Shawn Henfling observes the “Blame Game” that society attaches to victims and asks us all look to our ourselves for empathy.
I have not always behaved in a manner that inspires pride in myself. I accept responsibility for my transgressions, but try to keep in mind that I am, after all, human. We are prone to mistakes and false steps, to inflicting pain and suffering, and to the occasional unintentional injustice. To be human is to accept our failings with the expectation that we are fallible creatures. Through the growth of civilization and the evolution of our ability to empathize, we have come to accept each other and to look past our minor misdeeds. Recently, however, we’ve developed these hardline stances that make us sound tough: “Zero Tolerance,” “Mandatory Minimum Sentences,” “The War on Drugs” and “Three Strikes You’re Out.” I don’t believe in any of these. Most are at best proven failures and at worst draconian punishments more befitting a court of the dark ages.
We’ve proven time and again, through case studies and statistical analysis that these ideas do not work, so where am I going with this? We’ve failed, as a society, to teach a full generation, or more, of people to empathize with others. We toss around names like “Welfare Queen.” We assign blame to people on food stamps, criticize minimum wage workers that demand a liveable wage, and belittle and admonish illegal immigrants for struggling to come here, where the every day dangers of life are so much less than in their home countries. We blame the blameless. We let a few bad apples spoil the bunch. If a few people abuse the system, blame all of them. USURPERS! Compassion has become a weakness to be exploited.
In humanities long history, we have always engaged in blaming victims: He could have survived if only he’d repented. They were Jewish, they deserved it! They sold their own race into slavery, we just took advantage! Sometimes there may have even been some rational way of assigning responsibility to the act: What was she thinking?! She knew he had a violent history…. The problem is that this behavior persists even today, in a society that touts itself as more enlightened.
“No wonder she was raped. Did you see what she was wearing?” “If she’d only stood up for herself, he wouldn’t have hit her anymore.” “If he felt like he was being abused, why didn’t he just leave?” Take special note of the language I used, the very structure of the sentence itself. Simply by forming the statements the way I did, I implied blame. Sometimes there is an overt act of assigning responsibility to the victim, “She should have expected it when she drank that much.” Alternatively, even a seemingly innocuous statement can, especially in the eyes of the victim, be an indictment. “I would never have stood for that kind of behavior….”
Why do we feel the need to belittle these victims, fellow members of the human race? Have we fallen so far that a simple display of empathy exposes an unforgivable weakness of character? Has the very nature of society changed, in part due to over-exposure to so much suffering? Have we triggered a defense mechanism within ourselves? What has hardened us to the devastating plights of so many others? The problem isn’t solely a masculine issue, though it seems, at least to my untrained eye, that we are generally more guilty of seeing the world that way.
It is time to take a stand, to sound the call to action, to blow mightily on the Horn of Gondor. To continue our habit of blaming victims rather than reaching out to them is to sacrifice a piece of that which makes us human. Look not at the man found hanging from a rope in his garage and find weakness. Instead, look deeper, even within yourself. Use our innate ability to be introspective to find forgiveness and strength, and to identify with the victim instead of using the fear that lies within to steel ourselves and assign responsibility where it does not lie.
Take, for example, a victim of suicide. We’ve all seen them in the paper, men, women and children who simply could not bear to live another day. How many of us have sat in judgment, proclaiming to anyone who will listen that they were selfish and weak of mind and body. We’ve condemned them to Hell, unable even to find forgiveness from whatever deity you worship. Stop for a moment and consider the alternative. Take your worst day, when nothing seemed to go right, the weight of the world crushing the very breath from your lungs. Close your eyes. Remember that feeling. Force yourself to experience it again. Now imagine it every day. You don’t sleep. You are too independent to burden anyone else with your problems, seeing them as your own fault. Day after day it continues, sometimes for years. Imagine if you will, a decade of that pain. Now who failed? Was the failure the victim for failing to endure on, or was it on us for our inability to see their plight and lift them up?
What now of the battered wife? Why didn’t she just leave? “I would never put up with that!” Maybe, or maybe the physical abuse is accompanied by weeks or months of near constant psychological abuse. Take your job for example. Every day, your supervisor makes sure you understand just how worthless you are, that the only reason you still have that job is because he or she is protecting you. Every day you hear it. Every. Single. Day. Now imagine that is your spouse, who begins to beat you for every mistake, every perceived injustice. Now lets say they’ve threatened your children. If you leave, you’ll never see them again. How much of your self worth has been taken from you? Will you find the strength to leave? Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe, you’ll endure, believing that you are in fact protecting yourself or your family from more harm.
A woman at a college party gets drunk and passes out. She wakes up naked and sore, unaware of what happened the night before but sure she’s been raped. Will you call out to her, blaming her for drinking so much? Will you rage against her decision-making, her right to go out and enjoy herself? Will you forgive her rapist? Will you be the one who says boys will be boys? What if it were your wife or daughter? Should it matter? What if she hadn’t passed out, but instead said no, begged him to leave her alone? Is it then her fault? Should she have to scream for it to be considered rape? What damage does it do when you call her out for her short skirt and say it was “just date rape.” Was she really asking for it?
Children faced with the horror of poverty and violence in their home trek hundreds, even thousands of miles across dangerous terrain to find a safe place. They believe, through images on TV and stories from others that the United States is a better place. They struggle on, fearing starvation, exploitation, and death on their journey, hoping and praying for a chance at safety. Anything, they think, is better than what they are leaving. Our home is their salvation. Instead, when they arrive at our borders, they are greeted by angry men and women, some with guns, others with signs, screaming obscenities at them. They are not greeted by empathetic people, but by monsters calling out to them with threats of violence and death. We round them up and send them home to their likely death. They will be often be tortured and killed, we know this as fact. These are children. What if it were you? At 13 or 14, could you have made it? Once again, close your eyes and put yourself in their position: barefoot and alone, in a strange land, struggling to survive. How would you FEEL? We blame not the oppressive regimes and cartels in their lands, we blame them for the audacity to try and come here and find a safer, richer life.
What of the teenager, born and raised in abject poverty? He knows only his life in the ghetto and sees his friends and relatives struggle every day to survive. He watches as neighbors are killed in drive-by shootings. To him, there is no way out. Down the street, there is a gang member he befriends, feels welcome. The gang, to him, offers safety in an unsafe world. They are family and offer to provide him with a job, money, and protection. Should we blame him then, when he is picked up for dealing drugs and handed a felony sentence? Have we dealt with the problem or simply just continued trying to contain the symptoms? You probably imagined he was Black or Latino. Would it make a difference to you if he were white?
A few years ago, I realized I was making assumptions about people. I was judging them without knowing their story, and my self-importance was hardening me to their actual plight. We must stop and think, use logic and reason rather than react with emotion. If we can’t understand how someone feels, then we can at least use our evolutionary advantage and empathize with them. Understanding and acceptance are the only way we can heal a society broken and fractured by opinions and lies. Blaming the victims of crime, society, disease or oppression does not make us better than them. It is not a show of strength to exalt ourselves above the exposed and defenseless. Laying blame at the feet of our most vulnerable makes us beneath them, and we should be asking forgiveness for judging their actions. We are all members of the human race, and it is time we start acting that way.
Photo: Celestine Chua