When you read about people in trouble, or victims of violence or political circumstances… do you mentally find reasons why such things wouldn’t happen to you? “I’d do differently in such a situation…”, “In her place, I’d try to escape…”, “That’s just how those people are, why don’t they fight against oppression…”, or a popular idea among New Age groups, “They probably brought it onto themselves by their negative thoughts!”
Blaming the victim is a common, automatic human defense strategy – an attempt to override our own fears and create a feeling that we are not another potential victim of circumstances. The feeling that we, too, might be out of control over our own lives is frightening and it’s a natural need to try to avoid it, even if the logic required is extremely subjective.
Sadly, the result is often subtle or not at all subtle blaming of the victims of violence (or sometimes even victims of an accident), while the responsibility of an aggressor can be ignored or even actively diminished. In our need to avoid fear, we don’t want to give too much power or attention to an aggressor; we don’t want to feel that in a similar situations, we would probably end up as a victim too. We want to feel that we would be stronger, more “special”, so we seek ideas which would make us feel that a victim’s fate was avoidable in a specific situation, but the person involved must have made some wrong decisions to end up like that.
Sometimes, yes, victims make mistakes. But who doesn’t make mistakes? Did you have situations in your life in which you could have been hurt, if people you trusted turned out to be untrustworthy? (I know I did.) Or if just a small detail of a situation turned out differently? How many times did you take a risk knowing you were taking it, but considering the chance for trouble small enough? Can you really live a full life if you always play it perfectly safe?
Even when considering violence which is somewhat predictable and the victim has a choice, such as domestic violence, there are always plenty of circumstances people usually ignore, such as upbringing and early environment training. How many people are brainwashed, by religion, bed-time stories and such, that “love conquers everything”, “self-sacrifice is noble” (sometimes it is, but not when there isn’t enough responsibility from the other side), or that compassion equals appeasement?
Many people develop “learned helplessness” syndrome through family role-models or experience of direct abuse. Many learn it’s not acceptable to say “No”. Can any of us claim that we have fully gotten rid of our own families’ beliefs and traditions? For a person who grew up in an abusive family, abuse can appear normal and inevitable. They might not be aware of what else is possible, they might perceive it as unavailable, or they might believe that other people are just pretending to be happy.
And so, out of the need to avoid our own fears, we can bring even more suffering upon people who are already suffering enough. We can be arrogant to people who experienced injustice, betrayal or violence. “Couldn’t you see the red flags?” Of course there were red flags, but who of us pays serious attention to every single red flag in our relationships with others? If we all did so, we’d avoid the rest of humanity most of the time. Even our doubts sometimes need to be doubted.
We cannot avoid such psychological defense strategies, but we can recognize them for what they are. We can consciously give voice to the compassionate and responsible parts of us. Imagine, for example, that your son or daughter are in distress, or your love partner, best friend… how would you think then? What would you do? This kind of attitude can not only help us avoid hurting an unfortunate person even more, it can motivate us to make the world better. Victim blaming is easy. Compassion requires emotional maturity.