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Empowerment vs. the Helpless Victim: A Closer Look at Victim Blaming

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Thursday Jul 19, 2018 08:45 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

Read all about me at http://www.bobennett.com.

In 2015, I wrote about victim blaming where I concluded that there is an important difference between responsibility for the crime and responsibility for the situation in which one finds oneself. The purpose of this article was not to arm victim blamers with rhetoric, but to arm potential victims with the knowledge that often can reduce the chances of them becoming victims. Since that time, I have written and spoken about this topic extensively, and just recently, the New York Times posted an article titled, Are Women Responsible for Their Own Safety? Australians Point Fingers After Comedian’s Rape and Murder. The comments on this article found on social media demonstrate that there is still quite a bit of ignorance out there that is fueling the helpless victim narrative. This narrative survives and even thrives because those who discuss shared responsibility or preventative measures the potential victims can take are often met with scorn and accused of "blaming the victim." When the victims are female victims of sex crimes, ideas of shared responsibility and preventative measures become even more taboo. Sometimes victims are helpless; more often than not, they are not. This is the message that must not get suppressed by the irrational mob mentality masquerading as "social justice."

The purpose of this article is to make the following points:

  1. Yes, sometimes we should blame the victim
  2. Responsibility doesn't (or shouldn't) imply blame
  3. Sharing responsibility doesn't necessarily mean having made a poor choice
  4. Encouraging prevention is not perpetuating the action trying to be prevented
  5. Violent crime is not a female problem nor male problem; it is a human problem
  6. Empowering and educating potential victims should not be seen as victim-blaming

Yes, Sometimes we Should Blame the Victim

To be a victim, one just needs to be harmed by an event or action. For the victim to deserve blame, they would have to be culpable (i.e., responsible for a fault or wrong) for the event or action that made them the victim. By saying we should never blame the victim, we are saying that a person who is harmed by an event or action could never have done anything wrong to bring about the event or action that harmed the person. To falsify this, we just need one example. To understand why we must falsify this, we need to see how people label themselves victims in an attempt to hop on the blameless victim bandwagon and absolve themselves of all culpability for their wrongdoings or bad ideology.

While the "never blame the victim" mantra generally makes a good heuristic, we can all think of situations where blaming the victim is not only reasonable but to not acknowledge the moral failing on the part of the victim that was the primary cause of them becoming the victim, would be unreasonable. Consider a white supremacist who goes into a predominately black neighborhood and starts screaming racial slurs. Eventually, he gets the bejesus beaten out of him. Our desire for retributive justice aside, we can reasonably say that the victim of the beating did, in fact, "bring this upon himself." Or to put another way, the fact that he was assaulted is primarily his fault. If we say "well he provoked it," then we are implicitly accepting the claim that the victim is to blame and the argument is now focused on what exactly constitutes "provoking." Is passionately arguing for what you believe in, "provoking?" How about peaceful demonstrations? Very often, one's interpretation of "provoking" has to do with their values and beliefs.

Perhaps even mentioning this is a dangerous idea because we can see how one could move from a clear example like the one above to a far more problematic example, such a woman "provoking" physical abuse by arguing with her husband. We can imagine the abusive husband saying "you brought this upon yourself" and us become infuriated—especially if the woman believes this. But the fact that there is no clear line delineating the justified blame of an elephant poacher who gets eaten by a lion and the blamelessness of someone like Malala Yousafzai who gets shot in the face for educating women, does not mean that no reasonable distinction could be made by examples on this spectrum.

The reason this matters is twofold. First, "the victim is never to blame" is an indefensible position weakened by many examples with which most people would agree that the victim or victims really are to blame. Bad arguments that are easily defeated damage the credibility of the person making the argument and the more important point that person is attempting to make, such as victims should never be unjustly blamed. Second, many people and groups label themselves "victims" to absolve themselves of all culpability for their wrongdoings or bad ideology. For example, many men's rights groups explicitly state they are victims of feminism and 'feminizing' influences in society (Allan, 2016) and white supremacist groups claim that they are victims of discrimination and use this victimhood status to recruit others (Khazan, 2017). The discrimination many men's groups and white supremacist's experience is a direct result of their wrongdoings or bad ideology. Technically, they are victims, but victims that deserve the blame for their victimhood.

Responsibility Doesn't (or Shouldn't) Imply Blame

Responsibility, in this context, is something that belongs to people (agents), not things, that act to bring about a result. Responsibility is not the same as culpability. As we have seen, culpability is responsibility for a fault or wrong whereas responsibility has no such default negative connotation. There are several types of responsibility. In this context, we will look at legal responsibility, moral responsibility, and causal responsibility.

Legal responsibility is determined by the laws under which the parties in question operate. If Bob steals Tony's car, Bob is legally responsible for the crime. If Tony paid Bob to steal his car as part of an insurance scam, then both Bob and Tony would be responsible for the crime (i.e., legally responsible). Legal responsibility is ultimately determined by a particular system of justice. Who is ultimately responsible is subjective. "Blame," in the legal context, refers to legal responsibility.

Moral responsibility refers to the moral or ethical decisions one makes. If Bob steals Tony's car because Bob wants more money, most would agree that Bob did something immoral. It is unlikely that anyone would argue that Tony shares any of the moral responsibility for the crime. But what if Bob stole the car because he needed to get a child to the hospital, and stealing the car was his only option to save the life of the child? Moral responsibility is situation dependent and often a matter of debate. "Blame," in the moral context, refers to moral responsibility.

Causal responsibility refers to the fact that one played a role in an event. If Bob steals Tony's car, Bob certainly is causally responsible as it was his action that led to the car being stolen. But what about Tony? Did Tony leave the car in the driveway rather than the garage that day? Did Tony leave the keys in the car? If Tony acted in such a way that contributed to the likelihood of the car being stolen, then he played a causal role in the effect or event (his car being stolen). In addition, there may be several other agents involved such as Bob's boss who gave Bob the day off, Tony's brother who left the keys in the ignition, and even the stranger who was walking his dog that prevented Bob from stealing another car instead of Bob's. With causal responsibility, no moral or legal judgment is being made. This is a strict case of cause and effect. 

While legal and moral responsibility are important, the kind of responsibility that matters most when discussing victims is causal responsibility, because our primary concern is on lessening the odds that one becomes a victim. This is independent of legal or moral culpability. Realizing that one's actions may contribute to the likelihood of becoming a victim is realizing that one might share some of the causal responsibility. This does not necessarily mean they share any of the legal or moral responsibility, nor does it imply it. It is another way of recognizing that one has some control over their personal safety.

Sharing Responsibility Doesn't Necessarily Mean Having Made a Poor Choice

The mere idea of a victim "sharing responsibility" with the perpetrator is horrifying to most. I would suspect that this is because 1) people often assume moral credit or blame with responsibility, even though this shouldn't be assumed and 2) having or even sharing responsibility for a negative event implies a poor choice by the responsible agents, even though it shouldn't. We already discussed how moral responsibility is separate from causal responsibility, now let's look at this implication of the poor choice.

When I say that the victim might share responsibility for the situation, I am referring to causal responsibility, that is, the victim's actions in some way contributed to the likelihood of the fact that they became a victim. In many cases, the actions of the victim are insignificant. For example, consider a college student who goes to a cafe to relax with a hot beverage while doing school work and is killed by a suicide bomber. Had the student stayed home that day, they would not have been a victim of the bombing. It would be outrageous and unreasonable to suggest that the victim's "poor choices" led to him or her becoming a victim. Going to a cafe (at least in most parts of the world) is not a risk factor worthy of consideration.

It's important to note that making poor choices isn't the same as a moral failing or moral responsibility and "poor choices" are often the better choice. I have a motorcycle (technically, a scooter, but "motorcycle" makes me sound cooler). I realize that by driving my motorcycle I am far more likely to become a victim in a motor vehicle accident. It could be argued that I am making a poor choice by owning a motorcycle, but very few would argue that I am making an immoral choice. The choices we make extend beyond a rational calculation and include non-quantifiable factors such as personal enjoyment, meaning, purpose, and other factors that have a significant enough impact on our well-being to justify the increased risk of becoming a victim. As an outsider, we see only the risk and don't see how the risk affects the person's overall well-being. For this reason, we should reconsider judging others for what we interpret as "poor choices."

Encouraging Prevention is Not Perpetuating the Action Trying to be Prevented

The Nirvana Fallacy is a logical fallacy where one compares a realistic solution with an idealized one, and discounts or even dismisses the realistic solution as a result of comparing to a “perfect world” or impossible standard. In the world of crime, the dismissal of realistic solutions results in increased vulnerability and more victims. Consider the following:

We shouldn't have to lock our doors. This is just perpetuating burglary. We should focus on teaching burglars not to steal.

We shouldn't have to have passwords. This is just perpetuating hacking. We should focus on ending people accessing accounts that aren't theirs.

We shouldn't have to educate people about Internet scams. This is just perpetuating scamming. We should focus on teaching scammers not to scam people.

We shouldn't have to teach women self-defense. This is just perpetuating rape culture. We should focus on teaching rapists not to rape.

It would be wonderful if we lived in a world without burglary, illegal hacking, scammers, and rapists. However, the fact is, we don't—and all the education and social engineering we can possibly throw at these problems are unlikely to influence those sociopaths and psychopaths who are biologically resistant to responding favorably to such programs. Also, education and prevention are not mutually exclusive. Encouraging potential victims to take preventative measures does not mean that potential assailants cannot be educated at the same time. If that weren't enough, the assertion that prevention endorses or perpetuates the crime is simply incorrect. Consider cancer. At this time, we acknowledge the fact that we can't eliminate cancer, so we do what we can do on an individual level: we take preventative measures. Despite the fact that prevention is discussed and implemented, on a global level, cures are being researched. We live in an imperfect world and imperfect prevention is better than doing nothing while waiting for a perfect cure. Those who disagree are far more likely to find themselves as victims.

Violent Crime is Not a Female Problem Nor Male Problem; it is a Human Problem

Imagine that there's a bomb threat at a local elementary school. One of the parents demands to keep the children in class claiming "it's not our problem; the terrorist is the one with the problem." The parent would almost certainly be seen as incompetent. This is because there is no doubt that while the terrorist is the criminal deserving of the blame, the terrorist created a problem for everyone and not responding to the problem by taking preventative measures would be irresponsible. Whether the crime is terrorism, theft, rape, murder, or anything else, the problems criminals create affect us all.

This idea shouldn't be controversial, but it often is when it comes to sexual assault. Some have suggested or outright stated that sexual assault is a male problem that men need to deal with by controlling their behavior. Ignoring the fact the sexual assault is not exclusively committed by men, the existence of sexual assault in our society affects us all. As a father of a teenage daughter, I would never tell my daughter to ignore preventative advice on sexual assault because "it's not her problem" any more than I would tell my son to ignore personal safety advice when walking around a city because "mugging is the mugger's problem," not his. Even though the majority (around 80%) of violent crime is committed by males, there are female victims, and there are females who love and care for male victims; therefore, violent crime will continue to be a problem for all of us. More important, this is a problem about which we can all doing something. Failing to do your part to prevent crime because of some ideological position claiming "it's not my problem" is outright irresponsible, unnecessarily risky, and factually wrong.

Empowering and Educating Potential Victims Should Not be Seen as Victim-Blaming

In the article referenced in the opening paragraph, the woman who was raped and murdered was walking home alone at night through a sketchy part of town when she was attacked. The local police issued a statement about "social awareness," encouraging people, to walk in groups when possible, among other things. There is an implied message here that can seem cold-hearted and "victim blamey;" had the victim been walking with a group of people, she might not have been attacked. As uncomfortable as that statement makes us, we cannot deny the fact that it is true*. We also cannot deny that safety education and frequent reminders are likely to save lives.

Tact and diplomacy must also be considered on this sensitive topic. No matter how factual it may be, most people would see it as wildly inappropriate to talk about what the murder victim could have done differently at the victim's funeral even if that information might help others if they ever find themselves in similar circumstances. In most cases, we are dealing with a moral dilemma: say nothing and protect the victim from criticism while keeping all the focus on the actions of the perpetrator or say something and possibly prevent others from becoming victims. Those who choose the latter, especially if they are sensitive to timing, should be given the benefit of the doubt that public safety and prevention are the goal, not the criticism of the victim or taking the focus off the perpetrator; these are just the unfortunate side effects.

In summary,

  1. Yes, sometimes we should blame the victim. Not for the crime, but for his or her foolish or even immoral actions that either was necessary for or played a role in them becoming a victim—like the white supremacist who yells racial slurs in a predominantly black neighborhood. 
  2. Responsibility doesn't (or shouldn't) imply blame. Blame and responsibility are not the same things. One can be responsible for something happening, in a strict "cause and effect" sense and free from blame or a negative evaluation of one's actions.
  3. Sharing responsibility doesn't necessarily mean having made a poor choice. It is unreasonable to conclude that someone is to blame just because they are responsible or share some of the responsibility. Similarly, sharing responsibility doesn't necessarily mean that a bad choice was made by the victim. 
  4. Encouraging prevention is not perpetuating the action trying to be prevented. Perhaps the most important message here, and the reason I risk backlash for writing about this topic is that discouraging prevention because of some paranoid idea that this will somehow encourage perpetrators is both completely without merit and obscenely dangerous. Further, denying facts of cause and effect and failing to encourage prevention because it has become "politically incorrect" is a harmful trend in this new world where facts can be overshadowed by rhetoric. 
  5. Violent crime is not a female problem nor male problem; it is a human problem. Criminals might create the problem, but it is a problem that affects everyone. Choosing to ignore the problem puts one at greater risk of being directly affected by the problem.
  6. Empowering and educating potential victims should not be seen as victim-blaming. Empowering and educating potential victims should be seen as what it is—taking control of what we can in a world where we can't control everything.

* This is a widely accepted fact by organizations that offer preventative advice including the CDC, universities, and local police departments, based on their extensive experience with these crimes.

 

References:

Allan, J. A. (2016). Phallic Affect, or Why Men’s Rights Activists Have Feelings: Phallic Affect, or Why Men’s Rights Activists Have Feelings. Men and Masculinities, 19(1), 22–41. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X15574338
Khazan, O. (2017, August 15). 5 Ways White Supremacists Use Victimhood to Their Advantage. Retrieved July 20, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/08/the-worlds-worst-support-group/536850/

Podcast Episode: Empowerment vs. the Helpless Victim: A Closer Look at Victim Blaming


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