Last night's Moral Maze programme on BBC Radio 4 dealt with the modern rise of victimhood, and the moral questions arising. Whether, for instance, it was morally wrong to deliberately or heedlessly or even accidentally make some remark that caused offence to a member of any minority group that could feel victimised, such as women. The recent case of the scientist who made negative comments about female colleagues was referred to. He was immediately vilified, and fell from grace instantly. But in what way was he morally offensive, and if so, what exactly was the hurt done, and what would have been the absolutely right response? On analysis it wasn't really so very obvious. Perhaps this was just a stupid throwaway old-school chauvinist-male remark that put down women scientists in general, and which - unless this man was chairing a selection panel - damaged nobody in particular except the man himself, for revealing him to be out of touch, old-fashioned, and guilty of a condescending attitude shared by so many men from an older era. Such as one's own father. My Dad had many conservative views that I didn't go along with. But I easily put up with them. I felt he was a product of his upbringing and background, and that his notions would not outlive the passing of his generation. I think that is proving to be true.
What about racial and faith-based groups such as 'black people' and 'Muslims'? And gender-based minorities? The programme asked whether such groups had any moral right to curb remarks they felt were derogatory or prejudicial - to the extent, that is, of claiming that the uttering of certain words harmed not only actual individuals but some religious or cultural idea that they cherished - and thus justified a savage retaliation. Not just a Twitter war, not just calling for the sanctions already enshrined in race and equality protection laws, but to go further and extract a dire penalty, such as killing the offender on sight. All because words had been said, and hurt felt.
There are of course genuine victims of war, famine, natural disasters and entrenched prejudice. But the programme asked whether anyone had a moral right to be offended simply by words they had heard spoken, or had read, or had been told about; or by a picture they had seen, and - based on only that - somehow acquired a further moral right (possibly a 'moral duty') to seek redress or even revenge?
I have - in the past - taken the view that I must be, without question, a potential victim of hurtful attitudes and verbal put-downs. And that if ever slighted I would be entitled to protest and bite back. I was after all a 'detectable medical oddity', very much at risk of getting the sort of misunderstanding, impatience and condescension still shown to many kinds of disabled person.
But with time and experience my self-view has changed. I still feel 'detectable', but it seems not to matter. Despite remedial treatment, I can still never have everything I 'should' have, but many of the things denied to me are not things I want for myself. So I do not feel bitter. I don't feel I have 'lost out'. I do feel a bit different from most other people, but in a way that - to be honest - I feel rather proud of, being throughout my life an individualist and never wanting to be like the rest. And certainly, I have had experiences (awful or amazing) that few others can know about or share.
I feel special. I feel strong and assured. I feel know myself more completely than most people ever will. And I'm living a life that suits me perfectly. A life that is compromised only by what age imposes.
Above all I do not feel like a victim, and I don't want to claim victimhood of any sort. Life has not been 'very unfair', and I can't see any reason why everyone else should owe me automatic consideration and respect. I want to feel that - through my personal behaviour and attitude - I've earned every scrap of friendship and kindness that comes my way. I wouldn't like to think that it came only because people were morally compelled to be pleasant. That in fact they thought chiefly about the consequences of saying the wrong thing, and were driven mainly by fear of the law. And that I was no more than a 'protected person', secretly resented for having a special kind of legal advantage. I want no such crutch. All I want is a fair deal. And as I seem to be getting it, you won't catch me playing the victim card.
But what if I ever do, one day, encounter the prejudice and abuse that I've so far managed to avoid? What then? Will I change my tune - will I be jolted out of my smugness?
I can only declare my intentions. And they would be to hold my ground and assert myself just as any woman would, and face whatever stupidity it was without losing my temper or my personal dignity. A challenge dealt with as a personal issue, between me and my antagonist, the decisions mine. No party line. No standard speeches. No idealism. Just what I think appropriate, with no loss of control - and no surrender. If necessary, if a good outcome is clearly impossible, I'll just walk away. I can't change a stubborn mind, and I don't need to speak the last snarling word.
Moral rules don't count for much in real life: it's down to which person has the quicker mind and the surer survival instinct. So I think it's good policy to look relaxed, adult and unconcerned. And not react like a complaining tearful child who wants mummy.