Blaming the Victim

I am obviously not the first person–nor even the first social worker–to observe and decry our tendency towards victim blaming.

We see it in nearly every field of social policymaking today.

In domestic violence: “Why doesn’t she leave?”

In substance abuse: “Why doesn’t he quit?”

In criminal justice: “Why can’t they go straight?”

In education: “Why do schools need more money?”

But victim-blaming isn’t a new phenomenon.

Indeed, there is considerable evidence that, during and immediately following the Holocaust, voices within and beyond the Jewish community questioned why Jews had not ‘resisted sufficiently’.

In part, I think this exposes one of the motivations behind victim-blaming: self-preservation.

I think that, sometimes, when we shake our heads and tsk, tsk at those who we see as fallen, what we’re really trying to tell ourselves is that there must be something wrong with them, because we could never end up in that same situation.

You can hear that in the quotes of Jewish survivors who asserted that people should have run away from the trains and risen up in the camps. We want to believe that the world still basically works, and that what went wrong in this particular instance is that somebody didn’t [fill in the blank: make the right decision, try hard enough, listen to good advice].

That’s not meant to make excuses for victim-blaming.

We can’t let ourselves get comfortable projecting the actions that we think oppressed people should have taken, in the face of odds that we ourselves have not encountered.

It’s inexcusable.

But it is, I believe, when seen in the context of our desperate need to reconcile tremendous suffering with our need for order and control and predictability, understandable.

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