The Blame Dialogues

UPDATE: Rory Miller posted something very similar about responsibility and blame on his blog. He wrote about the issue way more eloquently and concisely than I did.

To quote: “The criminals already know it’s wrong. The issue is that they don’t care. You can’t fix caring through reason. It’s a deeper part of the brain.

“I don’t want people to get hurt. So I place the responsibility to stay safe on the potential victim. NOT because it is just or because I want the world to be this way. I place it there because, faced with a violent bad guy, the victim is likely the only one there who gives a rat’s ass about her safety.”
And, more importantly:
“[N]o one in this argument is dismissing the crime. Nobody. No one in the discussion, not here or anywhere, is actually blaming the victim. That’s why it is so important to distinguish between responsibility and blame; to make a solid point that bad acts are morally and judicially wrong but doing what one can to prevent bad acts is common sense.”
That’s pretty much a summary of my stance. But I urge you to read his post to fully understand what we’re getting at.

Two days ago, Kirsten Han, Lynn Lee, Marc MacYoung and I tried to hold a discussion on ‘victim blaming’ on Facebook. After insults were thrown around, I started a new post to get everybody back on track. The note I wrote is reproduced below.

My Facebook page is a hate-free zone. Marc, Kirsten, Lynn – we’re not children in a playground screaming, “No YOU’RE wrong!” We’re adults having a discussion. I didn’t start this discussion to polarise people. I started this topic so we could exchange views rationally. If you want to insult each other, that’s what the private messaging function is for. Please keep it out of my page. I’m going to summarise your views and throw in mine. It’s start to start again…and this time, let’s do it like adults.

What has this fight boiled down to? Differing interpretations of blame and responsibility. Different perspectives and opinions of the world. Different cultures.

Kirsten and Lynn, your perspectives are fairly similar so I’m going to lump them together. Your essential argument is that people – society, advocates, victims, and everybody else – should pin the blame on crimes on perpetrators. Calling for victims to take responsibility for their actions is equivalent to victim-blaming. Such behaviour reinforces the trauma they’ve been through, making it more difficult for them to go to the police. This also reinforces social and cultural norms that shame the victim and allow rapists to walk free.

Kirsten, you’re going one step further. You said responsibility and blame are not mutually exclusive, that there is no inherent contradiction in blaming the bad guy for doing what he did, while taking responsibility for personal safety.

Marc, you argue that taking responsibility for your safety and refusing to blame the bad guy is the least traumatizing option in the long run. By taking responsibility, you mean not engaging in high-risk behaviours and not putting yourself in dangerous situations with the expectation that someone else is obliged to look after you, and everybody else is supposed to leave you alone.  You argue that walking around with this attitude makes the trauma from violence even worse than it already is.  You also said that your emphasis has always been on crime prevention, while the stance favoured by advocates is healing the trauma.

Folks, do you see now that you’re talking at and above each other? Kirsten and Lynn are focusing on the emotional aftermath. Marc talked about preventing the crime, and how existing attitudes towards personal safety influences the psychological trauma caused by violent crime. Kirsten, Lynn, you’ve been on this thread for a while, which implies that you’ve been reading and absorbing everything Marc and I’ve said. By talking about different things, instead of engaging us, we’ve landed at this point.

Kirsten, Lynn: Marc and I don’t use words like ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’ very casually. To us, each word has a specific, discrete meaning that people may not immediately grasp. The word ‘shorts’, for example, can be used to describe a piece of clothing you wear to cover your pelvic region. To some writers, it’s an abbreviated form for ‘short stories’. Likewise, people use ‘argue’ to mean a noisy quarrel, but I use it to mean persuading someone through reason. This is why I linked to Marc’s sites, to draw upon his definitions. I sense you two have conflated the words, leading to our current disagreement.

Marc: Kirsten and Lynn are fairly high-profile figures in local civil society. They’re bloggers, activists, film-makers, volunteers and part of the growing group of people working towards a more democratic and equal society in Singapore. They face societal censure every time they do something that’s perceived as contrary to the government’s wishes, and are routinely stonewalled by government officials. Passion drives them. What you’re looking at is their passion coming to the forefront. In this country, passion is in very short supply. More often than not, the one thing that garners support for different campaigns, campaigns like fair treatment for foreign migrant workers and helping the homeless instead of pretending they don’t exist, is passion.

Kirsten and Lynn: Marc grew up in the most crime-infested places in one of the most crime-ridden cities in the United States. It’s a place where people don’t trade insults unless they’re willing to back them with knives and guns and blood. It’s rubbed off on him, and it still shows in the way he talks to people, especially those he has a thing against. During his professional life, he had had to deal with advocates and feminists and a whole lot of people who made millions of dollars off supporting the notions of anti-victim-blaming and slamming everybody else who says anything else about rape. I’ll bet he’s got a checklist in his head, and he’s comparing everything he knows about you to that checklist. I wouldn’t be surprised if the results turn up: closed-minded fanatical feminist. He’s had to deal with a lot of them, and you’re not acting any differently from them.

This, then, is my take.

I don’t play the blame game, and I do everything I can to take responsibility for everything I do. I don’t call for people to drop the blame game and take responsibility because it makes me feel good. This isn’t something abstract to me. I do this because it works. Because this mindset kept me sane.

Kirsten and Lynn, I sense you don’t know very much about violence. About the psychological aspects of violence. So I’m going to talk about it. Violence is inherently traumatic. The greater the violence, the greater the trauma for the survivors. It doesn’t matter who’s doing what to whom. If a threat beats down on you, you’ll be scarred. If you have to gauge an eyeball to fight off a rapist, you’ll always remember what it feels like. Now I’m probably over-simplifying things, but the point is: there is a psychic cost to violence.

Imagine you’ve been attacked by someone. You survived the encounter, but funny things start to happen. When you hear the word ‘honey’, you go way back into that dark alley when that dark man whispered ‘honey’ into your ear while pressing himself against you and undoing his pants. It’s so real, so vivid, the lover you’re talking to in the present doesn’t register in your brain. When you go to bed and close your eyes, the threat is right there in your face with a knife and you have to kill him and you fire a palm heel into his chin and scratch his eyes and you launch yourself out of bed and onto the floor. In your idlest hours, you may find yourself picking at a scar at your throat. When you catch yourself doing that, you go right back to that time when the guy you thought you knew grabbed a pair of scissors and he’s going to kill you and you have to fight your way out. And when you’re done, you’re standing in a fighting stance, your hands shaking, hot adrenaline-laced blood screaming in your veins, your heart pounding in your brain.

And if you’re lucky? You only have to live this for a few months.

This is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Notice that I used multiple examples? That’s because human behaviour occurs in clusters. You’re not looking at one or two events. You’re looking at ALL of the above, plus all the more minor signs of PTSD that I don’t have the time to type out. Expect to see this throughout this essay.

When exposed to trauma, your brain relives the event again and again and again. When you’re in danger, your body produces a flood of adrenaline and hormones that makes you stronger and faster. But these hormones lead to emotions like rage or joy, and this leaves an indelible mark on the brain. Your brain is now hard-wired to release this same chemical cocktail when you encounter stimuli. If you know what you’re doing, you’ll be able to desensitize yourself, and these things won’t occur so frequently and so intensely.

But what happens if you blame the bad guy? What if you assume that everybody should have the courtesy to leave you alone? You define yourself as a victim. You may think, He did this to ME! I hate him!

So every time you trip a trigger, you remember the bad guy and what he did to you. Then your brain cycles the event again and again and again, rewriting neural pathways to make it even easier for you to remember what he did, and make it even easier to signal the production of adrenaline. It’s the brain’s natural feedback loop, and you’re turning it into a vicious cycle. Plus, defining yourself in opposition to somebody – AKA blaming the bad guy – makes the emotional response even stronger, and therefore harder to break.

What happens next? You’re lying on your bed staring at the ceiling the whole night. And suddenly the bad guy is there IN YOUR FACE. You stab him again and again and again, you feel the steel sliding into soft, yielding flesh, feel the blood bursting onto your hands. But he just grins, and overpowers you. And you wake up and it’s four in the morning and you can’t sleep for the rest of the night. When someone places his hands on your throat from behind, you break his grip, and almost destroy his fingers, and drive him into a wall…and it turns out you’ve just beat on the local idiot who was just horsing around, and now everybody you work with looks at you strange. And when everybody talks to you, they just annoy you. Or make you angry. Can’t they see how you feel? Why are they so insensitive?

See, your brain is now hardwired to be angry, and to avoid stimuli. But since nearly everything triggers your anger, you’re in a perpetual state of low-grade rage. And nobody cares but you and everybody who borrows your pain as their own. Everybody else doesn’t know what it’s like, and can never hope to know what it’s like without going through what you’ve been through. And why should they care? It’s not relevant to their lives. All they see is a bitter, angry, selfish person who can’t see past his pain.

What happens if you take responsibility for personal safety AND blame the bad guy? Fortunately, you won’t spontaneously combust. But the way your brain is wired now, you’re setting yourself up for paranoia. Standing against someone generates a stronger emotional response than standing for someone, and it influences the way you think. This means you’ll learn techniques because a bad guy did something to you and you want to stop it from happening again – not learning techniques to keep yourself safe.

Once you define yourself as a victim, you’re on the lookout for threats. By ‘taking responsibility for personal safety’, you arm yourself with the tools to reinforce your belief that you were a victim. So you look around corners and clear your blind spots, because you just KNOW there’s a mad knife-wielding maniac behind the next turn. You keep looking over your shoulder, because the man who attacked you is still out there, and he promised to come back for you if you report him to the police. Which, as a responsible citizen, you did. When you see someone behind you, you spend the next half-hour going into crowded buildings, making sharp turns around multiple corners, and crossing several streets – just in case he’s following you and setting you up for an attack. And if you’re attacked again –  your self-defence techniques have failed and you’re a victim all over again and it’s all your fault.

This is no way to stay sane.

Understand that defining yourself as a victim is seductive. You get to have power over everybody. You get to influence how they act towards you by lashing out at them whenever they trip a trigger. You can get people to praise your courage and soothe your pain by talking to advocates and victim support groups. You can avoid the pain of talking about what happened by saying it’s too painful.

But the fires of your anger will burn your bridges to your friends and loved ones, and the glue you craft out of sorrow and pain will bring you to people who are equally angry and bitter. Is it worth it?

The thing about trauma is that it NEVER goes away. Ever. Once you’ve been seared by combat, you are forever changed. Your brain won’t let you forget. The moment you think you’ve buried your demons, something  – a place, a person, a conversation – occurs and they come bursting out of the ground like unrepentant zombies whispering, I’m still here.

The best you can do is make peace with yourself. The first step involves putting down the mantle of victimhood. That means choosing to be somebody, not to stand against somebody. It means choosing to recognize you’re terribly wounded, and healing your wounds instead of letting them fester. It means choosing to develop strength and resilience, not anger and bitterness. It means choosing to understand the world and the people in it, instead of choosing to see a delusion born of self-centredness.

This is the true meaning of responsibility: holding yourself to higher external standards of behaviour, and refusing to be moved by fleeting whims and destructive emotions.

So what I stand for? The bad guy is responsible for what he did. The average citizen is responsible for looking after himself…and the average victim is responsible to the exact degree in which she entered the circumstances that led to her attack. If at all.

I’ve been accused of victim blaming. What I’m doing is showing people how to take care of themselves, and the probable consequences of not looking after themselves. I tell people not to play the blame game – for both criminal and victim – because such behaviour is unhealthy.

Criminals do not care about you. They do not care that you don’t want to be raped, robbed or killed. They don’t care that you want to walk around in high heels and a miniskirt without being accosted. They don’t care about all that. All they care about is the risk/reward ratio in their head. Feel free to walk around in high heels and miniskirts. It’s your choice, and I have NEVER said you could not do this or you’ll get raped.

All I’ve said, really, is that if you dress and act in ways that paint you as a target – specifically, by dressing like a target, not paying attention to your surroundings, AND entering high-crime areas alone – criminals will pay attention to you. Do the opposite, and they will not.

In my essay above, I mentioned clusters of behaviour. The same applies here. Preventing rape isn’t as simple as wearing clothes festooned with buckles. My critics think I’m saying that, but I do not and have never done so. I’m talking about clearing blind spots, scanning rooms, drinking no more than your limit, being peaceable and friendly to everybody you meet, travelling in groups, avoiding dark places, and so much more. And most of all: recognising that we live in a world where people use violence to take what they want, and nobody cares about your safety but you. The people who make money or get emotional satisfaction from it are a distant second.

(Now go read books by the self-defence experts who define the field. This blog is too small to teach you how to take care of yourself.)

The more of such actions you take, the lower the risk of being attacked, and vice versa. It doesn’t completely eliminate risk – but it does reduce risk to acceptable levels. And hey – this does free you to wear the clothes you like too. On the personal safety scale, choice of clothing is less important than tactics and mindsets.

This is why I keep saying, ‘personal responsibility’. You’re living up to standards of behaviour that discourage criminal behaviour and empowers you to look after yourself.

The core to the victim blaming phenomenon is the victim. I’m showing people how not to be victims, and if they’ve been attacked, how to move and live a healthier life, without the albatross of ‘victim’ hanging over their heads, and without being attacked again.

The Blame Dialogues

2 thoughts on “The Blame Dialogues

  1. I think your point about talking above and aside each other is probably the most significant point to remember in these sorts of issues, as soon as emotions get brought into the equation, or lack of experience, or just wanting to air our pieces, then people stop conversing or debating directly, and debate in circles around each other.

    Good on you trying to tackle this issue 🙂

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