Thursday, January 23, 2014

blaming the victim

Joe Biden said:
"No one ever asks the person who got robbed at gunpoint in the street — why were you there, what were you doing, what were you wearing? What did you say? Did you offend someone? "

I'm baffled at why people feel the need to exaggerate the situation like this. When I read something like this, my immediate thought is "you are wrong; we do 'victim blame' for other crimes", and my opinion of the speaker immediately drops, and I consequently am more skeptical of their claim. This obsession with combating victim blaming also inhibits having a conversation about how our society allocates responsibility to protect people from crimes.

Back to the first point -- we do expect people to take responsibility for their own safety, and there is always a bit of resentment from others who feel that they are having that responsibility shoved completely onto them. For instance, whenever items are stolen, cops regularly ask whether they had been secured. I remember being taught to be discreet if I'm carrying more than a few bucks in cash, and to always lock up anything valuable. More explicitly, I remember a high school teacher talking about a student who had been mugged, and saying that he (a middle class suburban kid) had no business being in "that neighborhood". Same goes for getting mugged while staggering home drunk. I can also recall situations where a victims' suffering was dismissed due to the perception that he had offended his attacker (though racism may have played a part in that).

Given the reality of victim blaming outside of sexual assault, we should be more careful to indicate how victim blaming is more excessive and less reasonable for sexual assault than for other crimes.

We also need to distinguish between victim blaming as a way to excuse the criminal (which is always vile) and 'victim blaming' as part of a discussion of who has responsibility to prevent crime. The latter is  a legitimate discussion, though it needs to be handled in a tactful way with the understanding that the victim is probably already obsessing over what they could have done to avoid the crime (especially if it was an assault). Reflexively hiding behind the 'victim blaming' accusation can have some perverse effects, such as when neo-conservatives used it to shut down any consideration of whether the actions of the US government could have contributed to the 9/11 attacks. As with how 'victim blaming' is used in the sexual assault debates, the neo-cons conflated the victim-criminal relationship with the victim-protector relationship, and acted as though blaming someone for failing to prevent the crime is equivalent to excusing the criminal.