Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Blaming the Victim

I've often been struck by a fairly common retort that comes from conversations about foreign policy and potential blow-back:

"You're blaming the victim!"

I've heard this more than a handful of times in the last couple of weeks. Whenever someone has the audacity to surmise that the recent attack in Boston could be related to our disastrous foreign policy, you'll be sure to raise an eyebrow or drop a jaw. And those aforementioned words won't be too far behind.

This reaction seems to miss the point of the musing altogether. The purpose is rarely to remove or transfer actual culpability away from the perpetrator(s). For example; Let's say that I had a problem with my neighbor. I decide to go out in front of his house and yell obscenities about his mother. After about fifteen minutes of this, he comes outside and punches me in the face. Later on, as I'm reclining on the sidewalk with an ice-pack on my face, you comment, "Man...you really shouldn't have done that. If you would have just stayed inside and not said anything, none of this would have happened." What would you say if I retorted, "You're just blaming the victim!"?

I would think your reaction would be, "No, I'm not." Because, well, you haven't said anything that would count as you blaming me at that point. Perhaps none of the culpability lies with me. I might be completely innocent. But what you're elucidating is that perhaps my actions weren't prudent, given the circumstances, and that they've contributed to the end result...even if that result was an injustice for which I bear no personal responsibility in the end.

But this brings to light a second problem. In the case of my analogy  the "victim" in the situation is fairly well defined. I'm not sure that this is the case when the claim is given as a response to the Boston attack. When someone is supposedly "just blaming the victim", what party or parties does "victim" correspond to in the claim? The obvious answers are the runners and innocent bystanders who were injured in the attack. But, if thats the case, then the claim doesn't make much sense.

Most of the people who talk about the prospect of blow-back in this kind of event wouldn't generally be aiming their questioning at the innocent civilians but rather at the government itself. Even if we wished to make some kind of serpentine argument in which individual voters were blamed for the policies of their supported administration, a sheet of guilt would still not be cast over the victims. The blast was indiscriminate. The attackers knew nothing about the political allegiances of the victims. Undoubtedly there were people who were maimed which did not support U.S. foreign policy at all. So how could a criticism of politicians and bureaucrats turn into an indictment of innocent civilians?

I'm willing to entertain the idea that there is some small sliver of commentators that purposely fail to make either distinction; ie. that feel that the U.S. literally holds full responsibility for the attacks and that the people who were hurt were part of the government and therefore shared in that responsibility  But I think this represents a very, very small portion of people who talk about blow-back and foreign policy entanglements. If such confusions are driven purposely for rhetorical reasons, it's worth mentioning that cherry-picking the worst possible interpretation of your opponents' arguments only makes your argument look weak to anyone else who's paying attention. On the other hand, if the confusion is accidental, then it reflects a malignant, if not consistent, bias on the part of many of us. In either case, we should all work a little bit harder to define our terms clearly when we engage others.

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