Why Do We Blame Victims?

Wow, it’s been quite a long time since I last made a post. I suppose it’s been that time of the semester where everything is really busy, and my writing has taken a bit of a backseat to unwinding sessions with games and series. Nevertheless I’ve been toying with a befuddling (to say the least) topic in my head for a while now, and it’s the concept of victim blaming. This is not exactly anything new, but it’s a frustration of mine that I have observed countless times as well as studied formally in psychology, and after doing extended reading on the subject matter I decided to write about it for the purposes of debate.

If you need a refresher of what victim blaming is, it’s a pretty age-old concept. Basically it happens when a victim of a totally wrong crime or act is held entirely or partially to blame by people, as if they had brought it upon themselves. The most common example, and in my opinion the most disgusting, is the matter of rape, where people don’t condemn the rapist so much as try to debate how the victim may have provoked the situation. Another common one is bullying, where people will say things like he or she should ‘stand up’ against the bully, or it’s their fault for ‘letting’ it happen. A recent example I observed was another absolute shocker, and it was in the comments section of an article about a football player who was racially abused. The comment outright said that the player must take responsibility for going to a country where racial abuse is prominent, as if that is in any way an intellectual argument.

The reason victim blaming is often so disgusting is because it takes the spotlight away from the offender, cushions their crime no matter how horrible or downright unforgivable, and perhaps worst of all is that it frequently undermines the victim. Often this can lead to the victim buying into it and blaming themselves. I’m sure you’ve seen this maybe in a case of a cheating partner in a relationship, where the victim starts to wonder whether it was his or her fault that their partner cheated – that there must be something wrong with them. It’s so frustrating for me because these exact same people would argue clearly that rape, bullying or racial abuse are outright wrong and should never happen, yet turn around and try to assign blame to the recipients of such abuse. It’s absolutely baffling that people would resort to blaming victims when the actions mentioned have no possible justification. They will never be right. Very few things on this earth are black and white, but bullying, rape and racial abuse certainly fit the bill.

If you aren’t well-read on this topic, you may be wondering why it happens. There are many theories in psychology that seek to answer this. I’ve read studies (the literature is freely available on Google) which suggest something pretty interesting, and it’s that those who resort to victim blaming typically have a mind-set of a just world. They believe in some universal fairness, with regards to concepts like karma, divine justice and things like ‘what goes around comes around’. These people are usually trying to assign order to what could most likely just be random chaos, and the reason for this is that it can be pretty bloody scary to consider that bad things can happen to anyone, anywhere and for no reason at all. A weakness of people is that there always has to be a causal reason behind something going wrong. Whether it’s the belief that God is punishing them or teaching them a lesson, or karma is playing its role, or they wronged the universe somehow, people want explanations and to put bad things into boxes. It’s not even for the purpose of preventing future occurrences; just explaining past ones.

However the underlying issue appears to be fear. Jim Carrey brilliantly said that we make decisions based on “fear disguised as practicality”, and when thinking of it from that perspective it suddenly makes a lot of sense that people would resort to blaming victims, because it’s easier to think that they did something to deserve it, or provoked the situation, rather than acknowledge that terrible things sometimes happen to good people due to little more than misfortune, random chaos and bad timing. The ultimate problem though is that even if you want to believe that everything happens for a reason, which is your right, there is no justification for absolving offenders of horrible crimes from all the blame. Rape, bullying and racial abuse cannot be tolerated or justified, for any reason, and it’s by time that people condemn unforgivable, disgusting acts and the offenders of them.

Perhaps more interesting is that studies have shown that those who believe in the sort of just world described above, and a kind of ‘what goes around comes around’ order to the world, can frequently lose empathy for what happens to others. This is due to searching for explanations as to why bad things happened to someone rather than focusing on the atrocity itself and the offender. It makes sense in this way as well, because if you think about it, it’s a very cruel and potentially sick thing to do to try to blame someone for getting raped or bullied or racially abused or murdered without cause. To resort to victim blaming in these cases can certainly account for a lack of empathy. We therefore need to be careful of ignoring the truth that bad things can happen without reason or provocation, and often to people who don’t deserve it. A sense of ultimate justice can come powerfully from religion as well, and as someone who is Muslim it is important to not let this distort our reality and our empathy.

To make one final point I also believe that victim blaming is a terrible mind-set to give to the young, especially those who are bullied in school. I always hear some people say that bullying is a part of growing up and it toughens up kids, but people who make those arguments are ignorant of individuals being different, and thus the severe cases in which it doesn’t do that and actually leads to emotional trauma and damaged self-esteem. Yes, standing up to bullies is a good thing, but not everyone has the strength to do it, and as such they should not be held accountable for being on the receiving end of something they probably did nothing to deserve. And the worst consequence of shrugging off things like bullying is again the real trouble with victim blaming. Kids can be like dogs. You smack them around enough and eventually they will think they did something to deserve it. Adults can be no different in this regard. As mentioned earlier, the real damage of victim blaming gets done when the victim blames themselves as well for their misfortune, and becomes accepting of their unacceptable situation.

In closing it is important to avoid lazy or harmful mind-sets that serve only to ease our own fears and insecurities, yet do damage to other people. It can be tough, especially as a religious or very empathetic person, to consider how cruel the world can really be for no significant reason. But being blind or ignorant to that does not mitigate or eliminate it, it worsens it for victims of injustice and those in need of help. I would hope that anyone who reads this would refrain from ever blaming a victim of a cruel act, unless it was actually provoked. For example if good old Johnny is punched in the face after repeatedly insulting Steve, it may not justify the assault but blame can certainly be assigned to Johnny for actually doing something wrong. It’s therefore important to know when something was actually provoked and when something bad just happened because of misfortune, bad timing or randomness.

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