“Well, if she hadn’t gotten drunk/worn that skirt/had sex with him before.”
“Well, if he hadn’t talked back/dressed like a thug/stood still on the sidewalk when he was told to move on.”
Why is it, when we hear of something bad happening to someone else, our knee-jerk reaction is to find a reason to blame the victim?
When we’re born into this world we believe, in so much as we have a belief system, that the world is a fair and just place. We don’t have any reason to believe otherwise. As we grow a little bit in our understanding we believe that it’s supposed to be a fair and just place, and that the big people are in charge of making it so.
But as we become the “big people” in our own world it becomes harder and harder to believe that it is a fair and just place. We’re bombarded with evidence to the contrary. Yet, our deep desire to have our childlike trust validated never wanes. And in order to hold to that trust in a fair, just world we MUST believe that the misfortunes of other are, in some way, deserved.
Which is why, when tragedy or misfortune strikes another person, we desperately need to alleviate three primal responses.
FEAR FOR OUR OWN SAFETY
If we can identify some choice, some characteristic, that we can use to justify the victim’s fate we can, in the devious way of the subconscious mind, maintain the illusion of our own safety. So long as there was something about the victim — the way she dressed, the way he moved, the places they hung out or the company they kept, that we don’t share with the victim we believe that we will not share their fate.
Of course, that is a false sense of security. Men and boys find that they can, indeed be the victims of rape. As we learned from Sayreville, or the Sandusky scandal, rape of boys isn’t about sex, or sexual orientation, it’s about power. And not every woman who has been the victim of rape was at a party, dressed for a party, or behaving like a party-girl. Personal stories from high profile bloggers, coaches and healers, and ex-convicts alike challenge the world view that rape must be invited.
The truth is that bad things happen to good people. Even good people do bad things. This doesn’t make the world a bad place. It makes it a challenging place. And what we’re really afraid of is that we might not be up to the challenge.
GUILT OVER OUR OWN PRIVILEGE
There is always someone who has it harder. How many of us have been told to “suck it up, Buttercup” because someone else suffers more? The misfortunes that others have to overcome can, if we allow ourselves to think this way, belittle our achievements.
We also fall prey to guilt that we really are safer than a lot of victims. Because of differences in circumstances, ethnicity, gender, ability, education, or material wealth, our circumstances, or the world around us, would have to shift dramatically, before we would be exposed to the same risk. But we prefer to believe that we’ve gotten where we are under our own steam. It’s uncomfortable to admit that the victims have fewer opportunities, or more difficult life choices.
Of course, guilt and shame serve no one. If you have personally caused harm to another do what you can to make it right. If you’ve been blessed with circumstances that make your row a little easier to hoe than the one the victim is working on, let gratitude carry you forward then go help them finish out their row. The easiest way to shift a sense of guilt is to point the finger of blame. But the lasting antidote for guilt and shame is gratitude and sharing.
A SENSE OF HELPLESSNESS
The problems facing the world today are BIG. Probably no bigger than they’ve ever been, but they appear magnified by our constant exposure to them. Pictures, videos, news media, social media — stories of tragedy and victim-hood assault us from our own backyard and around the world, reminding us that the problems are insurmountable by any one person.
Faced with everything from dying children and abandoned pets, to disregard for human life and decency, to bullying and beating of both children and adults who are perceived to be different because of how they identify or who they love and desire, we need something to hide behind. And the closest barricade is to blame someone ELSE. We don’t want to think about how many of the abusers are themselves victims. We certainly don’t want to think about how many of both the abusers and the abused are victims of our own wold-view.
Of course we aren’t helpless. We are responsible first for our thoughts and beliefs, and then for our words and actions. And that has power. We are able to communicate, to band together with others who seek to create the same world we want to live in. Even alone we change the world, in everything we do. But together, we change the world faster, and choosing NOT to revert to blame to alleviate the fear, guilt, and helplessness is the first step.
Perhaps it is time for all of us to stop believing in our need for a fair, just world and start believing in our power to work together to make it so.
Photo: Flickr/Lig Ynnek