Victim Blaming and Scapegoating

People, who feel helpless in the face of injustice tend to blame the victim. Authoritarian thinking will invariably jump to the conclusion that the weak is to be blamed. It will have very compelling arguments to support this conclusion, but it was the conclusion that came first. The need to find a reason as to why the victim is to be blamed is desperate. The authoritarian state of mind will never end up looking for fault in the actions or character of the powerful, not even by accident. The authoritarian mind never dwells upon the fault in the aggressor. It may be rape, murder or an entire genocide, his mind will immediately wander to find the counterintuitive reason why the victim had it coming. The justification of others’ victimisation thus completes the helplessness cycle.

Victim blaming is only necessary, when one is not in the position to prevent injustice. In other words, helplessness.

Victim blaming serves multiple purposes:

  1. It justifies one’s own inaction in the face of injustice
  2. It allows to (one-sidedly) identify with power in a form of unrequited love that is neither confirmed nor denied by the powerful.
  3. It provides the comforting notion that the victim must have done something wrong – their fate can thus be avoided by avoiding the same behaviour.
  4. It thus recovers the illusion of control where there is none.

It is obviously a state of mind of someone, who had given up on improving his environment.

The powerful is here to stay and there’s nothing I can do about it. I might as well start to identify with the powerful – and seek fault in his victims, so that he would approve of me.

The history of the term ‘victim blaming’

Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950) included among the authoritarian personality traits the “contempt for everything discriminated against or weak”, what would be later called “blaming the victim”. Based on his work, the highly debated F-scale has been developed (where F stands for fascism), which included victim-blaming among the authoritarian traits. A typical expression of victim blaming is the “asking for it” idiom.

The concept of victim blaming was later used to describe the rationalisation of slavery, racism and practically any social injustice. But applies also to a variety of thing ranging from rape to the abuse of power and oppression. Victim blaming is also deep in our cultural DNA. There are plenty of examples in the Old Testament in which tragedies and catastrophes are justified and blamed on the sins committed by the victims, or merely on their faulty character (or that of their predecessors).

Melvin Lerner considers it as a distorted form of the just world hypothesis. From childhood onwards, we are bombarded with the message that good is rewarded while bad is punished. We carry this notion into adulthood and need an explanation for injustice when facing the cognitive dissonance of an innocent victim.

Lerner saw his work as extending Stanley Milgram’s work on obedience. He wanted to understand how regimes that cause cruelty and suffering maintain popular support, and how people come to accept social norms and laws that produce misery and suffering. His research was influenced by repeatedly witnessing the tendency of observers to blame victims for their suffering. (Lerner 2002)

Victimisation and the sense of not being control often induces the state of learned helplessness. It induces emotional numbing and passivity following victimization. Victims may learn during their victimization that resistance is futile or it makes things even worse. This conclusion can either be the source of their expectation of future response-outcome independence (helplessness) (Peterson-Seligman 1983), or it may strengthen their belief that the victim is to blame for whatever happens to him (rationalisation).

The just world hypothesis

The just world hypothesis is the unspoken assumption that consequences are always fair and rewards and punishments befall people according to their actions (or character). A just world is one in which actions and conditions have predictable, appropriate consequences.

These actions and characters are typically individuals’ behaviours or attributes. The specific behaviours and attitudes rewarded or punished happen to be whatever the norms and ideologies are of the society in question.

For people and societies belief in a just world is crucially important for people to maintain for their own well-being. Lerner explained that people use strategies to eliminate threats to their belief in a just world. Rational strategy would be to accept the reality of injustice, trying to prevent it or provide restitution, and accepting one’s own limitations. Non-rational strategies include denial, withdrawal, and reinterpretation of the event. This is where victim blaming comes in handy.

Victim Blaming

One can observe the notion in work when people blame the poor for their poverty – with complete disregard to structural forces that make it harder for the poor to change their situation. It works when people find a reason to blame NGOs that fight for transparency and human rights, or when they rationalise the punishment of whistle-blowers. It also works to justify violence, racial or gender-based prejudices, bullying or illnesses. We cannot even tolerate the thought that an illness to come to someone without deserving it, it is no wonder we cannot cope with political oppression without seeking justification for it.

Since victim blaming is of use only when one cannot prevent injustice or hopes to successfully fight for restitution, the sense of empowerment and control may rectify this particular wrong in general.

It is also worth not note that fearless people or those who are used to justice being served generally stand with the victim as default. They seek right, not might and principles are not suspended as luxury.


(This chapter is a work in progress.)


Image: “He is guilty of the war”: 1943 anti-Jewish poster by Mjölnir


10 thoughts on “Victim Blaming and Scapegoating

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