Why are we more likely to blame the victim and give the accused the benefit of the doubt?
Most of us would immediately object to this statement. We don’t favor the offender or blame the victim. That would be wrong—even evil.
But why do many victims believe this to be true?
Many victims contend that there are three reasons why we favor the offender and blame the victim.
- First, we rely on informational biases because it is more straightforward than seeking the truth.
- Second, anything that does not fit our worldview is considered a threat.
- Third, we are unwilling to get involved due to our cultural biases.
They would acknowledge that often we do this unknowingly and without malice. But knowing this doesn’t make it any less painful for the victim.
Victim blaming is not limited to sexual crimes but includes victims of natural disasters, car accidents, muggings, or homelessness. (And a host of others, as well.) Here are just a few victim-blaming examples you may have overheard.
- Natural disaster victims failed to take adequate precautions and find safety.
- Car accident victims did not pay proper attention or take the necessary evasive actions.
- The mugged presented themselves as an easy target.
- Often, society will hold the poor and the homeless accountable for not making enough effort to improve their financial situation.
It is easy to blame the victim, but we must remember that many complex circumstances and factors can often lead a person to become a victim.
Let’s look at the three reasons victims believe we favor the offender and blame the victim.
Unaware of our informational biases, we blame the victim
We blame the victim because we don’t want to investigate.
We like things when they are easy to do. We prefer simplicity to complexity.
As humans, we experience an unending stream of ever-changing data. Evaluating every piece of information before deciding or forming an opinion would be physically impossible.
Because of this, we learn to make assumptions about the information we get so we don’t get too stressed out.
We rely on mental shortcuts to help us make decisions and form opinions. And this can be helpful, especially when these decisions are often equally appealing and are matters of preference. (The choice of color in a room, where to eat, or what car to buy.)
But these mental shortcuts can also lead us to make bad decisions. For example, we can convince ourselves to spend more than we can afford on a vehicle and experience real-world consequences for a poor choice. These mental shortcuts are especially detrimental when we form opinions about people.
It is so easy to take these mental shortcuts that we rarely think about the process and are unaware that we have defaulted to informational biases.
Informational overload makes blaming the victim easier than investigating the truth. It is simple to blame the victim, to second-guess their choices and actions. And due to social media, everyone has an opinion about the innocence or guilt of the involved parties.
What are some examples of informational biases?
Anchoring, availability, and confirmation biases are common mental shortcuts that change how we treat victims and offenders.
In an anchoring bias, we form and anchor our opinions and decisions based on the first information we receive, even when better information is probably out there.
We see this when people stubbornly hold to a belief when the acknowledged facts do not support it.
In an availability bias, we value what is readily accessible, memorable, and widely communicated.
We do this when we indulge in social media and clickbait headlines to form opinions about people.
In a confirmation bias, we look for data that confirms what we prefer to believe and reinterpret or dismiss data that doesn’t.
We’ve all seen two opposing factions cite and use the same research to support their view. But conversely, we’ve also seen opposing factions discount research that undermines their contentions, even when it is from a trusted source they quote often.
If we can use the word “bias” in the description, we should probably not rely on it.
Our informational biases often compound the harm when we blame the victim because of our misguided worldviews.
We blame the victim because it fits what we believe about the world.
We blame the victim because anything that does not fit our worldview is considered a threat.
Even if we cannot articulate them, we have certain beliefs and expectations of society. How we view the world directly impacts how we respond to victims.
Let me illustrate some beliefs and expectations that are implicit in our culture.
Our worldviews can lead us to blame the victim.
We believe in a just and orderly universe, humanity’s goodness, and each person’s freedom to determine their destiny.
We believe in a just and orderly world.
We believe that justice will prevail. And when it doesn’t, we don’t fault the system; we fault the involved parties. Maybe the victims weren’t worthy of justice?
We believe in the presumption of innocence. This belief is so ingrained in our society that the victim carries a more significant burden of proof than the offender. A judicial system rooted in the presumption of innocence makes us inclined to disbelieve accusations, even when there is credible evidence to support the victim.
We convince ourselves that an orderly world is worth the loss of some liberties and injustices. So we laud an orderly government, even when it limits our rights. (Especially if it is someone else who is affected.)
*The belief in a just and orderly world is called the Just World Fallacy.
We believe in the inherent goodness of humanity.
We like to think that, by nature, humanity is good. But the reality is that while we are capable of kindness, we are also capable of great evil. From the slave trade to genocides and even the most recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have witnessed violence and barbarism throughout history.
What is more disturbing is that seemingly decent people can commit horrific acts. Early American colonists, for example, killed Native Americans and stole their lands.
Moreover, many German Christians actively participated in the Nazi Holocaust during WWII. Many considered them pillars of the community and upright citizens before their actions were made public.
Equally confusing is the number of individuals we consider evil who surprised us by doing some good things. For example, the mobster Al Capone ran a soup kitchen in Chicago during the great depression, according to The Chicago Times.
We believe in the freedom of the individual to shape their destiny.
We believe in self-determination and personal responsibility.
Because we, as a culture, believe that the individual is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul, we assume that any lack of success, hardship, or misfortune is within the victim’s control.
Our culture’s long-standing emphasis on personal responsibility leads us to rationalize that bad things only happen to bad people and that, somehow, the victims have caused or contributed to their victimization. We are like Job’s friends, who blamed him for his misfortune. The religious leaders asked Jesus, “Why was this man born blind?” Did he sin, or his parents?
We are unwilling to get involved, and we use our cultural biases to justify blaming the victim and favoring the offender.
Blaming the victim allows us to maintain an emotional distance. We condemn the victim because we want to maintain a safe emotional distance—we don’t want to get involved, and our cultural biases provide excuses.
We know in our hearts that we should empathize with the sufferer.
But, we don’t want to think about how trauma harms their lives, relationships, profession, and mental and physical health.
How it affects their safety, security, and trust in stressful situations. How it changes their sense of self and how they view the world.
It’s messy and emotionally draining, so we avoid it.
If we get to know them and identify with what they are going through, we will feel compelled to act. We are afraid of doing unintentional harm, offending people, making enemies, and having our hearts broken by what happens to others.
So, we look for excuses to justify keeping that distance. Often, we use our cultural biases (Race, creed, religion, and social status) to justify our behavior.
Our cultural biases cause us to value those who are like us and devalue those who are different.
We rationalize that since the VICTIM was NOT ONE of US:
- That they are more susceptible to becoming a victim.
- That they may have contributed to their victimization.
- They are less credible than the offender and not entitled to the same protections as friends and family.
Sadly, often our collective response when someone is wounded is to blame them. If they had not done _______ ( action ), the maybe _______ ( consequence ) would not have happened.Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in The Church by Diane Langberg.
We rationalize that since the OFFENDER is ONE of US:
- That their story is true and they are trustworthy.
- The victim is untruthful in their accusation, and their credibility is questionable.
- And if the accusations are proven, we might look for reasons to diminish the harm done to the victim and reduce the consequences for the offender.
Without our cultural biases, we would have no excuse for not getting to know them, empathizing with them, and, when appropriate, acting on their behalf.
Jesus understood the challenge we face as his followers when engaging with people outside our social circles. Nevertheless, his life exemplified loving others from various social classes. And he has called on us, as his followers, to do the same. We are to love others as He has loved us. To do unto others as we would have them do to us.
Here are a few thoughts on the treatment we would want if we were the victim.
- We’d like them to consider all the facts before jumping to a hasty conclusion.
- We hope their cultural biases do not lead them to faulty assumptions about our character.
- At the very least, they would acknowledge that we had been harmed and mourn our loss while waiting for additional information and developments.
Victims frequently believe that we favor the perpetrator and blame the victim because it is easier to rely on informational biases rather than researching the truth, that we are resistant to anything that challenges our worldview and beliefs, and that we create emotional and physical distance based on cultural prejudices because we don’t want to get involved.
Knowing what you know now, how will you react when someone indicates they are a victim?
You can find more information about Victim Blaming in this series’ first article.
Please consider sharing this article with your friends, especially those you know in care ministries.
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