Victim blaming

Victim blaming

assumes that the offender and the victim are somehow partners in crime, and that a degree of mutuality, symbiosis, or reciprocity may exist between them (see Von Hentig, 1948). To identify such cases, both parties’ possible motives, reputations, actions, and records of past arrests and convictions must be investigated (Schultz, 1968

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Victimology, despite its aspirations toward objectivity, may harbor an unavoidable tendency toward victim blaming. It is inevitable that a careful reconstruction of the behavior of a victim before, during, and after a crime will unearth rash decisions, foolish mistakes, errors in judgment, and acts of carelessness that, with 20–20 hindsight, can be pointed to as having brought about the unfortunate outcome. Step-by-step analyses of actions and reactions are sure to reveal evidence of what injured parties did or failed to do that contributed to their suffering.


Victim blaming follows a three-stage thought process (see Ryan, 1971). First, the assumption is made that there is something wrong with these individuals. They are said to differ significantly from the unaffected majority in their attitudes, their behaviors, or both. Second, these presumed differences are thought to be the source of their plight. If they were like everyone else, the reasoning goes, they would not have been targeted for attack. And third, victims are warned that if they want to avoid trouble in the future, they must change how they think and act. They must abandon the careless, rash, or provocative patterns of behaviors that brought about their downfall.


Victim blaming is a widely held view for several reasons. It provides specific and straightforward answers to troubling questions such as, “Why did it happen?” and “Why him and not me?” Victim blaming also has psychological appeal because it draws upon deep philosophical and even theological beliefs. Fervent believers in a just world outlook —people get what they deserve before their lives end—find victim blaming a comforting notion. Bad things happen only to evil characters; good souls are rewarded for following the rules. The alternative—imagining a world governed by random events where senseless and brutal acts might afflict anyone at any time, and where wrongdoers escape punishment—is unnerving. The belief that victims must have done something neglectful, foolish, irresponsible, rash, or provocative that led to their misfortunes dispels feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness, and gives the blamer peace of mind about the existence of an orderly and just world (see Lerner, 1965; Symonds, 1975; Lambert and Raichle, 2000 and Stromwall, Alfredsson, and Landstrom, 2013).


The doctrine of personal accountability that underlies the legal system also encourages victim-blaming explanations. Just as criminals are condemned and punished for their wrongdoing, so, too, must victims answer for their behavior before, during, and after an incident. They can and should be faulted for errors in judgment that only made things worse. Such assessments of blame are grounded in the belief that individuals exercise a substantial degree of control over events in their everyday lives (they have “agency”). They may not be totally in command, but they are not powerless or helpless pawns and should not be resigned to their fate, waiting passively to become a statistic. Just as cautious motorists should implement defensive driving techniques to minimize car accidents, crime-conscious individuals are obliged to review their ways of relating to people and how they behave in stressful situations in order to enhance their personal safety. By following the advice of security experts about how to keep out of trouble, cautious and concerned individuals can find personal solutions to the social problem of street crime.


Victim blaming also sounds familiar because it is the view of offenders. According to the criminological theory known as techniques of neutralization , delinquents frequently disparage their intended targets as having negative traits (“He was asking for it,” or “They are a bunch of crooks themselves”). In extreme cases, youthful offenders believe the suffering they inflict is retaliatory justice that merits praise (“We deserve a medal for doing that”). Their consciences would burden them with pangs of guilt if they saw these same incidents in a more conventional way (see Sykes and Matza, 1957; and also Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1967). Those offenders who are devoid of empathy and pity are so desensitized that they do not feel the guilt, shame, remorse, or moral inhibitions that otherwise would constrain their behavior. By derogating and denigrating the targets of their stealing or violence, juvenile delinquents or adult criminals can validate their hurtful acts as justifiable. Outbursts of stark cruelty and savagery become possible when the injured party is viewed as worthless, less than human, an appropriate object for venting hostility and aggression, or an outcast deserving mistreatment (Fattah, 1976, 1979).


Defense attorneys may persuasively articulate the victim-blaming views of their clients, especially in high-profile murder cases. A “trash-the-reputation” (demonization of the deceased) approach, coupled with a “sympathy” (for the accused perpetrator) defense, might succeed in swaying a jury and securing an acquittal, or in convincing a judge to hand down a lesser sentence. For example, in cases where children slay their parents, the dead fathers and mothers may be pictured as callous abusers and perverse molesters, while their offspring are portrayed as defenseless objects of adult cruelty (see Estrich, 1993b; Hoffman, 1994).


What Is Victim Defending?

Victim defending rejects the premise that those who suffer are partly at fault, and it challenges the recommendation that those who were targeted must change their ways to avoid future incidents. First of all, victim blaming is criticized for overstating the extent to which careless habits, foolhardy actions, attention-grabbing behavior, and verbal instigation explains the genesis of an illegal act. Motivated offenders would have struck their chosen targets even if their victims had not made their tasks easier, called attention to themselves, or aroused angry reactions. Second, victim blaming is condemned for confusing the exception with the rule, thereby overestimating the actual proportion of cases in which blameworthy conduct took place. Shared responsibility is said to be unusual, not common. A few people’s mistakes don’t justify placing most victims’ attitudes and behaviors under a microscope, or under a cloud of suspicion. Third, exhorting people to be more cautious and vigilant is not an adequate solution. This advice is unrealistic because it overlooks the cultural imperatives and social conditions that largely shape the attitudes and behaviors of both parties in a conflict.


Victim defending is clear about what it opposes, but it is vague about what it supports. Two tendencies within victim defending can be distinguished concerning who or what is to be faulted. The first can be called offender blaming . Offender blaming removes the burden of responsibility from the backs of victims and restores it entirely onto the shoulders of lawbreakers, “where it belongs.” Victim defending coupled with offender blaming leads to a renewed focus on the perpetrator. The question once again becomes, “What is ‘wrong’ with the offender? How does he differ from the law-abiding majority?” If the answer is that the offender has physical defects or even genetic predispositions to act violently, then the sociobiological theories of criminology become the center of attention. If the offender is believed to suffer from mental illness, personality disorders, or other emotional problems, then the theories of forensic psychology are relevant. If the offender apparently is not different from law-abiding persons physically or mentally, and is said to have knowingly and intentionally chosen to prey upon others, then the explanations might center on the classical/rational choice/free-will and deterrence theories about pleasure and pain, benefits and costs, and the necessity of punishing those who decide to steal and rob.


But if all of these approaches provide unsatisfactory explanations for the behavior of criminals, then perhaps “system blaming” can generate some worthwhile insights.


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