quick hit: an open letter to victim-blamers

Victim Blaming

(one of many responses to today’s news of a mass killing in an Aurora, CO movie theater)

Victim blaming. Anytime anything terrible happens these kinds of attitudes emerge in social media, the mainstream media, and conversations with family and friends. Depending on our personal circumstances we experience this insensitive, ignorant, and ultimately fear-based commentary in a variety of ways. Sometimes we agree and parrot this kind of ish. Sometimes we wave off the absurdity.  Sometimes we are personally stung and feel ill-at-ease, without being able to put our finger on Why. Sometimes we are absolutely devastated, re-injured after what was already painful news (or, if it happened to us, perhaps the most terrifying or hurtful experience of our lives). We turn off our computer and our emotions overwhelm us – and for a time, we can’t cope, can’t make sense of the world.

Victim blaming. Perhaps we experience these types of statements as grandiose and absurd – for instance, when a zealot cites a frightening natural disaster as just deserts for a partial history of an entire people, or when a cultural mythos diagnoses AIDS as a “gay disease” meant to smite sodomites. Sometimes these attitudes are deeply painful and endemic, reminding us of a larger culture that oppresses and wounds in the most personal of ways. Sometimes these attitudes emerge in the most highly-charged social and political atmosphere while concerning a profoundly grieving family; we remember Geraldo Rivera’s “hoodie” comments after Trayvon Martin’s violent death. Maybe most painful, but at least a bit easier to personally respond to, for me: sometimes we see these attitudes in the actual people living in our community. Case in point – in my county three years ago a young girl was abducted, and is still missing today – and I have personally, I’m sad to say, heard people in my community placing this young woman’s mother as at-fault for such a horrible, devastating ordeal (demonstrating the same insensitivity and ignorance as the abovementioned Aurora, CO tweet and others like it).

I am not going to write an angry screed in response to victim blaming statements and ideologies, no matter how horrific they may be; all of these examples, by the way, are off the top of my head this morning, as I sip coffee and await my children’s wake-up.

I’m going to write to those who say or think these kind of things, and tell you there’s hope to rehabilitate your mind. Because I believe people victim-blame for a number of reasons, and I relate to all of them, even if I no longer condone these strategies nor perpetrate this mindset.

So here goes.

I don’t know you personally, but I have some guesses at why you say things like this, because I’ve been there. Maybe you can’t grasp the nature of horrible things that happen. Perhaps you are angry at God when terrible things happen, and so you need a story. Maybe you love God, and need a story. Perhaps you don’t believe in a God and you’ve put your security in principalities – you want to believe the world of Man can through laws, public shaming, and rage-fueled invective, somehow make people behave and put down the guns, or stop eating so much junk food, or stop using drugs and doing inhumane things while on drugs. Maybe you want to believe certain preventative measures will ensure nothing bad happens to people who are smart enough, or not overwhelmed, or not sick, or not poor, or not socially-marginalized, or whatever (and that “someone” will be – you! Lucky!). Perhaps you believe if you just don’t make certain kinds of mistakes – like say, enjoying a movie with your family – nothing horrific will happen to you.

Perhaps it is more insidious, whether you are faith-based or no. Perhaps you are simply frightened for your own skin. Not only do you not want to be raped, or shot, or terrorized, or get a disease – you actually don’t want to deal with learning how to support or even comprehend someone who’s going through something you haven’t gone through. Concomitant: perhaps you are sometimes responding to something you DID go through, or think you did, and thus believe you can diagnose other peoples’ thoughts, feelings, and responsibilities in said scenario. If so, congratulations (she said, dubiously). Your life experiences have transformed you and not in a good way, ultimately eroding the empathy naturally granted your average three year old.

Here are a few problems with victim blaming. Besides the gross insensitivity and ignorance that attitudes like these demonstrate, they also perpetrate them in the most egregious fashion, creating an atmosphere where fewer people are safe – not more – and fewer people are empowered to trust themselves. Victim-blaming does not result in an environment of perfect vigilance that somehow keeps bad things from happening to guarded people (as if!). For example, and in brief: how many young women grow up believing if they act, dress, or behave a certain way, they essentially invite and deserve sexual assault? (raises hand). With this kind of pervasive social, cultural, and often familial indoctrination, what are the chances these young women will be imbued with any sense of personal worth and personal boundaries – qualities essential to grooming the very intuition that will help them navigate a dangerous world? And with such cultural lore, what are we doing for perpetrators or potential perpetrators? Where does that leave the issue of sexual assault? Culturally-sanctioned and enforced, mythologized, and poorly socially-managed. (I know a lot of people don’t “get” this about sexual assault. Go ahead and read like, hundreds of excellent web resources and books. You’ll get there eventually.)

Here’s another problem with victim blaming; it promotes a false sense of security. Let’s take another common example. You may think if you were a parent you wouldn’t let your kid do X, Y, or Z, or participate in A, B, or C (or: exist in a movie theater). And before you actually become a parent, such a simplified and narrowminded perspective can feel very safe (superficially); I can at least tell you it is rather typical. Problem is, these untested incipient strategies deaden you to compassion and mute your intelligence, so you won’t learn much before you have kids (if you do). And when you become a parent – if you do – such judgments will terrorize you, haunt you, nip at your heels, and maybe even keep you up at night. Worse still, if you don’t grow a bit more compassion and intelligence you risk passing such attitudes on to your kids in the most entrenched and spiritually-damaging ways; you will forbid your children a thousand freedoms and teach them they cannot trust themselves, leaving them an incredibly fearful adult underqualified to manage their life’s challenges. All in the name of false security; your fragile belief you can somehow manage things so bad stuff doesn’t happen to you, or those you love.

Victim blaming automatically turns off our ears, our minds, and our hearts to those who suffer. It automatically keeps us from growing. Smugly (which is to say, fearfully) looking at the man suffering health problems at the clinic, assigning blame and making diagnoses you’re underqualified for (He smokes and he’s fat! He “deserves” his problems, of which you’ve guessed at just by looking!), is not only profoundly ignorant but represents the lowest denominator of human strategy.

Victim blaming wrongs those who’ve been hurt, or sick, or assaulted, or devastated. It is the single most insulting thing we can do, barring perpetrating the original act (which we, in effect, are ensuring for future sufferers). Victim blaming says: “Your suffering is inconvenient to me, please go away.”

Because, ultimately, victim blaming keeps us self-obsessed and self-absorbed. It feels safe, but it’s deep-down a terrifying place to be. When I victim-blame, I keep myself preoccupied by making little checklists and pretending they will protect me, or my kids, or whomever. Well I would never let myself A, B, or C – so that means I’ll never have to deal with X, Y, or Z.  I’ll eat all organic vegan food so I’ll never get cancer. People that get cancer deserve it and I don’t and I won’t. I’d never marry a man who ended up unfaithful. I’ll never struggle with mental illness nor am I required to learn more about it, because it scares me.

The list goes on and on.

I know – from experience! – that such strategies of false security do not work. In my case, they kept me less humane, less perceptive, less compassionate, and less supportive for those who suffer – including myself. They kept me petrified from speaking out with tact, directness, and intelligence when a wrong was being committed. They kept me saying horribly insensitive things, and hurting God-knows how many people. They kept me in my own head and unable to be present, unable to deeply listen to someone who suffers – I was partially occupied in being glad it wasn’t ME and having a TOTAL PLAN how it would NEVER be me.

And then when it happened to me? It hurt worse than you can imagine.


“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” – Fred Rogers

And you know what is beautiful? You can be a helper. But being a victim-blamer significantly erodes this ability. You get to choose. Good luck!