Victim-Blaming

After attempting to defend their poster-campaign designed to prevent rape and sexual assault, the Sussex Police Department eventually caved-in and apologized, saying they would “forshorten this particular part of the campaign.” The problem with the posters, we are to believe, is that they blame the victim by suggesting that women can help prevent rape by sticking together and not leaving friends behind.

If the reader’s memory is acute, this argument about the dangers of victim-blaming were alluded to by Jackson Katz from the previous post (and defended through the manipulation of grammar).

Where did this concept of “victim-blaming as evil” come from?

The reader may be surprised to learn that this notion is much younger than one might otherwise suspect, given the broad and deep expeditions into the nature of justice by minds such as Plato, Locke, Mill, Nietzsche and others over the last several dozen centuries. Its first iteration as a concept appears to have come from Theodore Adorno of the Frankfurt School in 1947, from his characterization of the fascist personality-type. Fascists dislike people that are weak, and so if someone is victimized, Adorno posited that the fascist is likely to find some justification for why the victim might have deserved whatever was coming to them, as proven by the fact that they were victimized.

The actual phrase “victim-blaming” comes from 1971, in a book by William Ryan called “Blaming the Victim.” It was written as a rebuttal to the 1965 Moynihan Report, which posited that historical oppression had resulted in dysfunctional social patterns within the Black American family that resulted in absentee fathers, poor education, underemployment, and a generally undesirable standard of living for Black America. In essence, Moynihan blames slavery and racism for a society that, through systematic forces, inculcated bad family values into Black culture, and argued for the reversal of this through government programs supporting the same.

This attitude, according to Ryan, somehow put the blame upon blacks for the predicament. Hence the title. How Moynihan’s conclusion justifies racism and injustice against black people is unclear, aside from conservative notions of the “soft racism of low expectations.” But the emotional punch behind imagining people being twice-victimized stuck, and grew into the popularity it enjoys today.

In short, the concept has been misleading and possibly outright dishonest from the start.

The way that the phrase is used today is most presciently and tellingly described by the YouTube feminist Laci Green:

Her explanation is not the most philosophically rigorous, but no philosophically rigorous elucidation of the concept will go against the core argument that Laci makes about why victim-blaming is bad, and her video covers most of the same ground that all articulations of anti-victim-blaming go over:

The problem with blaming the victim is that it’s the predator that caused the crime, not the victim or their clothing, or their pictures. […] Crimes happen when perpetrators choose to violate someone. Rape, sexual assault, theft, harassment, non-consensual distribution of sexual photos, those are all decisions that someone made to violate another person.

Because risk-behaviors are rights, the burden of responsibility for outcomes is entirely upon the perpetrator. Laci elaborates five distinct problems with victim-blaming.

1. It protects sexual predators

2. It invites more crime (via #1)

3. It makes it harder for justice to be served

4. It fuels misogyny in the context of sex-crimes

5. It gets victims to blame themselves

I applaud Laci’s and all other advocates’ emphasis on the personal responsibility of the perpetrator, something often withdrawn from conversations about crime. That said, there is a curious implication in this line of thought on the subject of “responsibility.” Specifically, the confusion between legal (or “moral”) responsibility and what we could call physical responsibility. When I push a ball across a table, I am physically responsible for this action, in that I caused it to happen, regardless of whatever variety of legal opinions there might be about my relationship to the ball. Had I been ordered by a gun-wielding madman to push the ball across the table, he might be legally responsible, but I would still remain physically responsible for the action. A denial of this would deny the very personal responsibility Laci and others like her necessarily rely on in proclaiming that the perpetrator bears full responsibility, since criminal behavior can be predicted by certain traits in the same way that sexual victimhood can be. Sexual predators, for instance, have extraordinarily high rates of childhood sexual abuse. Responsibility cannot so easily be consolidated and expanded.

Recall C&P Maxim #1:

The beginning of all sophistry is the redefinition of words.

In fact, the logical conclusion of the anti-victim-blaming mentality–the confusion of legal and physical responsibility–precludes police from arresting victims, because even in the performance of their job, the responsibility of the crime and its prevention is being placed on someone other than the criminal. And let’s not forget that law enforcement officers can be victims like anyone else. Anything short of expecting a perpetrator to turn themselves in–and ultimately, to never commit any crime again in the future necessarily involves putting partial responsibility for the prevention of a crime on someone other than the criminal.

Perhaps this is why those of the anti-victim-blaming persuasion are ideologically forced to limit their anti-rape advocacy solely and only to “teaching men not to rape,” a farcical notion that rests on the notion that rapists are somehow ignorant of the illegality and immorality of their behavior. Which makes one wonder why they hide their activity from the public…

But we need not accept the muddling of the line between moral and physical responsibility. A counselor, friend, or acquaintance of a crime victim, when they try to help the victim sign up for self-defense courses, upgrade their home-security system, or shows them how to acquire a CCW permit, is not putting moral responsibility on the victim, but treating them as an agent with the power to act on their surroundings. This is a physical truth. While knowing self-defense, upgrading one’s security, or carrying a weapon is not an absolute guarantee of safety, it does significantly decrease one’s odds of becoming a helpless victim of a criminal. The denial of this is not only a rejection of the agency of the victim, a rejection not so quickly accepted in the case of the perpetrator. It puts the ideology of absolute moral responsibility, abstract notions of rights, and ideology over reality and real human suffering that could be prevented by something as simple as sticking with your friends.

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