[important]“Analysing Arguments” is an ongoing series which analyses arguments found in daily life. Some good background material for this is Coursera’s enormously popular course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, and the book Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. You might also find the primer How to Argue Online useful. Other installments of the series are listed in the analysing arguments tag here and also on nirmukta.com.[/important]
This post analyses various arguments from analogy (“AFAs”) used in victim blaming. It also talks about victim blaming in general – what we mean by blame and responsibility, and the psychological causes of victim blaming. Finally, it argues that victim blaming is wrong in general. If you’re already well-versed in debunking the AFAs, you might want to read only the section on Moral Responsibility, and then skip to the last two sections at the end. If you are interested in the AFAs, please read How to Analyse Arguments From Analogy first, so that you’re familiar with the structure of AFAs and how to evaluate their strength.
The Components of a Victim-Blaming AFA
The Lollipop/Lollipop Owner
The Bear Attack Victim
The Careless Pedestrian/Helmetless Biker
The Job Interviewee
The Laptop/Car/Home Owner
The Late Night Walker and the Football Fan
The Psychology of Victim Blaming
Why Victim Blaming is Wrong
The Components of a Victim-Blaming AFA
To recap from the first post, an AFA has the following form:
1. Object A has property P (and possibly Q, R…).
2. Object B also has property P (and Q, R…).
3. Object B has property X.
4. Object A also has property X. (From 1-3.)
A victim blaming AFA has the following components. This is something I settled on after thinking about it for ages – there are variations of it which could work, but I think this is the best version:
A = a person who suffers harm
B = another person who suffers harm
P, Q, R etc. = (severity and circumstances of harm)
X = is (or ought to be) blamed/punished.
So a victim blaming AFA essentially says: we blame/punish this victim in this case of harm, therefore we should also blame/punish that victim in that case of harm. Before we get to some examples, I want to talk a bit about the property X above – i.e., why it says blamed and punished - and hence why this called victim blaming in the first place.
When you hear victim blaming in real life, the blamer will often deny that they’re placing blame. You will hear sentences like – “I’m not blaming you/It’s not your fault but…” followed by sentences like: You should have been more responsible. You should be careful. Didn’t you contribute to what happened? Didn’t you play a part? You shouldn’t take such risks. You should be practical. You should have used more common sense. Be more responsible for your own safety. And so on. What’s actually going on here is that the victim is being assigned moral responsibility, and as a result of that, they are being blamed/punished. (Note that throughout this post, I’ll be using “blame” as shorthand for “place some blame on” and “punish” as shorthand for “give some punishment to”.)
Moral responsibility is explained well in this opening paragraph in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (paraphrasing slightly; emphasis mine):
When a person performs or fails to perform a morally significant action, we sometimes think that a particular kind of response is warranted. Praise and blame are perhaps the most obvious forms this reaction might take. For example, one who encounters a car accident may be regarded as worthy of praise for having saved a child from inside the burning car, or alternatively, one may be regarded as worthy of blame for not having used one’s mobile phone to call for help. To regard such agents as worthy of one of these reactions is to ascribe moral responsibility to them on the basis of what they have done or left undone. Thus, to be morally responsible for something, say an action, is to be worthy of a particular kind of reaction—praise, blame, or something akin to these—for having performed it.
So when we talk about moral responsibility, we’re talking about praise/blame, commendation/condemnation, reward/punishment. When we say car drivers are responsible for their (and their passengers’) safety, it means we blame them if they drive recklessly and they or their passengers are injured in the resulting crash, and possibly punish them with legal action. When we talk about an employee’s job responsibility, it means we blame them if they do a poor job, and possibly punish them with demotion/dismissal etc. This is what “responsibility” means in everyday life. It means moral responsibility and its associated praise or blame, reward or punishment.
If people talk about responsibility but say they are not blaming or punishing, then they’re most likely talking about causal determinism. Causal determinism means that everything that happens is fully caused – including violent acts of crime. The victims are part of the causal chain of events leading up to the crime – being part of such a causal chain is sometimes referred to as “causal responsibility”. But causal responsibility of victims has nothing to do with moral responsibility – there is no blame or punishment involved. When used retrospectively (i.e. after the harm has been committed), causal responsibility merely states self-evident truths: if I hadn’t gone to the market alone to buy maps that day, I would not have been nearly sexually assaulted by that man as I was. If I hadn’t worn my expensive jacket to the bar that night, someone would not have stolen it. And so on. These are truisms; they state the obvious. It’s not just retrospective either – the crime prevention advice of the sort given out by police forces also belong to the category of causal responsibility. It does not mean moral responsibility. When someone claims they’re not blaming or punishing the victim, yet they point out causal responsibility again and again, such that the victim’s behaviour (and not the perpetrator’s) becomes the focus of attention, they most probably are implicitly placing blame (and the victims undoubtedly perceive this as blame too). And they are punishing the victim by placing restrictions on them (e.g. restricting women’s clothes, behaviour, public presence etc.). In other words, they are assigning moral responsibility to the victim. Why do blamers mix up these things? I think it’s a combination of three things: muddled thinking, intellectual dishonesty, and social-psychological bias – which I’ll talk about later. (Aside: there are debates in legal and philosophical circles about causal and moral responsibility – e.g. here and here. But as far as I can tell, these are debates about the responsibility of the perpetrators, not the victims.)
On to the examples. Most of the examples involve victim blaming of women for male violence, as that’s one of the areas where they are most frequently used. The last example involves men in two different situations. After analysing the examples, I will argue that victim blaming is always wrong – making most of these arguments from analogy irrelevant.
1. The Lollipop/Lollipop Owner
This appears to be an Islamist poster which appeared on Redditt some time ago, apparently sourced from Iran – here are the photos of the posters. Their argument is the following: “An open lollipop is attacked by flies. Similarly, a woman who reveals her body is attacked by men. Therefore, just as we keep lollipops covered, women should cover themselves too. If you don’t do either of these things, you are to blame/be punished.”
Here A=woman; that much is clear. What is B? Is B=lollipop? If that’s the case, then the argument fails immediately, because B is a non-living object and non-living objects cannot suffer harm. What if B=lollipop owner instead? Then it is P, Q, R… where the argument fails, because there are no relevant similarities. (“Not covered” is not a similarity, since non-living and living things are categorically different and their properties have fundamentally different meaning, even if the same word can be used to describe them.) Instead, what you have are relevant dissimilarities – in the case of B it is low-value property (lollipops) being damaged, while in the case of A it’s one’s own body that is being harmed. And in the case of B, the harm is done by flies, which are not moral agents (we do not assign moral responsibility to them!) while in the case of A, the harm is done by men, who are moral agents. Recall from the introductory post on AFAs that the lack of relevant similarities and the presence of relevant dissimilarities lead to a weak argument from analogy – which is what this is.
2. The Bear Attack Victim
This AFA goes as follows: “If you’re hiking in the wild and you disregard a bear warning in a particular area, and you get attacked by a bear, you are to blame/be punished. Similarly, if a woman puts herself in a ‘dangerous situation’ and is sexually harassed or assaulted by a man, she is to blame/be punished.”
This is a weak argument because of the presence of a highly relevant dissimilarity in the circumstances of harm: A(=woman) is harmed by a man, while B(=hiker) is harmed by a bear. Bears, just like flies, are not moral agents. This dissimilarity is highly relevant to the matter of whether we should blame the victim (i.e. X) – it is more justifiable to blame someone who has been harmed by non-moral agents, like animals. So while it might be justified to blame the hiker, using it as an analogy to blame the woman does not work.
3. The Careless Pedestrian/Helmetless Biker
These AFAs go like this: “If a pedestrian crosses a road without looking/a biker does not wear a helmet and is hit by a car and is injured, we blame/punish them. Similarly, if a woman puts herself in a ‘dangerous situation’ and is sexually harassed or assaulted by a man, she is to blame/be punished.”
First note that a dissimilarity which existed in the earlier arguments has now gone – here both A(=woman) and B(=pedestrian/biker) are harmed by a moral agent – i.e. another human being. The relevant dissimilarity which makes this a weak AFA is in the circumstances of harm. The car driver is either innocent or negligent or reckless. While sexually harassment or assault is intentional. Why is this dissimilarity relevant to X? Because we’re more likely to blame a victim (as long as we’re blaming) at the negligent/reckless end of the harm spectrum than at the intentional end.
You could perform a thought-experiment and say “Ok, what if a car driver sees a careless pedestrian/helmetless biker, and intentionally runs them over to teach them a lesson?” But since this doesn’t happen in real life, it’s not worth considering seriously. You could press the point and say that it can happen in cases of road rage. But would you still blame the biker/pedestrian? No morally reasonable (and bias-aware; see later) person would blame the biker/pedestrian in this case. So the third premise “B has property X” would not be true, and the argument from analogy would fail.
4. The Job Interviewee
This AFA is one which blames women for wearing certain clothes. It goes like this: “If you go for a job interview and you don’t dress professionally, you won’t get the job and you are to blame/be punished. Similarly, if women wear ‘revealing’ clothes in public, they will be sexually harassed and/or assaulted by men, and they are to blame/be punished.”
A key relevant dissimilarity in this AFA is in the severity of harm. A(=woman) suffers bodily harm (or mental trauma in the case of harassment), while B(=job interviewee) suffers from not getting a job. I.e. the harm suffered by A is considerably worse. Why is this dissimilarity relevant to X? Because the severity of harm matters in deciding how much to blame a victim (as long as we’re blaming). E.g. we’re more likely to blame someone whose pocket got picked than someone who was assaulted. You can alter the harm suffered by B in another thought-experiment to see the difference: “If you go for a job interview and you don’t dress professionally, you will be sexually harassed and/or assaulted by the job interviewer and you are to blame/be punished.” Suddenly B doesn’t seem so blame-worthy!
A second relevant dissimilarity is in the circumstances of harm: to reject a job candidate who doesn’t dress professionally is (mostly) morally acceptable, but to sexually harass/assault a woman is not.
5. The Laptop/Car/Home Owner
These AFAs have some variations, but they essentially go like this: “If you leave your laptop in an unlocked car/leave your house unlocked, and a thief steals the laptop or other valuables, you are to blame/be punished. Similarly, if a woman puts herself in a ‘dangerous situation’ and is sexually harassed or assaulted by a man, she is to blame/be punished.”
One important thing to note here is that we are assuming that B does have property X – i.e. that we do blame/punish the car/home owner here. I myself do not blame B – as I said earlier, I will argue that victim blaming is wrong, period. But let’s go ahead and analyse this argument with the premise “B has the property X”. The problem with this argument, just as in the Job Interviewee argument, is a relevant dissimilarity in the severity of harm: the harm done by sexual harassment and assault is much worse than the harm done by property theft.
You can do the same thought-experiment of reducing this dissimilarity: what if instead of stealing valuables, the thief assaulted the car/home owner. Would you still blame/punish B (i.e. would B still have the property X)? I reckon the number of blamers would drastically decrease now, but a few would still exist (most likely because they’re clinging on to the argument from analogy). Then another relevant dissimilarity in the circumstances of harm would weaken their argument – the fact that literally any everyday situation can be a ‘dangerous situation’ for women. They are victimised by men in all sorts of situations that form a part of their daily lives – being at home, being on the street, in public transport, at the workplace, in crowded places, in deserted places, in the day time, in the night time. This is not the case for car/home owners, for whom “door unlocked” is a particularly dangerous daily situation, while other daily situations are safe (most of us will have our cars/homes broken into only a handful of times in our lives).
6. The Late Night Walker and the Football Fan
There is a further problem with the AFAs we’ve seen so far – i.e. the ones that compare women with a generic victim. And that problem is prejudice. When we assert that “B has the property X” and conclude “Therefore A also has the property X“, we’re assuming that X is the same in both cases – i.e. the amount of blame/punishment is the same. But it is not. Blaming and punishing of women for male violence is widespread and relentless, while the blaming and punishing of the other categories of victims we’ve encountered so far is not. If a perpetrator enters an unlocked home and assaults the homeowner, you don’t see a storm of police officers, judges, politicians, school/college principals, celebrities, journalists, lawyers, TV pundits, doctors, bloggers, youtubers and even the victims’ own friends and family blame or punish the victim. Random commenters and tweeters don’t jump into a discussion thread about the crime to blame or punish the victim. In other words, property X is not the same for A and B.
There is a similarly high amount of blaming and punishing of LGBT people who have suffered hate crimes. Here are some links: 1, 2, 3, 4. So it appears that certain social groups are blamed more than others. This means that a victim-blaming AFA should compare victims belonging to similar-status social groups in order to be stronger. And so I’m making up the following AFA as an example, where two generic male victims are compared:
“If a man goes for a late night walk, and is viciously assaulted by a gang of men, he is to blame/be punished. Similarly, if a man goes to watch a football match, and is viciously assaulted by football hooligans, he is to blame/be punished.”
Here both victims belong to the same social category. Both suffer the same severity of harm. The circumstances of harm are similar too. Both put themselves in a situation which is considered “higher risk” than the common situations in their everyday lives. The situations are also “luxury” situations, in the sense that I don’t need to go for a late night walk any more than I need to go watch a football game – I can walk at other times, and I can watch the game on TV. I think as a victim-blaming AFA, this argument is a strong one – IF you’re willing to blame the late-night walker (and I repeat, again – I do not), you should be willing to blame the football fan too.
There’s no doubt in my mind that there will be some people who will blame these victims too, or punish them by saying – don’t go out at night, and don’t go to football matches. To understand why, we need to look at the psychology of victim blaming.
The Psychology of Victim Blaming
There is a wealth of psychological research which investigates human responses to victimisation. Much of it is to do with what social psychologists call attribution theory – how we explain events in terms of cause and effect. E.g. we might attribute someone’s behaviour to dispositional (internal) factors or situational (i.e. external) factors. These theories and research areas are described below.
Just World attributions overestimate internal factors in the victim – i.e. if the victim had not behaved a certain way, they would not have been victimised: “According to the hypothesis, people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve. Such a belief plays an important function in our lives since in order to plan our lives or achieve our goals we need to assume that our actions will have predictable consequences. Moreover, when we encounter evidence suggesting that the world is not just, we quickly act to restore justice by helping the victim or we persuade ourselves that no injustice has occurred. We either lend assistance or we decide that the rape victim must have asked for it, the homeless person is simply lazy, the fallen star must be an adulterer.”
Defensive Attribution Theory deals with how we react when a victim is harmed by someone else. One of its findings is that the more personally and situationally similar we are to the perpetrator, the less blame we place on them (and the more blame we place on the victim). For example, this study found that in cases of rape, “men engage in victim blaming more readily than women; victims who are acquainted with their attacker tend to be assigned more responsibility for a rape; and participants who view themselves as similar to the victim attribute more blame to the perpetrator of the rape” using the defensive attribution framework.
Assumptive World Theory attempts to explain victims’ own responses to their victimisation. According to this theory, human beings see themselves and their world with three key assumptions – (1) they are safe/invulnerable; (2) the world is meaningful and comprehensible; and (3) they are good people. When we are victimised, it shatters this “assumptive world”, and our coping strategies are ways of restoring those assumptions. So amongst other things, it explains why victims often blame themselves or are in denial about their victimisation.
When prejudice enters the mix – i.e. when there are “in-groups” and “out-groups” having different levels of power and status – then attributions become even more distorted. The article The Psychology of Prejudice explains some of the distortions which come into play – such as fundamental and ultimate attribution errors, outgroup homogeneity bias, ingroup favouritism and implicit bias. It is easy to see the compounding effect these phenomena would have in the blaming of a victim who belongs to a low-status group. System Justification Theory is another theory, which suggests that victims in low-status outgroups might preserve and justify the un-just status quo – which could lead them to blame members of their own group (e.g. women justifying men’s violence against themselves).
The upshot of all this is that victim blaming is a result of cognitive bias, and that when we find ourselves blaming the victim, there is good reason to think that our moral reasoning is compromised. This is something most people, sadly, are unaware of. A greater awareness of this fact can go a long way in reducing victim blame.
Why Victim Blaming is Wrong
To conclude, let me state my argument which I alluded to earlier – why victim-blaming is wrong, period. Note: the term victim-blaming has entered our parlance now, so that’s the phrase I’m using. But I hope it’s clear by now that it’s actually assigning moral responsibility to the victim. Here’s my argument:
We ought NOT to blame/punish victims of intentional harm, for the following reasons:
1. Victim-blaming is the result of cognitive bias, making the moral reasoning behind it suspect;
2. When we stop blaming/punishing victims, it will allow us to live more freely and with less fear;
3. When we stop blaming/punishing victims, they will be more likely to report their victimisation to family, friends and law enforcement;
4. When we stop blaming/punishing victims, they will recover more easily from the trauma of their victimisation – i.e. they will not suffer “double victimisation” or “secondary victimisation”;
5. When we stop blaming/punishing victims, it will put perpetrators “on notice” – they will know that they and they alone will be held morally responsible by the legal system and by society.
Note that I’ve focused on intentional harm only, because that’s the context in which this topic is most important. I have not thought deeply enough about harm caused by accidents/negligence/recklessness, so I am not considering them in this argument. The main objection to this argument is that it will lead to an increase in crime (because people would start walking around late at night etc.). I don’t think it will lead to an increase in crime, because of points 2, 3 and 5 above – in fact I think the combination of these would eventually lead to a decrease in crime.
And in case you’re now wondering, what should I do – should I stop giving ‘safety advice’ to my loved ones? – I say go ahead and give them safety advice. As long as you’re clear – and they understand – that you’re not assigning moral responsibility to them, and that “advice” doesn’t cross over into blame or punishment.