Trigger Warning: What follows are speculations about the implicit philosophies and psychologies underpinning victim blaming.
Years ago I read an article by a rape survivor who talked about how after she was raped she would obsess over what she should have done differently to prevent the attack. By beating herself up over what was done to her she was engaging in a bit of victim blaming. One of the most heartbreaking things about vicim blaming is that survivors themselves engage in it, both by blaming themselves and other survivors. But why? Why compound the grievous violation with a blame-ridden guilty conscience for what was done to you? Why not at least have the clear conscience you deserve?
The author of the article I read suggested that the reason she blamed herself was because admitting she did nothing wrong would be to admit that she could do everything right and still not be powerful to prevent being violated. And what the rape took from her most of all was her sense of power, her sense of safety and ability to protect herself from violence in the world. Ironically, blaming herself, perversely taking responsibility for what happened to her, was tragically more tolerable on some deep psychological level than what felt like the only alternative: feeling powerless, feeling vulnerable, feeling like it could happen again.
There are a lot of reasons that others besides survivors themselves blame survivors. Sometimes it is because the consequences to perpetrators are severe and so if there is a way to conceive of whatever happened as not really such a bad thing after all then maybe the victim wasn’t a victim and can get over it with proper perspective and spare the alleged perpetrator all sorts of misery. Or the perpetrator was acting within iniquitously accepted social norms and people are defensive about those norms or the victim violated an iniquitous social norm and so is being judged unfairly by an unjust rule. Or the victim blamers might identify with alleged perpetrators’ actions in some key ways and so they defend the perpetrators as proxies for themselves.
But one key reason that I think that people reflexively victim blame as a first resort in so many cases (and it’s not just rape survivors who get victim blamed, people blamed me for being burglarized because my door was jamming open and I didn’t have time to get it fixed and then forgot to deliberately and carefully close it as was necessary before leaving for a vacation). I think the reason goes back to the rape survivor’s mindset I talked about above. I think two things are first and foremost on a lot of people’s minds when they get told about something terrible. The first priority is to convince themselves everything will be okay. The second priority is to fix the situation.
So, the victim explains what happened. And people’s minds spring into action to convince themselves that (a) this can be prevented and (b) this person can be spared in the future if they are only smarter about things. So, instead of thinking, “Holy shit, that’s heinous someone would do that to you”, they are more concerned with, “Okay, there are ways to stop this from happening. Let’s go over them.”
So they give horrible advice. “That’s what you get for get for going to a party where you knew people would be drinking.” What this says is, “In principle, no one who is 100% committed to not getting raped has to get raped. They could have just not gone to a party with alcohol.” In this way, the world can still be fair. “You got raped because you did something risky. You knew the risks. The world didn’t jump out and assault someone totally innocent here.”
Plus, there’s another terrible habit people have. It frequently feels impossible to express a negative emotion in general without someone trying to fix it for you. This is pretty frustrating for me. I am a really expressive person. I compulsively want to express my feelings and frustrations to others. But a lot of people don’t know how to simply say “I love you, here’s a hug, let me know if there’s anything you want to talk about.” Instead they hear a negative emotion or about a negative situation and, usually despite having bare minimum knowledge of any of the complications of my situation, they start offering boilerplate advice. Even were their advice good (and I am someone willing to seek and eager to give advice myself on plenty of occasions) not every expression of an emotion or complaint about a frustration is a request for advice. Sometimes someone is just in the mood to express an emotion. Working past it may not be something they can handle at that moment. I try to avoid presumption at all costs. I can offer to give advice should someone want it. But their simply expressing the emotion or frustration is not itself an invitation.
But the problem is that for many of us we feel really awkward and helpless to just stand there and inertly say, “That sucks, I love you, let me know what you need” and hug them. It seems like that’s not enough. We feel a yearning to help. Maybe because we don’t want to feel so powerless when empathizing with someone and wanting their pain to just go away. Maybe also there is a feeling of duty to be able to help eradicate suffering. When talking to people in pain, and especially survivors of traumatic violations, we have to be less selfish than that. It’s not about our awkward feelings of powerlessness.
We need to endure the reality that their suffering is real and durable and in many ways out of our power to stop. We need to accept that all we can offer to do is to be a source of extraordinarily patient love and support that lets them heal on their time schedule, lets them open up in their own ways, and lets them emotionally suffer in the ways they need to in order to process what happened to them. We need to be responsive to what they indicate they need.
And what they don’t need are our brains to be abuzz with what they should have done better and should do in the future. They don’t need our rationalizations for our sake that try to explain how the world is really a just and a safe place for “smart” “good” people who don’t do oh so avoidably foolish things.
We non-survivors need to take a deep hard look at the heinous nightmarish things that really happen to people who didn’t in any way whatsoever have it coming to them and repeat to ourselves over and over and over one simple truth that has been traumatized deep into survivors’ psyches: violence and violation happen to people who don’t deserve it and could not have reasonably done anything shrewder to prevent it. We ourselves and everyone we love is vulnerable at any hour of any day to immense, cruel, random, traumatizing pain. We are all just a physical accident or malady away from it. We are all the potential prey of murderers, rapists, torturers, thieves, con men, malevolent governmental forces, faceless merciless corporate bureaucrats, and numerous other kinds of betrayers who can destroy our lives, our bodies, our senses of self.
It’s a lie. It’s selfish. It compounds the violation done to innocent people and makes them feel alienated, guilty, and even more worthless than they unjustly already felt.
And it does absolutely nothing to change the terrifying facts. You are utterly vulnerable. Heinous things can unstoppably happen to you and those you love. For no good reason. And some of them will be incapable of being fixed. And no amount of cleverness, moral rectitude, or common sense can protect you.
My guess is that one of the reasons the public is traumatized over and over again by mass public shootings despite hearing about a steady stream of domestic murders and death totals in foreign wars on a daily basis is that many people live with the delusion that violence is something you can keep out of your life by just being smart and good. It’s all about the people you surround yourself with and your responsible life choices. Only foolish people get themselves mixed up in circumstances that lead to violence. Not me, I make good decisions. I’ll be safe. The random public violence is traumatizing because it says that anybody can be randomly selected to be terrorized and/or murdered. Such events strip that ugly truth unavoidably and unbearably naked.
One last time. To those of us trying to live hidden away in the mental fortress of the Just World Fallacy. Every day, the immense sufferings of others you try to rationalize away could any day be your suffering. You are always vulnerable. And you are far more likely to be violated and victimized in the ways that the people whose abuse you consider “avoidable” are than you are to be the victim of some rare, headline making, randomized mass shooting.
We’re all vulnerable. We’re all in this together. Show some compassion. Stop trying to fix the victims. Start trying to fix the world. It’s not just. It needs to be changed.
For more speculation on the nature of victim blaming and how moral reasoning can become regularly illogical read this follow up post that spring boards off some social psychology research and this earlier post about why people who complain about unjust social structures that victimize people are at a social disadvantage in arguments.
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