Misconceptions of Victim Blaming


If you were to make a pragmatic argument after a tragedy, you will at some point be accused of victim blaming. To victim blame is, by definition, to say the victim is at fault for the harm they have suffered.

To give one example, the Ottawa Police issued safety tips after two incidents of sexual assault. The tips were intended to help women minimize the risk of being assaulted. The only real critique of these tips is that they are rather obvious, like “avoid dark or isolated areas” and “don’t enter environments where you feel unsafe.”

An article on Huffington Post criticised the safety tips, claiming they “shame and blame survivors.” The article says the tips “fail to recognize… that the responsibility for the assault is on the perpetrator.”

The Ottawa police in no way suggest that rapists are not morally responsible for their actions. They do not even remotely imply that a victim of sexual assault is at fault for being assaulted. And therein lies the first misconception. The author of the HuffPo article is misinterpreting the safety tips as a moral argument, not a pragmatic one.

Arguments of this variety can come from two different angles: moral and pragmatic. To argue on moral grounds is to say that an act should be done because it is a moral act, or that an act should not be done because it is an immoral act. Arguing from this perspective only focuses on the morality of actions, and then advocates for or against it.

Pragmatic arguments are not concerned with morality. They only focus on how to achieve an end goal. Once that goal is established, pragmatic arguments are made on how best to achieve that goal.

The contents of books like Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Greene’s 48 Laws of Power are pragmatic. Each of these writers understand that some actions supported in their books may be immoral. They are not arguing that morality is unimportant (besides Alinsky). Their arguments are entirely focused on power politics. To argue against these books using moral reasoning would be missing the point. It would be similar to rebutting a biology textbook by asserting it makes immoral claims.

In the case of these safety tips, the argument was entirely pragmatic and not at all moral. The safety tips recommended by Ottawa police were a list of tactics. It is implied that any civilized person would not blame a woman for being a victim of assault. The moral argument is assumed to be self-explanatory because everyone already agrees with it.

The police then move onto the pragmatic argument. Their job is to reduce crime, and they hope to do so through their safety tips. It could certainly be argued that the tips were ineffective or obvious. These would both be pragmatic arguments, and would be appropriate for the topic at hand.

There are some cases where people will assign moral blame on the victim. After a mass shooting, some people really do assign blame to the victims. After a woman is raped, some people really do think she was “asking for it.” In that case, accusing them of “blaming the victim” would not be incorrect.

But more often than not, this accusation is misused. People sometimes make pragmatic arguments after a tragedy to prevent further harm, and are then attacked for supposedly blaming the victim. In reality, they are acknowledging the situation and working on a solution.

Whether we like it or not, there are terrible people in the world. There will always be rapists, murderers, thieves, and terrorists. Instead of sitting around and waiting for awful people to have a change of heart, it is best to accept that they exist and work to prevent them from harming more people. Offering advice on how to avoid a bad situation is not the same as placing the blame on the victim.

In an ideal world, libertarians should not have to devote so much time to fighting the ideas of socialism. Is it victim blaming to recommend ways for libertarians to oppose socialist ideology? Of course not. Whether we want to or not, socialism must be opposed. To point that out is acknowledging reality, not assigning moral blame to advocates for liberty.

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]