Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Four Paradigms of Victim Blaming. 26.04.15

Allegations of victim blaming are becoming a serious issue in the self-defence world. It is becoming increasingly difficult to provide self-defence advice, particularly to women, without being accused of victim blaming. This not only significantly impacts risk-reduction strategies, but also causes intense frustration in those who are genuinely trying to help people keep themselves safe.

I believe the problem is that people can approach the subject with completely different points of view, yet can end up saying similar-sounding things. Although their meanings and intentions are very different, it’s easy to lump them all together, particularly when emotions run hot. I personally classify these points of view under four different categories, depending on the paradigms they generate from and their intentions towards survivors.

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There are people who absolutely believe in the righteousness of Victim Blaming. They believe that people who ‘misbehave’ deserve to be punished. To them, it doesn’t matter whether that punishment is meted out by a society’s judicial system or by vigilante justice. The key factor is that that person ‘had it coming’ because they broke certain rules. These rules may have their origin in religious beliefs, societal mores, or personal idiosyncrasies, and they may or may not reflect those held by mainstream society.

This may sound utterly abominable, but most of us subscribe to this point of view in some extreme cases. For instance, if a parent were to find their toddler in the hands of a rapist, many of us would forgive any ensuing retaliation and feel rather unsympathetic towards the rapist-turned-victim. Alas, there are people out there whose behavioural code may be infinitely more restrictive than ours. For instance, they may believe that a woman who dresses ‘provocatively’ or behaves ‘inappropriately’ may ‘deserve’ not only a sexual assault, but even death for her shameful behaviour.

This type of thinking was brought to public attention by the documentary India’s daughter (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/indias-daughter-how-india-tried-to-suppress-the-bbc-delhi-gangrape-documentary-10088890.html), which caused such public uproar that it was banned by the Indian government. However, it is not restricted to foreign countries or religions. There are people in Western society who hold these kinds of beliefs. They have no interest whatsoever in supporting survivors; on the contrary, they consider their sufferings as richly deserved. From a survivor’s point of view, they are utterly poisonous. 

Fortunately, the numbers of actual Victim Blamers left in our culture is very small. Although they are the casus belli of advocates, you really have to go down some rabbit holes to find these people anymore. Thing is, because their views are considered so repulsive by the majority of our society, they have a huge shock value. The media being what they are, there is a lot of value in finding them out and giving them a platform. This can lead us to believe that our world is full of Victim Blamers, when the fact that their views shock us should be enough to tell us that our mainstream society does NOT subscribe to that point of view. 

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Another group of people are genuinely sorry that the act of violence took place, and certainly do not wish the survivors any further sufferings. However, they also do not prioritise the survivors’ needs. 

Our society has made it possible for many people to live their lives without encountering violence. This is a great achievement; however, it also means that those people often never develop the necessary skills for dealing with violence. I am not referring only to the physical skills needed during an assault, but also the emotional and psychological skills to handle the aftermath.

While it may be true that their lifestyles prevent them from coming into contact with many types of violence, it doesn’t and cannot ever make them 100% safe. Unfortunately, many people are either unable or unwilling to accept that and instead end up living in an imaginary ‘safety bubble’. Their lack of exposure to violence leads them to hope or believe that ‘that sort of thing just doesn’t happen around here’, or that ‘bad things don’t happen to good people’. 

When a bad thing does happen to somebody in their circle, their ‘safety bubble’ is at risk. To admit that violence can penetrate the bubble would rock their world. Seeking to preserve their tranquillity, they launch into a personal inquisition to find out ‘what the victim did wrong’. This is not a search designed to find out how to decrease personal risks, or how to help the survivor avoid a repetition of the event. It is not aimed at finding the truth. Its sole goal is to preserve the ‘safety bubble’. Once the Wrong Thing is discovered, or made up, these people can rest soundly, safe in the illusion that their little world is as safe as ever. 

Meanwhile, the survivor has just been put through the wringer. In the aftermath of a violent incident, this is hardly helpful.

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A third and entirely separate group of people aims to help, but doesn’t always get it right.

Many people who have experienced violence know how truly horrifying it can be. Their main goal is to prevent it from happening. For this reason, they want to educate innocent people in risk reduction. They aim is to teach people how to keep themselves as safe as reasonably possible – they know that nobody is ever 100% safe, but they also know that our behaviour and lifestyle choices can make us harder targets.

Unfortunately, the information they produce can sound surprisingly like the venom spurted by Victim Blamers, or the dross spewed forth by people living in a ‘safety bubble’. This is particularly the case around issues where victim blaming has been or is a very real problem, such as sexual assaults. 

Sometimes the misunderstanding is caused by clumsy presentation – although the intention of some statements is purely risk reduction, they come out sounding accusatory. Sometimes the issue is purely that the listeners are so primed for conflict that anything said about the subject is a red flag. Sometimes there seems to be a problem of focus. Those interested in risk reduction want to reduce people’s likelihood to become victims. Other people are mostly focused on sparing the feelings of existing victims. The two attitudes are often at odds.

It ought to be obvious to us all, yet apparently it isn't: anyone who is affected by accusations of victim blaming is obviously NOT a victim blamer. If they were, they would feel righteous about their position, not horrified when it's pointed out. Ergo, anyone constantly accusing people of victim blaming is either a little bit silly, or is deliberately using this strategy to shut people up. And the big problem is that it works far too often.

As behaviours go, this is about as unhelpful as you can get. Fighting violence is a big enough problem that surely we need all willing hands on deck, not just those who agree with our ideology.

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There is another group of people who believe that violence is so abominable that it is not justified under any circumstances. Their ideal is a world in which violence is completely eradicated. Unfortunately, their path to this better world is strewn with victims.

The logic seems to be that if people were incapable of violence, then it wouldn’t happen. So we should make all violent deeds punishable, even those committed in self-defence. We should take away all weapons. All violence prevention should be farmed out to organisations; to schools, employers, the police, or the penal system. We should completely reject our right as individuals to take charge of our own safety. It doesn’t matter that this penalizes the honest (criminals don’t obey laws – it’s part of their job description) and the weak who find themselves deprived of equalisers. The focus here is not to protect possible victims, but to change the world. 

By removing the permission and means of self-defence, in the short-term these people are making violence effectively inescapable: if it comes our way, it’s going to trounce us and there’s nothing we can do about it bar call the cavalry. I believe this is why these people are particularly vicious in their accusations of ‘victim blaming’ raised at anyone trying to teach risk management. Risk management entails that we accept and process the risk of violence, and take steps to reduce its likelihood. It’s all about agency (the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices) and an understanding of reality. As this belief system hinges on ignoring reality and depriving people of their agency, risk prevention is clearly anathema. 

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Where does this all leave us? I guess that depends on where our beliefs and priorities lie.

Personally, I have seen enough violence to believe that reducing people’s chances of becoming victims ought to be the priority. Helping survivors during their recovery is a very close second. Anything that stands in the way of these two goals gets my goat – but these are my beliefs, my priorities. 

I don't expect people to agree with me 100% on how we are going to get there; I would, however, like more people to realise that, when you scrap all the rhetoric, most of us want the same thing: a world with less hurt people in it. The only exception to this are the Victim Blamers, whose position is thankfully being eroded by cultural evolution. They sound like complete throwbacks now, and they will hopefully go extinct in a couple of generations. 

Most of us are on the same page. So, it would be just wonderful if we could all chill the fuck out and, if not work with each other, at least let each other work. We are becoming so entrenched into fighting for our positions that we’re losing sight of the fact that there is a huge middle ground, with most people in it. Hell, fighting for the righteousness of their position seems to now be many people’s overarching priority—more than saving people, more than helping them get better. If that’s not fucked up, then I don’t know what is.

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I talk more about how to handle victim blaming and other side effects of violence in my first publication, A Woman's Toolkit for Recovery from Violence and Trauma, which is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. Although it's geared toward women because we are often socialised differently with regards to violence, the information can apply to anyone. Share it with your wives, sisters, daughters, friends, and anyone else you think might need it.

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