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Why do people feel the need to publicly/privately blame victims?
In the last few weeks there has been tragic events occurring in our cities. Two particular examples come to mind - the deaths associated with both the tragedy in Baltimore, and the Garland, Texas shooting at the "Mohammed" art exhibit. As I follow these events I note an increased use of the term 'victim blaming" being used by the media to fault (1) Freddie Gray's behavior in causing the unrest in Baltimore, and (2) those involved in the Texas incident for provoking violence. My question: Why do people - including the media - feel the need to publicly/privately blame victims, knowing this irresponsible behavior might prevent true victims from coming forward and reporting abuse, for example?
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The term victim-blaming implies injustice, or victims being either fully or partially blamed for something they don't deserve. There are several common reasons why people do this, but there is also an accurate assessment of responsibility that is often labeled "victim-blaming" by people often with good intentions. This last point is important to focus on because by ignoring contributing factors and shared responsibility, we as a society cannot address these problems in the most effective way. We can no more ignore the social and environmental factors that contribute to crimes and violence any more than we can excuse the criminal for the crime because of social and environmental factors.
Why do we unjustly blame the victim?
It helps tolerate an unjust world. It's very disturbing to know that police can grab someone off the street and kill them without just cause, that a rapist can force themselves on another person, or that someone can be killed simply for drawing a cartoon. This uneasiness is appeased if we believe that the person killed "deserved" it or even "provoked" it—both of those words imply blame. In a just world, people get what they deserve. Rather than accepting the more difficult truth that our world is not just, some people assume that the victim was deserving of the crime and those who make those assumptions are very good at creating a narrative to justify this belief.
It is a way to control others' behavior. We can look at possible contributing factors to crime and condemn those actions and behaviors by exaggerating their contribution to the crime and shifting the blame. For example, a mother who does not want her daughter to wear "sexy" clothing might tell her daughter that she is "asking for" sexual assault, and if she does not dress more conservatively (like the mother dressed back in 1970), then if anything happens to her, she only has herself to blame. This perspective is often taken when people find certain actions or behaviors morally offensive, such as appalling view that gays deserve to get AIDS.
Politics. On issues that receive global or national coverage, there is often a political component to them where politicians and the media "choose a side" based on the party line, then aggressively defend that position. Conservatives tend to ignore the social and environmental factors involved, and liberals tend to understate personal responsibility. Depending on this issue and how it is framed, either of these positions can lead to victim blaming. For example, conservatives might look at rioters and blame them not just for the rioting, but for the circumstances that led to the riots. Liberals might tend to "excuse" the behavior of the rioters due to the circumstances that led them to those actions. Who are the victims here? It can be argued that everyone is a victim, but victims of different crimes and social injustices.
Don't those who engage in victim-blaming understand that this irresponsible behavior might prevent true victims from coming forward and reporting abuse? I suspect that those who blame victims either don't think about this important point or they care more about defending their position and the benefits it may bring them than the social implications of such a practice.
Are victims ever to blame?
People tend to think black and white and have a very poor concept of causality. People confuse an ideal world with the real world and fail to differentiate between legal responsibility and personal responsibility. In order to deter criminal behavior and protect our personal freedoms, we don't like to talk about contributing factors to criminal behavior, especially when the victim's behavior or actions contributed to the likelihood of the crime.
Imagine you are the victim of a car theft. When you purchased the car, you refused to get any kind of anti-theft device. You parked the car overnight in a really shady neighborhood known for its frequency of crime. You also left the keys in the car. If you had an anti-theft device, parked the car in a guarded parking garage, and remembered to take your keys with you, do you think that would have had an effect on the chances that your car would not have been stolen? Of course it would. Not having an anti-theft device, parking your car in a high-crime area, and leaving your keys in the car are all contributing factors to having your car stolen. If you are ignorant of these contributing factors, you are more likely to be a victim of crime. From a legal perspective, you are not at all responsible for the crime of grand theft auto. However, you do share personal responsibility for the fact that your car was stolen. The criminal who stole your car still bears 100% responsibility and all of the blame for the crime, but you share some of the responsibility for the situation. However, the responsibility is shared by many more people, all to different degrees. The city leaders for not addressing the crime issue better, the car salesperson for telling you that an anti-theft device is a waste of money (and you need to spend that money on the LED lighting kit instead), your friend for telling you it is safe to park where you did, etc.
You may argue that you should be able to park in any legal spot in this country without worrying that your car will be stolen, and you should. However, there is a difference between the ideal world and the real world. Just because you feel you should be able to do something without suffering unjust consequences, does not mean that you will. You have the constitutional right to wear a t-shirt that reads "F*ck the Police" and in an ideal world, police would see you with that shirt and treat you no differently than someone with a t-shirt that reads "I Love the Police" (even if the shirt is referring to the 80's rock band). In the real world, however, we are dealing with irrational and emotional people with varying levels of self-control. Ignoring the potential real world consequences can be very dangerous, no matter how unjust. Each one of us can choose if we want to bear that risk to advance a cause in which we believe, but we must make that decision being aware of the real world consequences.
In this example, if we focused on all the contributing factors that ultimately led to the car being stolen, it is easy to see how this can be misconstrued as making excuses for the criminal, or worse, blaming the victim. However, ignoring these contributing factors will not help us in our efforts to deter future similar crime by addressing the problem from as many angles as possible, such as installing surveillance cameras in the parking lot, increasing the number of police on patrol, or even encouraging auto manufacturers to install some kind of anti-theft device as a standard feature of all new cars.
The most important point here is to understand the difference between contributing to the likelihood of becoming a victim and sharing responsibility for the crime. There are many things we can do to minimize our chances of becoming a victim, and we have the right to be aware of these things and how much or little they may affect our chances. We can then make choices and choose to avoid certain behaviors or actions, or proceed with them understanding the risks involved, no matter how unjust or unfair those risks may be.