Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Misdirecting blame

Chelsea Fagan, a regular Thought Cloud blogger, made the whole internet mad yesterday with her disgusting post about how women need to take at least some responsibility for being raped, harassed, or sexually assaulted if they're dressed in a "slutty" way.  Following the shitstorm of justifiably furious comments, an apology from  Thought Cloud editor Ryan O'Connell, and even a response on Feministing, Fagan haughtily and smugly responded on her Tumblr, making sure to reiterate how "not upset" she is by it all, and an explanation about how she didn't actually say anything she actually said (you over-sensitive idiots).

I hope I don't need to go into why blaming rape victims for their rapes is bad, but I will say this: the second you start disparagingly discussing the clothing choices of rape, assault, or harassment victims, you're blaming the victim.  For what other reason is such a discussion necessary in such a context?  A person who commits a crime against another person is the only person at fault for committing said crime.  It is not the victim's fault that they were victimized.  A rapist makes the decision to rape another person.  Clothing does not cause rape.  RAPISTS CAUSE RAPE.

Moving on.

While victim-blaming tends to most frequently rear its ugly head in situations involving rape and sexual assault, it's also deeply permeated in the rest of our culture.  Also infuriating are many other insidious victim-blaming sentiments I hear expressed more and more frequently as of late, especially on Facebook, where I am "friends" with a few really upset white men who insist that capitalism works for everyone, and poor people are poor because they're lazy.  A summary of their views: People are ultimately responsible for every single decision they make regardless of circumstance, but powerful figures and organizations who influence those decisions are not ever responsible, under any circumstance.

It seems that, quite often, when confronted with any situation of injustice on behalf of another person with whom one does not share economic, racial, religious, sexual, or gender identities or experiences, people want to find any reason to apologize for the alleged perpetrator... probably because they don't want to be seen as somehow complicit in the unjust act, especially if they share certain traits with the perpetrator, like gender, or race.  And it happens across the board with common arguments and behaviors:

Fat-shaming.  Particularly when this is directed at poor people, or poor people with fat children.  Parents (usually of the single-mother variety) are routinely criticized* for not feeding their children fresh fruits and vegetables, even though it's been proven time and again that, due to corporate-interest lobbyists and their bought-and-paid-for legislators and regulators, junk food and processed garbage are more economical for a poor person than actual nutrient-rich foods.  Furthermore, such poor-quality (but profitable!) foods cause all kinds of other chronic illnesses, of which weight gain is a common side-effect, and you cannot definitively know by looking at a person what the status of their health is.

Poor-blaming.  Making arguments against terminated minimum-wage employees that pretend the workers themselves actually invited their own firing by suggesting that "[n]ow those 6 former workers can start their own sandwich franchise and set employee policies as they please. Of course they'd have to put their own money on the line." (this is a Facebook comment I received in response to the linked article by one of the aforementioned friends.)  That response entirely misses the point of unions in the first place, and lacks any actual critical analysis of the situation.  How do you expect a person who was fired from their minimum-wage food service job to have the necessary capital, resources, education, and ability to just go ahead and open up their own franchise?  And what is this "their own money" thing?  What money?  Let me tell you, if I already had the money required to open my own Jimmy John's franchise, I am incredibly unlikely to opt instead to be a minimum-wage sandwich maker there without the reasonable expectation that I can stay home when I have a communicable illness.  To assume that all 6 of these employees were making exactly that unlikely decision would be deliberately obfuscating.  The entire basis of this argument is flawed.  

I've also seen similar arguments directed at people (like me) who "willingly" work for corporations with whom they disagree politically.  They say things like "there is a willful hypocrisy in condemning a corporation and still taking money from them. I don't know about you, but that sounds unethical to me.  It's an honest question that needs answering. If people were maybe more ethical in their own judgments, then maybe big companies that you criticize wouldn't be in business because people would no longer frequent them or they wouldn't have competent employees working to promote their services anymore. For me the final buck stops with the citizen and their own choices, blaming big business for me is a tactic to deflect the attention from people and the decisions people make."  

This person, whose quote I pulled from a friend's Facebook page, chose to completely disregard the fact that in a job market like ours, where completely ethical and progressive employers are not widespread, and an economic system which prioritizes profit over fair wages, the vast majority of people will work for corporations because it's all they can do.  I can hardly get behind the idea that I am actually guilty or hypocritical in taking a job with TCF Bank, when TCF Bank was the first and only company to call me back and offer me a livable wage when I needed a job in that income range.  The argument that I was acting hypocritically and unethically is absurd.  The blame is blatantly and inappropriately placed on the nearly powerless individual for not appropriately standing up to Big Business, while absolving said Big Business of any and all blame for their destructive policies that all but force people like me into bullshit jobs with corporations whose ethics and politics directly oppose our best interests.

It's constant, this passivity that comes from these people in regards to the horrific actions of Big Business, in conjunction with their vitriolic rants against the stupidity and unethicality of powerless individual citizens.  As if the business has more of a right to pursue their destructive agenda than the individual has to be protected from being a victim of that same destruction.

That's just how it works.  This argument is typically made by people who are also sick of the way things work in the world, but have been brainwashed to believe that there is absolutely nothing anyone can do about it because the system under which we operate is simply the best system, innumerable flaws be uncritically damned.  This argument is made when people such as myself complain about sexism, when people complain about discrimination based on race or sexual orientation, or when someone doesn't like a policy put forth by the corporation they work for.  

The various types of "that's just how it works" statements are also fallacious when you consider to what they are typically responding.  In my experience, I get the most of these comments in response to my own arguments against the way things currently work.  When someone says "we need to change the way things work," a sensible rebuttal is not "that's just the way things work."  A reasonable rebuttal would include reasons why "the way things work" are better than the proposed alternative.  See also: everything that comes out of Lee Doren's smug little mouth.

And finally,

These things take time.  This is usually said by someone who has not had to experience the incessant effects of inequality firsthand, relative to the person to whom they are addressing this statement.  Like, for example, a very nice, egalitarian-minded white male entrepreneur that I know who doesn't piss me off nearly as much as the other people mentioned, but who lacks some much needed perspective on the issue of ongoing fights for equality, who said exactly this to me in a Facebook message the other day.  It's just, well, insensitive, at best, to tell a woman, a gay person, a person of color, or any other marginalized individual that they shouldn't expect too much too soon, when your relative privilege is incredibly obvious to everyone but yourself.  In saying "these things take time" to this person, you're communicating, in a very patronizing manner, no less, that they're being unreasonable in their desire and demand for equal rights.  While it may seem to make sense to offer such a simple clarification of apparent reality to someone with whom you may sympathize ideologically, it only comes across as a clueless attempt at patronizing someone that you think "just doesn't get it."  And frequently, these deceptively harmless remarks turn into tone-policing and other accusations that the marginalized person is digging their own hole and somehow responsible for their continued oppression.  And as if arguing one's point in a way that makes the recipient uncomfortable is a fine reason to abandon any support for the original cause.  This belief relies on the easily-accepted notion that the system under which we live is already fair and just, and that a simple loophole -- a poorly-stated argument or emotional tone, for example -- is just grounds for the marginalized person to remain marginalized.

In blaming the individual for systemic issues over which they have little to no control, all of these practices and arguments inevitably lead to a failure to appropriately hold accountable the person or entity responsible for the injustice, which only delays correcting the original problem.  Of course, to let individuals off the hook for their choices would be foolish.  But the line shouldn't be so hard to see between victim-blaming and holding individuals responsible for their actions.  It's as simple as considering how the power is dispersed in any given situation.