Monday, November 24, 2014

Victim Blaming

The term "victim blaming" is tossed around a lot, but it's rare that you hear more about it other than assertions that it's bad thing, without much of an explanation as to what exactly is meant by "victim blaming", or what is meant by the word "victim", or what in what contexts this phrase applies. As such, this post will be my analysis of the phrase's meaning, as well as where it can be applied.

First, let's define the word "victim". I am well aware that often times, two people are harming each other reciprocally, and in those situations it is nearly impossible to say that one person is “THE victim” and the other person is “THE perpetrator”, so for the sake of simplicity, I will talk about “the victim” as a person who was wronged, but who was minding their own business and not messing with other people. This will keep the analysis relatively simple, and this appears to be what many people mean when they say that someone is a "victim" of another person, although the degree to which there might have been reciprocity should be always be questioned, as it does change things quite a bit.

Now we can begin the analysis. I'd like to start by first clarifying what I'm NOT saying: I'm not saying that a criminal’s guilt is dependent on how easy it was to commit the crime. In other words, I'm not saying that a perpetrator's moral responsibility is at all mitigated by how easy their victim made their job. E.g. just because you left your car unlocked in a big city, that doesn't make a carjacker any less of a carjacker.

However, in hard, practical terms, the fact remains that it is a good idea to lock your car in a big city; in general, it is a good idea to take simple precautions against what other people might do to you or your property. Once again, in the event that you don’t take these precautions, the perpetrator isn't any less of a scumbag. However, it is very reasonable to say that you, as a reasonable person, should have known that this could happen, and it will benefit you to behave differently in the future. As an extreme example: you should know better than to leave all your money in an open box in your front yard.

And this gets into my central idea, which I will call, “reasonable prediction”. Reasonable prediction is the ability, which all adults can be expected to have, to make general predictions about your safety in future situations. That is, people can be expected to understand basic safety precautions like not cutting toward yourself, not driving drunk, locking up your bike, and not leaving all your money in an open box in your front yard. Should people be morally required to do these things? No, but is it a good idea that is in your best interest? Absolutely.

In order to further iron out exactly what is a "reasonable prediction", here are some scenarios where each successive instance of victimization is more reasonable to predict and avoid.

1. You are walking outside, you get struck by a small meteor, and you are either injured or killed.
- Your victimization was not a reasonable thing to have predicted. Who could possibly have predicted that? How could you have possibly "known better"?

2. You leave your bike locked with an uncuttable U-lock through its frame on a bike rack, but it gets stolen anyway somehow.
- Your victimization was not a reasonable thing to have predicted: if you were told that your U-lock needed to be plasma cut to be broken (as many of these U-locks claim), then it is very reasonable to expect your bike to not get stolen.

3. You are walking down the train tracks, and you get hit by a train.
- Your victimization was, I would say, more unpredictable than predictable, but it comes very close to sitting on the fence. It is fairly reasonable to assume that you would hear or see the train coming, even if that's not how it turned out. Maybe you should know better than to walk down the train tracks, but surely you would hear the train if it were coming.

4. You leave your bike unlocked on a city bike rack, and it gets stolen.
- Your victimization was a fairly reasonable thing to predict: it happens all the time to unlocked bikes; you see it everywhere, and it's not much of a burden to lock it up.

5. You are walking down the train tracks with earphones blasting, and you get hit by a train (this did actually happen to someone).
- Your victimization was a very reasonable thing to predict: you should know that trains run on train tracks, you should know there is a 50% chance the train will be behind you, and you should know that loud earphones block the only sensory input that would alert you to the train if it were behind you. Granted, most people wouldn’t lay it out in such bare terms in their minds, but everyone can be expected to understand why it's a bad idea to walk down the train tracks with your music turned way up. That is a very reasonable prediction, and thus, I claim that it is very reasonable to expect someone to not do this; call this "victim blaming" if you want, but I think this type of "victim blaming" is reasonable.

Now that we understand the model of "reasonable prediction", let's apply this idea to the case of rape. As it turns out, most rapes occur between people who know each other, where the victim would say something like, “I thought I could trust them”, and thus, it was not reasonable to predict your rape. Hence, for most instances of rape, it appears that it is not a case where “you should have known better”, and thus, reprimanding rape victims appears to be only rarely warranted.

However, this conclusion in the case of rape (i.e. that the victim is completely innocent) seems to have been greatly over-generalized to all kinds of victim-perpetrator situations, and it has generated a kind of knee-jerk reaction where people automatically declare that, “victims are completely innocent!”, which I think is misguided. A person can be morally innocent but still contribute to their victimization by failing to think about their future: these are two different dimensions to a victim-perpetrator situation. This is not a zero-sum game, but two dimensions of what each person should have done: a moral dimension, and a practical dimension.

Clearly, if you leave all your money in an open box in your front yard, you're an idiot. While you may be the victim of theft, and while you are not morally responsible like the thief is, you are by no means "innocent": you should have known better, and I think it is very fair to, in some sense, "blame" you for losing all your money.

One final note: I am fully aware that if someone tells you they have been victimized (by rape, theft, assault, etc.) it is completely counterproductive to say, “Well, did you do anything stupid?” That doesn't help very much, and it will probably make the person feel even worse. However, individuals should be self-aware and understand that their actions have consequences, and if someone leaves their money in an open box in front of their house, they should have the wherewithal to introspect and say, “Could I have prevented this with a reasonable precaution?” Maybe the answer is no, maybe the answer is yes. Either way, we should all be rational enough to ask ourselves this question, and not simply declare that because we are victims, we are therefore powerless.

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