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Where is the line between discouraging a helpless victim mentality and blaming the recipient of violence? How can we open up space to rethink violence?

There were a couple of inspirations on this question. One came after an NFL player killed Kasandra Perkins,  who was his girlfriend, and then himself.

(I know his name, but people who kill other people deserve to be forgotten, not remembered, because at least some of the time they’re interested in glory. We should remember the names of those who experience violence. We should learn from these events how to prevent future violence. But the people who do it don’t merit memory. Let’s keep that in mind next time there’s a mass shooting. Because there will be a next time. /rant Also, Morgan Freeman agrees with me.)

After Perkins was killed, feminist activist organization UltraViolet (from whom I somehow or other receive email calls to action despite my ambivalent relationship to feminism and the fact that sometimes they hail their audience in ways that exclude me) sent an email on December 7 that said:

Yesterday during a discussion about domestic violence, Fox News host and former George W. Bush White House press secretary Dana Perino actually said on the air that women should “make better decisions” to avoid being beaten or killed by their abusers. Yep, that’s right. She didn’t say anything about the abusers who terrorize their girlfriends, wives, children, and partners. Instead, she blamed survivors of domestic violence for the crimes committed against them.

The email linked to a petition  that called on Perino to “publicly apologize to survivors of abuse for saying that their own decisions caused the crimes committed against them, and make a donation to a domestic violence shelter to show she understands that survivors are never to blame.”

Then, a few days later, second hand and probably over Twitter though I can’t recall now, came a complaint from blog Feministe, And just when you thought the Good Men Project couldn’t get any worse…   which included frustration at the latter blog’s idea that  the “rapist is really a decent guy and maybe if the victim hadn’t done x, y or z this wouldn’t have happened.”

To be unequivocal, I never think that someone who is the recipient of violence is at fault. They weren’t asking for it, “no” always means “no,” everyone has a right to walk around anywhere at any time of day or night without experiencing violence. I don’t think that “their own decisions caused the crimes committed against them.”

But I also don’t think people should wait around hoping other people will stop enacting violence on them. I think that given the prevalence of people taking actions on the spectrum between boorish and awful, it’s a good idea to be prepared for the possibility. This is perhaps an impossibly fine distinction to make, and maybe it’s not practical, but I think it’s worth considering, at least.

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, at least since I was a member of a very self-defense-heavy martial arts system.  One thing that the instructors at this school suggested was thinking in terms of “It could happen to me. It could happen today. I know what to do, and I’m going to do it.” It’s cheesy, to be sure, but it does say that people aren’t powerless. Given the business they were in, perhaps it’s not surprising that their emphasis was on what one can do to protect oneself from violence, but I think it’s a pretty useful intellectual shift.

A person who commits a despicable act of violence and domination is at fault for that, but something about the way we talk about violence makes the story about the person who committed the violence, and see above about glory.

Or, at least, that’s the consequence of the way we talk about violence enacted by male/masculine/masculinized people against female/feminine/feminized people. It becomes particularly clear that victimization is only one option for how to make sense of this when one considers that the violences experienced by adult, heterosexual, able-bodied men are not explained as victimization in the same way. There are other options already in use.

The way we talk about violence against feminized humans suggests that there’s nothing those people can do other than hope the law helps after they’ve already experienced violence. That’s also why don’t like the word “victim” and I won’t use it, because it constructs a relational identity around the violence in a way that I think is a terrible idea. Victim mentality, that is, is helplessness. It’s hopelessness. It hampers our ability to live without fear.

Ultimately, all of those things act to put all the power with the person who commits the violence, and getting all the power, or belief that they have all the power, is why people commit the violence in the first place. It participates in the same logic, and it’s not the only way to think about it.

To some extent I’m echoing Sharon Marcus’s “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention” (to which I cannot find a link) here, though I like to think I’m adding to her important argument. Even if I’m not, however, the piece was published over 20 years ago—maybe longer if its appearance in Feminists Theorize the Political wasn’t the first–and we’re still using the same rhetoric of victimization and inevitability, so it’s worth pointing out again.

Should people have to walk around in alert mode, checking their six, not walking blindly around corners, keeping their hands free and their vision and hearing unobstructed? No, absolutely not. I want a world where that isn’t the case. But we have a world where it is the case. We have a world where manliness is often measured in violence done and experienced.

We have a world where men (especially in the U.S. context white, heterosexual men) feel their accustomed dominance disappearing and feel like people are committing violence on them. I saw this firsthand when I was following the Sandy Hook shooting on Twitter, since it had faster (though unverified) information than the news proper. One particularly paranoid guy (who I won’t give the signal boost of naming) blamed the “war on men” and “she-ria law” (no joke) for inspiring men to fight back violently. At first I thought he was trolling, but he was serious and that was some scary stuff. And, while this might seem different, the idea that men commit violence because they believe they have control is actually the same logic as doing it because they have lost control—it’s the idea that violence is a way to assert control, which is the divine right of men.

So this is the world we have to be prepared for. We have a world in which there’s a certain number or concentration of human predators, and–like the lions on the Serengeti in the nature documentaries who take the old gazelle, the sick gazelle, the baby gazelle–they want easy targets.  So the sane response to the insane system is to try not to be taken for the weak one in the herd. It’s a question of managing the condition of predators  having a victim optics without ourselves subscribing to victim identity. And, if someone mistakes you for easy prey, you are not doomed to whatever they want to do to you. You can put up a fight.

This is of course not to say that it’s easy. Clearly it’s no such thing. Fear is powerful, even paralyzing. Abuse is disempowering, even dehumanizing, particularly when it is routinized. Sometimes the choice is be raped or die. Sometimes it’s kill or be killed. I could never tell someone how to decide those things. Sometimes you’re unconsciousSometimes you’ve got six-to-one odds and they don’t care what kind of gazelle you are.

But to know that you have a choice on how to respond when violence comes to you, even though we can all agree that violence ought never to come? To know that it’s not inevitable, that a person who attempts violence on you is a bad person or a person doing a bad thing, and not exercising some universal right? That feels like a better way to live.


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  1. […] one ought to be manly has a lot to do with why people engage in violence (as discussed in my post Discouraging Victim Mentality or Blaming Recipients of Violence?). But the fact that Americans have guns with which to enact this idea of power (which other […]

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