The term “victim blaming” is pretty self-explanatory: when the victim of a crime or wrongful act is held accountable instead of the parties responsible. Victim blaming has received an increasing amount of attention from various facets of the media with the influx of high profile sexualized violence cases (see Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby). There have also been some powerful grassroots resistance movements that contest the blaming of victims, such as the annual SlutWalk.
Often when perpetrators, judges, or media blame victims, they do so in fairly clear and direct ways. Statements like, “She should have known not to wear such a revealing outfit to the bar that night”, or “He knew that part of town was dangerous” make it pretty clear that the victims are (unjustly) in the wrong. I will therefore be drawing on some more subtle examples of how people use language to blame victims.
But first I want to say a thing or two about the word “pathologizing”. This is a term that counsellor folks like me use to varying degrees, but is less common out there in the wild. If you’re unfamiliar with it, "pathology” literally means “disease”. So to pathologize someone means to imply that there’s something wrong with them – usually in terms of their psychological wellbeing.
The field of psychology has a long history of pathologizing people and their behaviours…and then sometimes deciding that they’re no longer pathological. Take homosexuality for example. Until 1973, homosexuality was considered pathological according to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Basically the big book of everything that could be wrong with your head). Then overnight, millions of people were miraculously cured when the folks in charge decided to vote it out.
Pathologizing and victim blaming often go hand in hand. There are several common and not-so-common psychological diagnoses and theories that postulate that when bad things happen to some people, they somehow subconsciously willed it on themselves. It’s the fault of the victim’s “illness” – not the perpetrator’s actions. We’ll take a look at some examples of this below.
Blaming Victims Through Uses of Language
“They made me do it”
In many ways, those who want to blame victims have it easy. The English language has all sorts of colloquial expressions that place the responsibility for our responses on other people's actions. How often have you thought or heard someone say statements like, “He made me angry”, “She made me sad”, or “They made me feel discouraged”? All three of these affirmations place the responsibility for the speaker’s emotional response on the person they’re referring to. From my response-based perspective, a more accurate set of statements would be “When he said that, I felt mad”, “When she walked out, I felt sad”, and “I felt discouraged when they said I couldn’t do that”. But none of those statements roll off the tongue quite like their less agentive counterparts.
I mention this because from these statements, it’s not too much of stretch to say, “By walking away from me, she provoked me to grab her by the wrist”, or “That thing he said triggered me to punch him”. In both these examples, the speakers use language to mitigate their own responsibility and blame the victims for the acts of violence they carried out against them. It’s common for expressions that obscure and mitigate perpetrator responsibility to also somehow imply that victims are to blame.
“Your dysfunction made me do it”
Since Freud, the field of psychology has been the site of many victim-blaming discourses. The narrative that victims subconsciously seek out abuse has been reproduced and repackaged many times. This is where blaming and pathologizing go hand in hand. The theories of learned helplessness, traumatic bonding, the cycle theory of violence, Stockholm syndrome, and other psychological variations on this theme all position victims as culpable for the abuse and violence carried out against them.
“In unbalanced power relationships, as the dominated person's negative self-appraisal escalates, she becomes increasingly less capable of functioning without her dominator, and thus increasingly less likely to leave the relationship. Correspondingly, the dominator develops an inflated perception of his own power which exacerbates this self-feeding cycle of power asymmetry”
“As the victim (women, in this case) loathes herself more and more, she needs her abuser, and therefore will not leave him. The abuser (a man, in this case) responds to her self-loathing with an increased sense of power, and continues his abuse of her”.
This is, of course, a clear example of victim blaming through the use of pathologizing language. The victim is made responsible for her own abuse, which is made out to be a mere product of her “negative self-appraisal” (a version of “low self-esteem”). Even though the man is acting from a position of dominance, his sense of power is fed by her self-loathing. So the crux is placed squarely on the shoulders of the victim, who perpetuates her own abuse by feeding the perpetrator’s longing for power.
Highly problematic analyses like this are a dime a dozen. Not only does this example blame the victim, it conceals the victim’s resistance to the violence, obscures and mitigates the perpetrator’s responsibility, and conceals violence by calling it a “self-feeding cycle of power asymmetry”.
How We Can Help
We can all do our part by contesting the blaming and pathologizing of victims. It is incredibly encouraging to see the increase of anti-victim-blaming awareness in the media – especially in social media circles. When it comes to contesting the pathologizing of victims, it can be helpful to be wary of how psychological descriptions can colour people as complicit in their own abuse and mistreatment. Rather than thinking of how someone may have invited another person’s act of violence, consider the perpetrator’s actions and the interests that they served. This can help elucidate perpetrator responsibility, which is fundamentally at odds with blaming victims.
How have you seen victims blamed for their own abuse or mistreatment?
How have you resisted the blaming and pathologizing of victims?
Has anyone ever implied that you were responsible for someone else's harmful actions?