Why We Tend to Victim-Blame

Why We Tend to Victim-Blame

Just World Effect

One of the biggest theological dilemmas Christians have faced is ‘The Problem of Evil.’ When unexplainable misfortune strikes the innocent it scares everyone. There is a realization that this can happen to me, and at any time- an overwhelming reality of life. Putting an order to this chaos is a coping mechanism.

Melvyn Lerner conducted numerous experiments establishing that when observers are able to intervene in one’s suffering they will have more empathy and see the victim favorably, but when they are not able to intervene they adopt a negative view of the victim. Lerner commented on this phenomena, “The sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character” (Hochschild, 31).

In an interview with Jane McGregor, she explained to me how the just world effect leads to victim blaming.

“Just World Effect is when you see the world as just and fair and think there is an order and justice to the world. With some exceptions, only bad things happen to bad people. People who want to make the world rationale and fair, these are the types, and tend to be majority, that see the world as just. If a woman is walking home at night it wouldn’t take long for such a person to say the woman isn’t innocent and explain ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ That is to say, ‘see, she’s not the same as me’ and justifies not helping or even feeling empathy. “Just world effect.”

To make ourselves feel safer, if someone lived in hurricane area, we rationalize a hurricane tragedy by saying ‘why did they live there?’ It’s a very much victim blaming activity. So much of this is a way of processing fear” (McGregor).

Just World Effect organizes the randomness of calamities and makes us feel safe for thinking we can prevent misfortune from befalling us. In doing so, we blame victims for not being careful enough.

Kareema wrote to me about an experience where a well-known Quran reciter made lewd comments to her in front of her husband and parents. She was caught off guard, and later reported it to a female scholar. Kareema explains, “She said it was wrong and out of line but then looked at me and asked me if I was wearing makeup. I had some eyeliner in the inner rim of my lashes, but that was it. Then she told me that the sleeves I was wearing under my abaya were too short because they exposed some of my wrists and made it clear that my sleeves have to completely cover my wrists.  So right after I tell her about this incident involving a man making inappropriate comments, she had to find fault with my hijab – the implication was clear.”

This mentality excuses men’s inappropriate behavior as natural and blames women for not being hidden enough- even after wearing full hijab.

Airing Dirty Laundry?

When communities face outside challenges, they often grow more insular. Reports are labeled as ‘complaints’ and bringing in outside authority is labeled ‘airing dirty laundry.’ While the focus should be on Muslim leaders to not abuse and bully, blame is quickly shifted to victims for complaining. ‘We have a lot we are already dealing with- with all the Islamophobia’ is a common response victims receive when approaching other leaders for help. When a preacher is eloquent in speaking to the media and condemning terrorism, generating funds, or getting the youth into Islam, they are vehemently protected. Islam becomes a brand and a good spokesperson is protected for his worth to the brand.

When Mike Fehlauer wrote about spiritual abuse in the church for Charisma, he was criticized for contributing to the increasing negative sentiments towards Christianity. He received letters stating “We do not need leaders who cave in to the fear of appearing controlling because they correct or direct their flocks…” and citing his article as giving “permission for any member to leave a church because of any correction a pastor might give…”( Fehlauer, 6). Another critique reads “…Fehlauer mentions that “controlling spiritual leaders insist upon ‘pastoral permission’ for someone to leave a church or relocate.” Yet there are proper biblical grounds for people to seek counsel about such major life decisions”( Fehlauer, 6).

In the name of protecting Christianity, critics try turning the issue of abuse as a red herring for the greater issue of rebellion in the church. We must keep blame on the abusers, not the abused. It is a failure of Islamic institutions to address spiritual abuse that perpetuates it, not victims being upset that they were abused.