Victim Blaming and Risk Mitigation

Note: This post has been automatically imported from my old blog. Formatting may be incorrect.

Trigger warning for discussion of victim blaming

So, let me preface this by acknowledging that I'm not a member of any of the groups subject to a constant barrage of victim blaming, and I don't really know what it's like to live in a world that always tells me how I'm responsible for the crap other people do to me. Such context might provide me reason to reconsider some or all of what I say here. That being said, I don't think you need to know everything in order to know anything, and that my it's possible to have conclusions about things without experiencing them directly. The possibility that further evidence may invalidate/limit the scope of what I say doesn't preclude me from saying it at all.

Earlier tonight, Cliff of The Pervocracy tweeted:

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on... you, I mean, you're still the asshole here.

— Cliff Pervocracy (@pervocracy) March 31, 2013

What ey* is saying here is really important: people who do shitty things aren't suddenly less shitty just because that shittiness is an established part of their character (in fact,that just makes them worse). The parallelism in the original aphorism strongly suggests that the blame shifts to the fool (hell, the negative connotation tied to that word is basically linguistically enshrined victim blaming), which is ridiculously unjust. This is of course a huge part of why victim blaming is so terrible, letting bad actors off the hook and putting all of the responsibility for the consequences of their actions on the very people most affected by their bad actions.

Even given that, though, I think there's a valuable lesson to be found in the phrase. As I tweeted to Cliff, there is value in learning to distance yourself from reliably toxic people/groups. And I think that's probably true about a certain sizable minority of vicitm-blamey advice out there: There often are things you can do to lessen the risk of bad things happening to you. The focus of work aimed at stopping people from doing bad things should be on teaching people not to do those things and punishing those who do, but given that such people do exist it's important to be aware of the risk and how your actions affect it so that you can choose appropriately.

And I think this, ultimately, is a problem with some blanket critiques of victim blaming. Yes, it's terrible that so much of the focus is on what victims can do differently instead of on what perpetrators shouldn't have done regardless, and yes a lot of what people say implicitly or explicitly lets people off the hook, but it's wrong to jump from there to shutting down all attempts at risk mitigation awareness (not to say that Cliff was doing that, but I've seen people respond to any form of advice for avoiding bad situations with cries of victim blaming). And, while Cliff said that ey doesn't like the shame aspect of it, I do think this is ultimately an issue of moral responsibility: In general if you know about a certain risk and actions you can take to lessen it, you have a responsibility to yourself to evaluate the costs and benefits of the mitigating action and adjust your plans accordingly. Ultimately you're the one responsible for taking care of yourself, and not letting yourself think about risks, even risks that aren't fair for you to face, is an abdication of that responsibility. To take a deliberately tame example, if you know you're parking in an area that's faced a rash of thefts recently you should consider locking your doors and hiding your valuables under your seat.

There are some huge caveats to this, though. First, I don't think any of this lessens the responsibility of the perpetrators. Moral responsibility isn't a zero-sum game, where each bad thing has some pot of blame that must be distributed in some way to the people involved. Second, while I think you are responsible for taking possible risk mitigation into account in your decision making, I certainly don't think that means you always have to follow the advice. It's perfectly legitimate to recognize a risk, recognize that you could take action to avoid it in part or in whole, and decide that the costs of that action are not worth it. There are tons of good reasons not to avoid risk, like making a statement, not wanting to limit your enjoyment, not wanting to take the time and energy, not thinking the risk is likely enough to be worth it, etc. While it is of course possible to be wrong in that evaluation, in the vast majority of cases I think it's impossible to tell from the outside whether a particular victim was justified in taking a risk and especially to differentiate between someone who made an honest mistake in risk assessment and someone who was willfully ignorant. Given that, passing moral judgment on particular victims is almost always unjust (not to mention unproductive).

So, I guess where I currently stand is: we should focus much much more on affecting the actions of bad actors than of victims, and in particular we shouldn't shame individual victims for their victimhood, but if that is all taken into account there is value in talking about things people can do to mitigate their risks and individuals who are at risk should recognize that fact and take the mitigation strategies into account when making decisions. Given the huge imbalance of advice certain classes of at-risk people face relative to what is done about the perpetrators, and given the tone and unjustified implications of most such advice, though, people are definitely justified in being upset by the victim blaming status quo.

*: Cliff is genderqueer and I don't know eir preferred pronouns, so I'm using Elverson pronouns here.