Several months ago, some of my co-workers were telling a story of some teenage kids who egged an older man’s car, whereupon the man got out and started shooting at them, killing one of the kids.
“Tsk tsk tsk… that’s awful. Of course, the kids should have known better. Parents have got to teach their children you can’t do stuff like that.”
A couple of years ago, my friend M, who’s gay, was at a bar with a girl who was being obnoxiously hit on by two guys — they kept “accidentally” rubbing up against her, among other things. When they weren’t looking, M switched places with his friend, so that one of the guys found himself suddenly rubbing up against a gay man instead of a woman. The guy and his friend grabbed M by the throat and started beating him up.
Someone later said, “Well, yeah, that’s terrible, but he should have known better than to mess with drunk straight guys.”
An American pastor publicly and obnoxiously burned a copy of the Koran, and in retaliation an angry mob in Afghanistan killed a bunch of UN employees.
“He should have known better. He should have known something like that would happen.”
In talk about rape, victim-blaming is a huge problem: “If she hadn’t dressed like that/walked alone/flirted with a stranger it wouldn’t have happened.” There’s a subtle, pervasive misogyny in that kind of comment, but it also reflects a larger trend of victim-blaming that we seem to engage in. Somebody who is the victim of violence is talked about like someone who got struck by lightning while standing on top of the Empire State Building in the middle of a storm: Yes, that’s terrible and sad, but they should have known better. In a way, they were asking for it.
Statements like these imply that human violence is like an elemental force: if you get in its way, to some extent you deserve what you get. Which is… weird, when you think about it. Lightning is not a responsible agent. The human beings under discussion are… or we treat them as though they are. We let them hold jobs and vote and raise children. Am I really to blame for going through life assuming that the humans around me will not respond with disproportionate violence to any provocation?
I want to make it clear, before I go further, that I’m not in any way drawing an equivalency between the three provocations I mentioned at the beginning. The levels of guilt range from nonexistent (my friend M) to rude (Terry Jones) to misdemeanor (egging the car.) But in none of these circumstances was the response in any way warranted by the provocation.
So why do we do this? Why do we, when hearing these stories, focus our attention on the victim and what they did wrong? It’s as if we mentally assign the assailant to the “force of nature” category without a second thought. We don’t even think or talk about them, after the first “oh, that’s awful!” All our attention goes to what the victim could or should have done differently.
I don’t really have answers here… I’m looking for your thoughts. What’s up with this victim-blaming thing we do? Is it complete bullshit, or partially legitimate? I have a few ideas, but I’m curious to hear what other people think.