Sunday, May 3, 2015


The difference between saying:

  • A woman who places herself in a situation where she may be vulnerable is unwise.
  • A cartoonist who drawings cartoons depicting (let alone interpretable as disrespectful to) the Prophet Mohammed is unwise.
  • A Black American who is contemptuous or disrespectful to police officers is unwise.
  • A person who leaves the door to their home unlocked when they go out is unwise.
is both simple and complex at the same time.

All four of these admonitions are similar in that they tell someone not to do something that there is no prohibition against, as a precaution against another party choosing to engage in what we understand to be an illegal act - sexual assault, religious violence, police brutality and burglary are all crimes. The point that it seems (or simply is) unfair for a person to need to refrain from lawful activity to protect themselves from unlawful activity is well taken.

But burglary is indifferent to race, creed or gender, and thus not freighted with overtones of oppression, control and historical injustice. And it is that freighting, moreso than the perceived unfairness of it all that leads to the first three risking the label of "victim-blaming" in a way that the fourth does not. Rapists, religious fanatics and law-enforcement officers are expected, within circles that empathize with the broader groups to which they belong, to be simply responding to a perceived opportunity and/or provocation in a way that burglars are not, while this is not to say that people don't make excuses for burglary suspects, the argument that a burglarized person brought the action upon themselves is much rarer.

We are all familiar with the idea that our choices and actions have consequences. And we are capable of discerning the differences between intrinsic consequences (like being burned by a hot stovetop) and imposed ones (such as going to jail after a burglary conviction). But in situations were a person behaves in way that another person finds inappropriate, and thus worthy of sanction, they often tend to muddy the waters by referring to imposed consequences as "natural," when they are sole result of the choices of another.
  • A man may chose to rape a woman who has not placed herself in a situation where she may be vulnerable.
  • A religious extremist may chose to murder a cartoonist who has not drawn a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed.
  • A police officer may severely beat a Black American who has not been contemptuous or disrespectful.
  • A jury or judge may convict a person of burglary who has not burglarized a home.
Like "A burglar may chose to burglarize a person who has not left the door to their home unlocked," all of those statements have constituencies that fundamentally believe them. But they also understand their safety and well-being to be predicated on others sharing in that belief in the way that someone who understands that burglary as driven by the actions of burglars does not.

The problem is that there isn't a good way to make the point that it's possible to insulate oneself against the decisions made by others in a such a way that it cannot be mistaken for making the point that one shouldn't do things the speaker disapproves of. And this is because that determination is made by the listener and not the speaker. "A person who brings home items of dubious provenance is unwise," can just as easily be taken as "There are things you can do to protect yourself against legal errors" as it can that "People who are convicted of burglary brought it on themselves." Especially when historical precedent is involved.

Problems of human communication are difficult to solve, especially so when they are laden with history and emotion. But this is not to say that they are insoluble. Only that understanding requires a lot of work, perhaps more than we are accustomed to.

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