Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, with its analysis of the way that affluent white liberals use accusations of racism as a dog whistle for their own bigotry toward wage-earning Americans, got a flurry of emails and attempted comments trying to push the discussion back into the officially approved narrative of race in the United States. That came as no surprise, at least to me. Every society has a set of acceptable narratives that frame public discourse on any controversial subject, and trying to get past the narrow confines of any such narrative inevitably brings some form of pushback.
Depending on the society and the era, the pushback can quite readily include such entertainments as being burnt at the stake for heresy, so I don’t feel any need to complain about the really rather mild response I got. At the same time, though, I don’t propose to back down. Every society, as just noted, has a set of narratives that confine discourse on controversial subjects to approved channels, but tolerably often those approved channels exclude crucial details and head off necessary questions. In today’s United States, in particular, the facts concerning nearly every significant crisis we face can be divided up neatly into two entirely separate categories. The facts that most Americans are willing to talk about belong to one of these categories; the facts that matter most belong to the other.
Thus one of the things I plan on doing over the months ahead is talking about some of the narratives that keep most people in today’s America from discussing, or for that matter noticing, the most crucial forces dragging this country down to ruin. Such an examination could as well start with any of those narratives—as Charles Fort pointed out, one traces a circle starting anywhere—but given the response to last week’s post, we might as well start with the accepted narrative about race.
It’s probably necessary to reiterate that this discussion is about narratives, not about the things that the narratives are supposed to describe. If you want to hear about the realities of racial privilege, racial prejudice, and racial injustice in the United States, you need to talk to the people of color who have to deal with those things day in and day out, not to a middle-aged white intellectual like me, who’s by and large been sheltered from that dimension of the American experience. People of color, on the other hand, have had very little influence on the officially approved narrative of race in the United States. Like most of the narratives that shape our collective discourse, that’s been crafted primarily by middle-aged white intellectuals with college educations and salary-class backgrounds: that is, people like me. If I sing you some of the songs of my people, in other words, I hope you won’t mind.
I’m going to approach the opening notes of this first song by what may seem like a roundabout route. There’s a school of psychology called transactional analysis, which focuses on interactions between people rather than the vagaries of the individual psyche. Transactional analysis covers a lot of ground, but I want to focus on just one of its themes here: the theory of interpersonal games.
An interpersonal game, like most other games, has a set of rules and some kind of prizes for winners. In a healthy interpersonal game, the rules and the prizes are overt: that is, if you ask the players what they are, you can pretty much count on an honest answer. As this stops being true—as more of the rules and prizes become covert—the game becomes more and more dysfunctional. At the far end of the spectrum are those wholly dysfunctional games in which straight talk about the rules and payoffs is utterly taboo.
The accepted mainstream narrative about race in America today can best be described as one of those latter category of wholly dysfunctional games. Fortunately, it’s a game that was explored in quite a bit of detail by transactional analysts in the 1960s and 1970s, so it won’t be particularly difficult to break the taboo and speak about the unspeakable. Its name? The Rescue Game.
Here’s how it works. Each group of players is assigned one of three roles: Victim, Persecutor, or Rescuer. The first two roles are allowed one move each: the Victim’s move is to suffer, and the Persecutor’s move is to make the Victim suffer. The Rescuer is allowed two moves: to sympathize with the Victim and to punish the Persecutor. No other moves are allowed, and no player is allowed to make a move that belongs to a different role.
That may seem unduly limited. It’s not, because when a group of people is assigned a role, all their actions are redefined as the move or moves allotted to that role. In the Rescue Game, in other words, whatever a Victim does must be interpreted as a cry of pain. Whatever a Persecutor does is treated as something that’s intended to cause pain to a Victim, and whatever a Rescuer does, by definition, either expresses sympathy for a Victim or inflicts well-deserved punishment on a Persecutor. This is true even when the actions performed by the three people in question happen to be identical. In a well-played Rescue Game, quite a bit of ingenuity can go into assigning every action its proper meaning as a move.
What’s more, the roles are collective, not individual. Each Victim is equal to every other Victim, and is expected to feel and resent all the suffering ever inflicted on every other Victim in the same game. Each Persecutor is equal to every other Persecutor, and so is personally to blame for every suffering inflicted by every other Persecutor in the same game. Each Rescuer, in turn, is equal to every other Rescuer, and so may take personal credit for the actions of every other Rescuer in the same game. This allows the range of potential moves to expand to infinity without ever leaving the narrow confines of the game.
There’s one other rule: the game must go on forever. The Victim must continue to suffer, the Persecutor must continue to persecute, and the Rescuer must continue to sympathize and punish. Anything that might end the game—for example, any actual change in the condition of the Victim, or any actual change in the behavior of the Persecutor—is therefore out of bounds. The Rescuer also functions as a referee, and so it’s primarily his or her job to see that nothing gets in the way of the continuation of the game, but all players are expected to help out if that should be necessary.
Got it? Now we’ll go to an example—and no, it’s not the one you’re thinking of. The example I have in mind is the standard narrative of race in the deep South for the century or so after the Civil War.
The players were rich white people, poor white people, and black people—this latter category, in the jargon of the time, included anyone with any publicly admitted trace of African ancestry. The roles were assigned as follows: poor white people were Victims, black people were Persecutors, and rich white people were Rescuers. The rest of the game followed from there.
Anything that poor white people did to black people was thus justified, under the rules of the game, as a cry of pain elicited by their suffering at the hands of Yankees, carpetbaggers, former slaves, etc., etc. etc. Anything rich white people did to black people was justified by their assigned role as Rescuers. Meanwhile, anything and everything that was done, or not done, by black people was defined as a persecution—if black people pursued an education, for example, they were trying to steal jobs from white folk, while if they didn’t, that just proved that they were an inferior element corrupting the South by their very presence, and so on through all the classic doublebinds of bigotry.
A variant of that game still goes on in the pseudoconservative end of American politics. When Hillary Clinton went out of her way to characterize African-American youth as “superpredators” not that many years ago, she was playing a version of that same game, in which law-abiding white citizens were the Victims, black youth were the Persecutors, and white politicians were the Rescuers. On the other end of the political spectrum, of course, the roles are reversed; in games played on that field, people of color are the Victims, working class white people are the Persecutors, and affluent white liberals are the Rescuers. The players have changed places but the game’s otherwise identical.
Yes, I’m aware that people of color on the one hand, and working class white people on the other, occupy radically different places in the hierarchy of privilege in today’s America. More precisely, members of each of these heterogeneous groups occupy a range of sharply differing positions in that hierarchy, and these two ranges have very little overlap. What’s come to be called intersectionality—the way that social divisions according to gender, race, class, ethnicity, physical disability, and a bubbling cauldron of other factors, intersect with one another to produce the convoluted landscape of American inequality—is a massive factor all through contemporary life in the United States. So is the wretchedly common human habit of “paying it downwards,” in which an abused and exploited group responds by seeking some other group to abuse and exploit in turn.
All these considerations, though, belong to the real world. They are excluded from the artificial world of the Rescue Game, and from the officially approved narrative about race that derives from that game. In the Rescue Game, all members of the group assigned the role of Victim are always, only, and equally Victims, all members of the group assigned the role of Persecutor are always, only, and equally Persecutors, and the maltreatment of the Victims by the Persecutors is the only thing that matters. If anyone tries to bring anyone else’s treatment of anyone else into the game, it’s either dismissed as an irrelevance or denounced as a deliberate, malicious attempt to distract attention from the maltreatment of the Victims by the Persecutors.
The assignment of roles to different categories of people takes place in the opening phase of the Rescue Game. Like most games, this one has an opening phase, a middle period of play, and an endgame, and the opening phase is called “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor.” In this initial phase, teams of Victims bid for the attention of Rescuers by displaying their suffering and denouncing their Persecutors, and the winners are those who attract enough Rescuers to make up a full team. In today’s America, this phase of the game is ongoing, and a great deal of rivalry tends to spring up between teams of Victims who compete for the attention of the same Rescuers. When that rivalry breaks out into open hostilities, as it often does, the result has been called the Oppression Olympics—the bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred struggle over which group of people gets to have its sufferings privileged over everyone else’s.
Once the roles have been assigned and an adequate team of Rescuers attracted, the game moves into its central phase, which is called “Show Trial.” This has two requirements, which are not always met. The first is an audience willing to applaud the Victims, shout catcalls at the Persecutors, and cheer for the Rescuers on cue. The second is a supply of Persecutors who can be convinced or coerced into showing up to play the game. A Rescue Game in which the Persecutors don’t show quickly enters the endgame, with disadvantages that will be described shortly, and so getting the Persecutors to appear is crucial.
This can be done in several ways. If the game is being played with live ammunition—for example, Stalin’s Russia or the deep South after the Civil War—people who have been assigned the role of Persecutors can simply be rounded up at gunpoint and forced to participate. If the people playing the game have some less drastic form of institutional power—for example, in American universities today—participation in the game can be enforced by incentives such as curriculum requirements. Lacking these options, the usual strategies these days are to invite the Persecutors to a supposedly honest dialogue, on the one hand, and to taunt them until they show up to defend themselves, on the other.
However their presence is arranged, once the Persecutors arrive, the action of the game is stereotyped. The Victims accuse the Persecutors of maltreating them, the Persecutors try to defend themselves, and then the Victims and the Rescuers get to bully the Persecutors into silence, using whatever means are allowed by local law and custom. If the game is being played with live ammunition, each round ends with the messy death of one or more Persecutors; the surviving players take a break of varying length, and then the next Persecutor or group of Persecutors is brought in. In less gory forms of the game, the Persecutors are shouted down rather than shot down, but the emotional tone is much the same.
This phase of the game continues until there are no more Persecutors willing or able to act out their assigned role, or until the audience gets bored and wanders away. At this point the action shifts to the endgame, which is called “Circular Firing Squad.” In this final phase of the game, the need for a steady supply of Persecutors is met by identifying individual Victims or Rescuers as covert Persecutors. Since players thus accused typically try to defend themselves against the accusation, the game can go on as before—the Victims bring their accusations, the newly identified Persecutors defend themselves, and then the Victims and Rescuers get to bully them into silence.
The one difficulty with this phase is that each round of the game diminishes the supply of players and makes continuing the game harder and harder. Toward the end, in order to keep the game going, the players commonly make heroic attempts to convince or coerce more people into joining the game, so that they can be “outed” as Persecutors, and the range of things used to identify covert Persecutors can become impressively baroque. The difficulty, of course, is that very few people are interested in playing a game in which the only role open to them is being accused of violating a code of rules that becomes steadily more subtle, elaborate, and covert with each round of the game, and getting bullied into silence thereafter. Once word gets out, as a result, the game usually grinds to a halt in short order due to a shortage of players. At that point, it’s back to “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor,” and on we go.
There’s plenty more that could be said here about the details of the Rescue Game and the narrative of race derived from it, but at this point I’d like to consider three broader issues. The first is the relation between the game and the narrative, on the one hand, and the realities of racism in today’s America. I don’t doubt that some readers of this essay will insist that by questioning the narrative, I’m trying to erase the reality. Not so. Racial privilege, racial prejudice, and racial injustice are pervasive factors in American life today. The fact that the approved narrative of race in today’s America is deceptive and dysfunctional doesn’t make racism any less real; on the other hand, the fact that American racism is a stark reality doesn’t make the narrative any less deceptive and dysfunctional.
The second issue I’d like to consider is whether the same game is played on other playing fields, and the answer is yes. I first encountered the concept of the Rescue Game, in fact, by way of a pamphlet lent to my wife by her therapist sister-in-law, which used it as the basis for an edgy analysis of class conflicts within the lesbian community. From there to the literature on transactional analysis was a short step, and of course it didn’t hurt that I lived in Seattle in those years, where every conceivable form of the Rescue Game could be found in full swing. (The most lively games of “Circular Firing Squad” in town were in the Marxist splinter parties, which I followed via their monthly newspapers; the sheer wallowing in ideological minutiae that went into identifying this or that party member as a deviationist would have impressed the stuffing out of medieval scholastic theologians.)
With impressive inevitability, in fact, every question concerning privilege in today’s America gets turned into a game of “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor,” in which one underprivileged group is blamed for the problems affecting another underprivileged group, and some group of affluent white people show up to claim the Rescuer’s role. That, in turn, leads to the third issue I want to consider here, which is the question of who benefits most from the habit of forcing all discussion of privilege in today’s America into the straitjacket of the Rescue Game.
It’s only fair to note that each of the three roles gets certain benefits, though these are distributed in a very unequal fashion. The only thing the people who are assigned the role of Persecutor get out of it is plenty of negative attention. Sometimes that’s enough—it’s a curious fact that hating and being hated can function as an intoxicant for some people—but this is rarely enough of an incentive to keep those assigned the Persecutor’s role willing to play the game for long.
The benefits that go to people who are assigned the role of Victim are somewhat more substantial. Victims get to air their grievances in public, which is a rare event for the underprivileged, and they also get to engage in socially sanctioned bullying of people they don’t like, which is an equally rare treat. That’s all they get, though. In particular, despite reams of the usual rhetoric about redressing injustices and the like, the Victims are not supposed to do anything, or to expect the Rescuers to do anything, to change the conditions under which they live. The opportunities to air grievances and bully others are substitutes for substantive change, not—as they’re usually billed—steps toward substantive change.
The vast majority of the benefits of the game, rather, go to the Rescuers. They’re the ones who decide which team of Victims will get enough attention from Rescuers to be able to start a game. They’re the ones who enforce the rules, and thus see to it that Victims keep on being victimized and Persecutors keep on persecuting. Nor is it accidental that in every Rescue Game, the people who get the role of Rescuers are considerably higher on the ladder of social privilege than the people who get given the roles of Victims and Persecutors.
Step back and look at the whole picture, and it’s not hard to see why this should be so. At any given time, after all, there are many different Rescue Games in play, with affluent white people always in the role of Rescuers and an assortment of less privileged groups alternating in the roles of Victims and Persecutors. Perhaps, dear reader, you find it hard to imagine why affluent white people would want to keep everyone else so busy fighting one another that they never notice who benefits most from that state of affairs. Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that giving the underprivileged the chance to air their grievances and engage in a little socially sanctioned bullying is a great deal less inconvenient for the affluent than actually taking action to improve the lives of the underprivileged would be. Such thoughts seemingly never enter the minds of most Americans; I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.