Blaming the Victim

Blaming the victim is an old story.  One old story in particular is that of Job. In order to test Job’s righteousness, God allows Satan to inflict great misery upon him.  Satan begins by killing all Job’s animals, servants, and children, and then eventually covers Job’s body with boils. Notwithstanding this, Job remains righteous and does not curse God as Satan predicted. Instead, with the patience that has become proverbial, Job sits on a dung heap, scraping his body with a shard of broken pottery.  And then three friends come along and declare that all that has happened to Job is punishment for his sins, for God would never forsake a righteous man. One of them even says that Job’s sins are such that he deserves more punishment than he is actually getting. In this story, we see that the tendency to blame the victim is an ancient one. Job’s friends unhesitatingly assume he must have sinned because they are anxious to reconcile the existence of an all-powerful God with the suffering of mankind; for if people deserve their suffering, then God is merely being just by punishing them.  But even in ancient times, people must have chafed at the sanctimonious attitude exemplified by Job’s friends.  We may not be satisfied with the answer God finally gives, but it is clear that the story condemns the tendency to blame the victim.

The belief that people deserve their suffering implies that they have free will, that they are responsible for their actions, a notion that many find unacceptable.  Some believe that everything happens necessarily, whether in the form of fate, predestination, or determinism.  For them, chance is merely an expression of our ignorance, and free will is an illusion.  For others, bolstered by certain interpretations of modern physics, everything ultimately happens by chance, and it is necessity that is just as much an illusion as free will.  Whatever the case may be, free will, chance, and necessity exhaust the possible ways in which an event can be understood.

Metaphysics aside, each way of understanding what happens in the world affects the way we feel about things, and such feelings are temptations that even an atheist, who may fancy himself free of all silly superstition, must be on guard against.  Though we may never know the truth regarding the existence of free will, chance, and necessity, yet we can at least avoid being deceived.  And the great seducer behind such deception is the consolation that such notions can provide.

If believing in free will allows us to blame the victim as bringing his suffering upon himself by having made bad choices, it also allows us to take full credit for whatever good fortune has come our way.  It is nice to believe that we have prospered because we made good choices in the past, and that we get full credit for whatever success we may have had.  On the other hand, we are loath to invoke free will in the opposite case, usually preferring to talk about chance instead. Confronted with the thought of someone who has been more successful than we have, we prefer to say that he has just been lucky, thereby assuaging the envy in our soul—unless we can attribute his success to lying, cheating, or stealing, in which case we are more than willing to say he acted freely.  As for our own misfortune, we prefer to think of that as bad luck, thereby relieving ourselves of the unpleasant thought that we made bad choices in the past and that we are now getting exactly what we deserve.

If free will and chance can each be reassuring notions depending on the circumstances, so too can the idea of necessity.  If everything happens necessarily, that takes all the pressure off: there is no need to regret the past, because it could not be helped; there is no need to be anxious for the future, because it cannot be avoided.  Compare the tranquility afforded us by a fatalistic philosophy with the stress that comes from a common sense understanding of the world, which tells us there is more than one way things can turn out, and choices sometimes make the difference.  “Do you regret the past?  Well,” says common sense, “you should!  You made bad choices when you were young, and you live with the consequences to this day.  There were so many things you could have done, so many things you could have been.  All those opportunities were lost, and you have no one to blame but yourself.  Do you feel guilty about some of the things you did?  Well, you should!  What you did was wrong, and you knew it was wrong, but you did it anyway, and there is no way to undo it now.  And you will have to live with the knowledge of what you did for the rest of your life.  Are you anxious about the future?  Well, you should be!  However bad things may be now, they can get a whole lot worse.  And a choice you make today may well make the difference.  In fact, you already know what you should do, but you just don’t want to do it.  You would rather tell yourself that everything that happens does so from necessity.  It doesn’t matter whether it is fate, the will of God, or the laws of physics, just as long as it gets the job done, just as long as you are not cursed by the knowledge that choices matter.  You’d rather tell yourself that whatever will be, will be, that the future is inevitable, and there is no point in worrying about it.  Well, go ahead and lie to yourself.  It’s your only consolation for a messed-up life.”  Thus speaks common sense.  Can there be any doubt about the appeal of fatalism as a philosophy with which to hide from such accusations?

Though we may wish to avoid deceiving ourselves in such matters, yet the same considerations can be a guide to polite conversation.  Even if we resist the temptation to believe what makes us feel good, it is only proper that we employ exactly such principles when we wish to make others feel good instead.  A considerate man will praise someone who has been successful by affirming that it is all his own doing, that he earned it through his own wise choices and hard work.  But that same considerate man will realize that if he speaks of his own success in that manner, he will make himself obnoxious to his fellow man, for in so doing he implies that others have only themselves to blame for not doing as well.  Instead, he will speak of his good fortune as just being just a matter of luck, by which he will avoid giving offense.

Knowing how much people love to blame the victim, a victim who is considerate of the feelings of others will be quick to blame himself.  A victim who says, “It’s my own darn fault,” or, “I got what I deserved,” will make his friends feel so good that they will likely reciprocate with equal courtesy, saying, “No, it wasn’t your fault.  There is no way you could have known.” But anyone that insists he is a genuinely innocent victim will make others uncomfortable and even resentful, and they will likely talk about him behind his back.

When it comes to the consolation of necessity, one must act with caution.  If someone coping with misfortune says, “Whatever will be, will be,” or, “It is just God’s will,” etiquette requires that we agree with him, or that we at least not contradict him outright.  But in the absence of his making such a remark, we would be ill-advised to volunteer one.  Otherwise, we may sound smugly dismissive, saying, “You were destined to be poor,” or, “God wanted you to get sick.”

Therefore, when it comes to free will, chance, and necessity, there is the truth, which is elusive; there is the temptation to believe whatever makes us feel good; and then there are the things we say to others in order to be polite. But in addition to these, there are the practical consequences of such notions. As has often been pointed out, a fatalist looks both ways before he crosses the street, seeming to contradict his belief that the time and circumstances of his death will be the unalterable result of an inexorable process of cause and effect; or, if he is religious, that the date and manner of his death have already been ordained by the will of God. On the other hand, the fatalist will answer that he is compelled to look both ways by an instinct for self-preservation, so there is no contradiction.  But if someone so thoroughly believed in a philosophy of fatalism that he behaved like Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club (1999), who routinely walks out into a busy street without looking, we would be horrified.  Whatever one’s metaphysical views, whatever consolations one embraces, and whatever polite remarks one makes, we know that as a practical matter, it is important for people to give due weight to choice, chance, and necessity in their daily lives.

And this brings us to the subject of women who stay with men that physically abuse them. When a woman is in an ongoing abusive relationship, we never say this happens by chance.  It might have been bad luck on her part that she married a man who would hit her, but it is not bad luck that she stays with him or keeps going back to him.  Chance having been eliminated as an explanation for that, we are left with free will and necessity.  If we say she stays with him of her own free will, we are saying that it is her own fault, and we have thus put the blame on her. Assuming we wish to avoid blaming the victim in this case, the only remaining alternative is to explain her situation in terms of necessity.  The necessity in question is psychological in nature, consisting primarily of fear, love, and guilt.

The fear may be that of economic hardship in the case of a woman with limited resources, who does not know how she can make it on her own, especially if she has children.  Or it may be her fear of even more physical abuse, believing that if she leaves him, he will find her and hurt her even more.  Love, sad to say, can also be a motive.  She may stay with him because she loves him, and because she believes that he loves her.  Finally, there is guilt.  She may blame herself for making him angry.

Having settled on the idea that these psychological forces compel her to remain in such a relationship, we can only hope that a countervailing psychological force added to the mix will be sufficient to propel her out of that trap.  If all we do is offer sympathy and politely tell her she is not to blame for the situation she is in, do we run the risk of weakening her will by inadvertently promoting fatalism and the spirit of resignation that comes with it?  If, on the other hand, we tell her that she does not have to stay with him, that she has choices, and that she and only she can get herself out of that trap, might that not be the spur she needs to leave him once and for all, even if it implies that she has only herself to blame if she stays?

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