Saturday, July 16, 2011

Blaming Victims in a Just World

An year back, there was an accident in Adyar, Chennai. A couple traveling by bike at 10:30 in the night were run over by a speeding lorry.
The couple were married just over an year earlier; and had left their baby at the parents and gone to visit a temple or church.
The next morning I was in the waiting area of a local hospital when I overheard an young doctor and a nurse talking about this. The doctor said, "So they went at 10 in the night to a temple, leaving the baby. How stupid are they?"
The nurse agreed.
Do we expect people to be run over after 10 PM in the night? Of course not. But this pattern was familiar to me. The doctor and nurse were blaming the victim.
I have come across the blame-the-victim characteristic a lot when discussing politics; but also more generally in life in India. I have also come across it, to a lesser extent, in conservative writing in the United States.
A couple of years back, when race attacks were going on in Australia, against Indians, I frequently saw this play out. A letter in the magazine "Week" blamed Indians for not "assimilating" in Australian culture. Some blamed Indians for talking in local language in public. I wrote a detailed analysis of this behavior here.

Of course, blaming the victim is not new to women all over the world. They almost always get blamed for eve-teasing or rapes. Usually they are accused of having provoked men into such behavior.

Why is there a tendency to blame the victim when something bad happens to people? This is particularly important in India. In our road accidents, pedestrians get blamed almost all the time. Plus we have the "aren't we all corrupt?", "aren't we all racists?" crowd always blaming the victim implicitly.

The Just World Theory

In the 1960s, Melvin J.Lerner, professor of Social Psychology at the University of Waterloo, performed a set of experiments out of which came the "Just World Hyposthesis" or the "Just World Theory".
Lerner's findings, later expanded, show that human beings have the "need to believe in a just world" in-built into their psyche. It develops as a part of normal child rearing and every human being will have it.
What does this mean?
While growing up, we are taught good and bad behavior. We are taught to distinguish between them by a system of rewards and punishments. This enforces a belief in us, as we grow into adulthood, that the world is an environment full of justice. People get what they deserve and deserve what they get. That idea permeates into us.

But, of course, the real world is far from just. Just the number of varieties of personalities precludes a guarantee of justice.
Therefore, when we see something that violates our belief (in a just world), we can only resolve the conflict between
a) what is reality and
b) what is our innate belief
by looking for some way to justify the unjust scene before us.
For example, when we hear about a child getting hit while crossing a road, our trust in a just world is violated. Our mind resolves that by one of the following methods:
a) Blaming the child's parents or the child herself for crossing without proper attention
b) Trying to imagine how we can stop such traffic accidents and thus building an assurance in our mind that we can create a just world
c) By the "separated world" mechanism - we tell ourselves that this happens in some kind of parallel world.

(There are actually 9 different ways in which we try to resolve the conflict, as listed by Lerner)

Now option b, if we act on it, is of course, the healthiest. It improves society overall.
But most people who are conservative or authoritarian or over-religious have been found to go with option a - blaming the victim.
In other words, the predominant tendency in conservative societies such as India is to blame the victim.

Thus the doctor and nurse who were discussing the accident of an young couple were actually shocked by the injustice of happy lives extinguished by a careless driver. But they had the need to believe in a just world. They resolved this by blaming the couple's choice of taking a bike at 10:30 PM.

This has implications for a lot of our public debates in India. We hear about unjust accidents caused by badly designed roads and neighborhoods. Almost every person who drives a bike in India must have met with some accident, minor to serious. We hear about normal people, who are killed or maimed by drunken driving or just reckless driving
Every time, we have to be careful never to blame the victim - for traveling without a helmet, or crossing a city road, or going out in the night. The real villains are the people who drive without respect for pedestrians; and the people who designed these killer roads with no spaces for pedestrians.


Sailesh Ganesh said...

While I agree with your larger point moving on from the systematic blaming-the-victim phenomenon in India, you can list a few cases where the victim is probably at fault. Examples:

1) People cross the train tracks, get hit by a train and die. There was an incident yesterday of a couple and their four year old kid crossing the road near Dombivili who got hit by a train. They had their umbrella open, and so couldnt see the approaching train (as per the news item).

I expect that most people are aware of the dangers of crossing railway tracks, and yet continue to do so. In some cases, this may be due to lack of infrastructure such as footover bridges, but I think this is mostly lethargy over using a "longer" route.

Blaming the victim is perhaps a fair call here, though we should be looking at ways of improving the situation.

2) Most drivers in India do not have any traffic sense. I assume quite a few accidents happen due to the people not following proper driving guidelines (such as by cutting in front of another vehicle, jumping the signal, etc.)

I suppose this has a lot to do with a complete lack of awareness of such a thing as driving guidelines (beyond the very obvious - stop at signals, do not drive on the wrong side of the road). One can try educating the people, but that's a very difficult task given that bad driving is almost universal in this country. But yet, the responsibility to make our roads safer also lies with every one of us, and if I get involved in an accident because I drove stupidly, I am certainly to be blamed.

Ramiah Ariya said...

Sailesh, the question here is about an awareness of systemic faults.
For example, we all understand that train accidents in India are indications of some systemic problem. Otherwise they will not happen so frequently.
Pedestrian deaths and traffic accidents in India are very high. So there is a systemic problem there. I have written a few times about these issues.
There are many way that attention on such systemic issues are deflected. One such method is saying, "We should all be blamed". This completely skips the actual issues and makes addressing the systemic problem impossible.
The second method is to blame the victim.
The reason why blaming a victim is so bad is not just because it is unfair. And it is not just because such an attitude makes addressing the core issue impossible.
The real reason why it is so bad is that it actually ENCOURAGES and ENABLES bad behavior. I have seen a lot of drivers express rage at pedestrians, including trying actively to hit them. THAT attitude has come about because of the decade long conditioning - that we are all bad WALKERS.
Thus the problem, in the minds of most people, is not that there is bad DRIVING. The problem is bad WALKING. The whole attitude had become skewed against pedestrians.

In summary, the issue is not whether, in individual cases the victim can be at fault or not. Nobody can say that. The issue is the larger trend to blame the victim for systemic problems and creation of stereotypes based on such trends.

Sailesh Ganesh said...

The issue is the larger trend to blame the victim for systemic problems and creation of stereotypes based on such trends.

There I completely agree with you.

But to nitpick on a specific point:
Trains running over people who cross tracks. Is that a systematic fault? Or is it a case of people playing with their own lives and paying dearly for it?

Ramiah Ariya said...

It could be a systemic fault based on the accident rates; those rates compared to other nations with train networks; whether the tracks are open near densely populated areas; how close overbridges are and so on.
But I am curious - when a tragedy like this happens, why is there such a need to blame someone at all? Particularly in the train case, where there is no obvious perpetrator? Don't you think that points to a need to believe in a just world - where such unfair deaths do not happen?