Sunday, October 9, 2016

March of Words

Not everyone who engages in victim-blaming explicitly accuses someone of failing to prevent what happened to them. In fact, in its more understated forms, people may not always realize they’re doing it. Something as simple as hearing about a crime and thinking you would have been more careful had you been in the victim’s shoes is a mild form of victim-blaming.
Kayleigh Roberts "The Psychology of Victim-Blaming"
One of the more interesting things about growing older is watching language evolve in real time. When I was in my teens and twenties, saying that: "Recognizing the possible efficacy of precautions and noting when they may have been absent is necessarily a form of blaming victims for the events that have befallen them," would have been considered laughable. Not because it didn't happen; laying blame at the feet of a person for their having been victimized by another person was a common way of taking sides or simply expressing a dislike of the victim. And, for that matter, it still is. But because the definition of "blaming the victim" that we commonly used was less about how one treated the subject of a crime, and more about how one felt the perpetrator ought to be treated.

That concept of "victim blaming," that actions on the part of the accuser could be viewed as an affirmative defense of the accused, hasn't gone away, but it's much less prevalent than it had been. And it's also become much less a part of the conversation around crime and punishment. When I was a child, it was generally understood that the criminal-justice system at times openly played favorites and one of the ways it did this was to look for ways in which an accuser could be said to have "brought something upon themselves." The ur-example of this was the woman who was raped after "leading a man on," but it was far from the only one. It was presumed that whenever society really wanted to let someone off the hook for something, they wouldn't rest until they'd found some aspect of the victim's life for which whatever crime had been perpetrated upon them was just deserts. That openly partisan aspect of society has somewhat fallen by the wayside. Not completely, but it's seemingly much less prevalent than it had been several decades ago. But the concept of blaming the victim is still with us, and usage of the term has been adapted to fit the present, rather than remain in the past.

What makes this sort of language evolution interesting is that it doesn't give one a way of differentiating between the older and newer usages of the term. Noting a failure to take a given precaution is a difference in quality ("mild" versus more severe) but not the difference in kind that we understood it be. Perhaps, as with understandings of privilege, this is a result of the fact that we didn't have a specific word that covers the modern usage of the term. In any event, it's an interesting change in the language; brought about by generation-driven cultural change. It won't be the last, and the future changes promise to be just as interesting.

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