Do we only support protests so long as protestors display “good behaviour”? Let’s talk about the “perfect victim” narrative, a phenomenon in which ‘allies’ tend to believe that the moral compass for judging behaviour lies with them – even when they’re not the ones being affected by the issue at hand.
Who is the “perfect victim”?
The “perfect victim” narrative says that the recipient of any inequality or injustice should be demure, lack agency, and silently “tolerate” injustice to be considered worthy of our sympathy. The “perfect victim” is considered to deserve our support only because they seem helpless and have been treated badly for no fault of their own.
Why is this problematic?
When we support only those who fall within the “perfect victim” ideal, we are:
- Assuming that victims cannot and should not have agency
- Withdrawing support from people who are rightfully fighting their battles
- Implying that we won’t resist injustice unless its recipients are quietly tolerating it
When a woman is assaulted, we graciously lend her our pity so long as she is being “appropriate”, i.e, wearing “decent” clothes, not speaking to men, out of the house at a “reasonable” time, and out for work. But we quickly start to judge her if she was out at night, wearing a skirt, meeting friends who are men. Then she must be “asking for it”, then she must have a “loose character”.
This can be applied to protests as well!
For instance, ASHA workers called off their strike in July 2020 after assurance from the government that their demands will be met. However, they later called this an ‘empty promise’ and were forced to protest again in September. How many of us gave this protest a second thought?
Also read: Empty promises say ASHA workers, to protest
What is its relevance today?
Similarly, we tend to lend support to a cause so long as protestors are calm, not “blocking roads”, not raising their voice, not standing up for themselves in a way that is very evident. Because the oppressed fending for themselves causes us discomfort. So, we police their behaviour so they can match our image of a helpless, faultless victim.
But why should a protest inconvenience others?
Demanding attention for a cause through collective mobilization is the very essence of a protest. It may cause discomfort, it may be an inconvenience. But that uneasiness is what will create the urgency to address people’s concerns. A convenient protest does not demand relevant authorities to listen to the people.
So, what should I do?
We have to try and contextualise where agitation and protest comes from. We also have to understand the concept of systemic violence. Potentially denying Muslims Indian citizenship is violence. Suggesting that farmers be left at the mercy of big corporates is violence.
The consequence for these are statelessness, refugee camps, poverty, death by suicide. Not all violence is overt, direct, and visible.
Does anger mean lack of credibility?
Why do we always think anger from the “victim” equates to them lacking credibility? Why do we assume first that the anger is unfounded? When questioning credibility, we must ask: what is the basis of this anger? How is this group of people going to be affected by what they’re resisting against?
Anger does not mean that someone’s stance is no longer valid. It means that people have been silenced and pushed to a tipping point where their discontent is becoming more visible.