By CATHY SUN
In recent years, a phenomenon deemed “victim-blaming” has risen to prominence and garnered controversial media coverage. First coined by psychologist William Ryan in his 1971 book, Blaming the Victim, the term was described as an ideology that justified social injustice in order to protect the interests of the privileged. Today, it is the phenomenon whereby victims of abuse are held responsible for the maltreatment that they have been subjected to.
Whether we acknowledge or not that we engage in this practice, it is certain that victim-blaming exists and has become somewhat of a societal reflex towards crime.
The consequences of this endemic have been heavily scrutinized, and there are many: the stigmatization of rape victims and the poor, the tacit dismissal of racial profiling and even the presumption that disease is invited by sufferers of illness.
Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, victims of law enforcement’s excessive use of force, have been termed drug addicts, delinquents and previously convicted thugs who caused their own deaths. The death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old boy shot by an officer, has been condoned because he purportedly acted “threateningly” by waving a toy gun in public.
Victim-blaming is responsible for what today is known as rape culture: the rationalization, normalization and condoning of prevailing ideas and practices regarding sexual assault in the mainstream.
What are the prevalent allegations that rape culture espouses?
Women clothed in body-revealing dress are actively trying to seduce a sexual partner. Revealing clothing conveys consent for sexual actions, irrespective of verbal consent. Men are at the mercy of women and their natural hormones. Females are accountable for what males cannot control. Victim-blaming degrades female victims of sexual assault. Victim-blaming propagates the notion that men are misled by the appearance of women and that promiscuous women do not have the right to the sexual freedom of their own bodies.
In reality, research has yet to prove that attire is a significant causal factor in determining who is sexually assaulted. The American Medical Association has found that one in 10 young Americans has committed an act of sexual violence. 63 percent of these young adults have admitted to guilting the victim, 32 percent to pressuring, 15 percent to using alcohol, 8 percent to using physical force and 5 percent to threatening force.
50 percent of the perpetrators felt that their victim was completely responsible.
Justifying victim blaming feels anything but counterintuitive. In fact, it has often become instinctive.
Why is victim-blaming so pervasive in our culture? Because it’s easy and intuitive; victim blaming circumvents both vulnerability and culpability.
In an experiment conducted by social psychologist Dr. Melvin Lerner, participants in a simulation observed another person receiving electric shocks. Although they initially attempted to help, they soon came to the realization that they were completely unable to intervene, and they began to derogate the victim. The experiment arrived at the discovery that the more unfair and severe the suffering of another individual appeared to be, the greater the derogation that was expressed.
One of humanity’s strongest urges is to solve problems, and that has motivated brilliant innovations. But when a problem cannot be resolved, our overwhelming impulse is to believe that the world is fine as it is. Yes, we all innately want to believe that people deserve their suffering.
Acknowledging the reality that injustice and misfortune can strike any person at any point in time threatens our faith in a safe and moral world, one where fate can be controlled and all actions have foreseeable consequences. Moreover, admitting such a problem exists obliges us to act. Frankly, if something does not directly concern us, it’s just much easier to not bother. We instinctively favor the conception that terrible repercussions happen only to wrongdoers who merit as much, whereas people who follow rules are fine.
We also direct fault at victims to delude ourselves of our invulnerability. By shifting blame from perpetrators to victims, society creates an illusion of control that renders all misdeeds defensible. This thereby creates an “us versus them” boundary that distances all of us from victims. Consequently, cautious and responsible behavior are exalted as faultless solutions, creating a fallacy that underestimates the likelihood of being abused or harmed.
Victim-blaming is dangerous not only for the rationalization of real social problems, but also for propagating another pernicious phenomenon: the fundamental attribution error. Such occurs when an individual’s actions and experiences are attributed to their character, and the impact of the situation is unacknowledged or ignored. In the case of rape, society would assume the culpability of the victim and drastically underestimate the severity of sexual abuse and assault. In the case of racial profiling in the justice system, ethnicities less affected would be much more likely to have confidence in law enforcement, more willing to believe that officers are justified in their actions or that the system can be trusted to fix it if the officers not.
There are cases in which victims indeed hold to some degree responsibility for their misfortune, but too often their culpability is overblown while other factors are discounted. When we do not acknowledge that there is a problem, when we sit back and think the world is fine as it is, all of us are condoning victim-blaming, and all of us are perpetrating these fallacies.
Challenge this trend that is so deeply rooted in both nature and culture. Fight the impulse to rationalize the suffering of others. Refuse to accept degradation of victims; when an instance of sexual assault makes the news and the first questions the media raises are about sobriety, clothing or sexuality, pivot to question instead the mentality of the perpetrator.
Stop blaming the victim.