Asking for it

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.

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5 thoughts on “Asking for it

  1. I think part of the victim-blaming comes from the fact that violent reactions aren’t considered particularly shocking, culturally. Consider this; instead of reacting violently, suppose any of those people had stalked the person who offended them, taken incredibly private photos and posted them publicly on the internet. Would third parties say “well, they should have known something would happen?” I don’t think so. I think the ratio of victim-blaming to perpetrator blaming would shift sharply perpetrator-wise. I think that, as abhorrent as violence is, impulsive violence is seen as somehow normal, particularly for men. Consider how the MPAA rates movies. More than a few F-bombs get you an R without any other explicit content (“The King’s Speech”). Sexual content has to work pretty hard to stay under an R, and generally has to be heterosexual. Brutal violence can easily get a PG simply by being bloodless and cartoony. This is how supposed moral guardians are rating controversial acts. Violence is bad, but its not likely to offend people the way kinky three-ways do. In other words, its normal. As a result, violence is within the range of “normal” angry responses, and people act as though the victims should have taken that into consideration. That leaves the question of “is anyone victim-blaming in the first place?” unanswered, but its the best I have right now.

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  2. A big chunk of it is believing that you have the magic formula that will stop bad things happening to you; you wouldn’t wear that dress to a party, you wouldn’t let your car run out of gas in that part of town; you wouldn’t leave your drink unattended, and therefore, you won’t get attacked / robbed / raped. And anyone who isn’t smart enough not to make the mistakes you would avoid, well, they’re to be pitied, but…

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  3. Similarly to wintermute, I think there is a series of reactions to unprovoked violence that happens in the human brain, all very quick and subconscious:
    1) That’s scary that someone would do something violent!
    2) That couldn’t happen to me, could it?
    3) What can I do to prevent this from happening to me?
    4) The victim didn’t do that thing to prevent it.
    And that can lead into thinking, in a twisted way, that it’s the victim’s fault.
    I noticed this trend during question/answer sessions with kids who’d just seen our play about the Holocaust. So often, the questions would be “why didn’t the Jews do X?” Why didn’t they try to escape or revolt? Why didn’t they leave the country? Why did they go into the showers when they might be gas chambers? And on it went.
    They all wanted to believe that, put in that situation, they’d have been able to prevent an evil government from killing them. From there, it’s an easy leap to “the Jews were too soft, trusting, etc.” and from there to “it’s their own fault for letting themselves get exterminated. Never mind that the Holocaust was meticulously planned with detailed research on human psychology at its core.

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  4. Insightful post and comments, everyone. Another factor I see is the fact that our society is hierarchical and based on domination (power-over). We have all been enculturated to believe that the domination and violence of those higher up the hierarchy against those lower down the hierarchy is acceptable, even normal.

    Even if the perpetrators & victims of violence aren’t clearly placed in the hierarchy (as in the example of the pastor and Afghanis, above), by default it seems that the violator is considered higher (because in the situation they were the ones who dominated), while the victim is considered lower. The huge exception to this is when the victim is clearly seen as someone higher up the hierarchy (the state, the police, etc) and the aggressor is clearly lower (i.e. black people, women). Then society pulls out all the stops to condemn the act of violence (even when it isn’t violence at all, but something like property destruction).

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