The spectacle of Barnaby Joyce draped in a tea towel, lamenting his family’s stressors, prompted charges of ‘playing the victim’. And his resignation press conference too, with its air of disgruntled injury.
Sure, if anyone has been playing the victim, it’s Joyce. The former Deputy Prime Minister gave glib housing advice, but happily took up free rental from a rich mate. Now he’s sad about moving home? (We’ve done it six times in my son’s short life.) Joyce was steadfastly against same-sex marriages, while philandering. Now he’s worried about stigma?
So, it’s safe to say that the new backbencher has indeed been playing the victim. But what exactly is so wrong with this?
One of the essential tactics of this strategy is revealing suffering: in this case, housing relocation, and concerns about a child’s wellbeing. Let’s put aside the authenticity of these claims—they might be real, they might be for show, or a strange amalgam of pain and performance. The important thing is that they engage sympathy: here is an ordinary, vulnerable person.
Importantly, this is what happens when you look closely at any human being. Life begins with the trauma of birth and the helplessness of infancy, then continues with various acute and chronic woes until death. Schopenhauer put it with characteristic charm: ‘there are times when children might seem like innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life’. Whether it’s illness, injury, betrayal, grief, or workaday low-level anxiety, existence has enough sorrow for everyone.
So, it ought to shock no one when a profile or statement reveals some private pain. Everyone has it.
Because of this, someone’s privilege or immorality (which, for some, amounts to the same thing) doesn’t erase their pain. Joyce, for example, is wealthy and powerful. He has property, cash, connections—clearly one of the nation’s elite. And he is confessedly dodgy, to say nothing of other allegations. Still, he can suffer and die just like the rest of us.
So, what’s wrong with these ‘humanising’ profiles, or claims of woe? One problem is that we so often hear about the maladies of men like the former Deputy Prime Minister, and not others. Another problem is that men like the former Deputy Prime Minister often cause the maladies of these others.
It’s bad enough that a cadre of rich and powerful citizens are so often ‘humanised’ at the expense of other citizens. We have so much information at our disposal, but the big stories are often about those with the wherewithal and clout to be noticed. The effect is to distort audiences’ perceptions of reality, or confirm their most indulgent biases: some are celebrated as ordinary knockabout blokes, while others are vilified as thugs or greedy crooks.
What’s worse is that these ordinary knockabout blokes are often the ones doing the vilifying—and far worse.
We saw this with Joyce and his opposition to marriage equality, though the most obvious example is the bipartisan commitment to offshore detention of asylum seekers. Whatever deprivations politicians are enduring, they are doing it with enormous support: medical, financial, communal, and so on. They have a nation and its resources at their disposal.
Asylum seekers are, by definition, some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Even if they were once well-off, their position is one of extreme precariousness, and often after equally extreme danger. According to the government’s figures, most asylum seekers are genuine refugees—and refuges don’t become ‘genuine’ without cause. And yet: politicians have treated them as dangerous and greedy foreigners, who must be punished for their vices—or to somehow thwart the vices of others.
This is why playing the victim is so egregious. It’s not because suffering doesn’t afflict the privileged. It’s not because the unethical are somehow dry in this world’s vale of tears. It’s because these players are taking their own pain seriously, but not others’. Because their suffering culminates in self-pity but not sympathy. Because they devote more time to advertising their own spurious battler ethos than they do to highlighting the common humanity of the vulnerable. Because they are selfish and cruel, a dangerous combination in anyone with authority.
There many ethical stains a strangely-draped tea towel can’t wipe away.
Damon Young is a philosopher and author. www.damonyoung.com.au