Harun Farocki” (co-authored), “Sense of Landscape” (co-authored), “Sortir du Noir” (translated), and “The Man Who Walked in Color” (translated). Currently, she works as a full-time researcher at the Cinema & Transmedia Institute at Dong-Eui University.