Freethought Activism Social Sciences

Victim Blaming in Action

Summary: This article examines a form of victim blaming, where the “spotlight” of discussion and the “burden of change” are placed on the victim instead of the perpetrator. Doing this has the subtle effect of altering discourse to be about the victim – what they did in the lead-up to the crime, their past history, how they could have avoided the crime, and so on – when it should in fact be about the perpetrator.


I’ve written about the social psychological underpinnings of victim blaming before. Essentially, the Just World bias makes us believe that people deserve what they get, and that if bad things happen to someone, they must have done bad things for it to happen. Now, when somebody says “victim blaming”, the classic picture that comes to mind is that of a horrible wicked person saying “You deserved it!”. In real life, this seldom happens. For one, such people are smart enough to know that in today’s more enlightened world, you simply cannot say such things in intelligent company and get away with it. Secondly – and this is the insidious thing about victim blaming – even well-intentioned people can blame the victim without realising it.

Below we’ll take a look at a case study of victim blaming, where the followiGroup of people surrounding a victim under a spotlight, saying 'we don't blame you or anything'.ng pattern emerges:

1. The Spotlight: The focus of discussion is on the victim, not the perpetrator. This is true literally in terms of the number of words devoted to each, and also in terms of where the writer is focusing their research/investigation.

2. The Burden of Change: The responsibility of prevention/solution is put on the victim, not the perpetrator. This is usually implicit rather than explicit, and is often intermixed with point number 1.

3. Denial / Protestations to the Contrary: The person will claim that they are not blaming the victim, while proceeding to do just that (via points 1 and 2).

Time Magazine on the Charlie Hebdo Arson Attack

On 2nd November 2011, the Paris office of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was destroyed in a petrol bomb attack. It isn’t yet known who did it, but given that their previous issue had mocked radical Islam, was jokingly renamed “Sharia Hebdo” and was “guest-edited” by the prophet Muhammad, it is a reasonable guess that Islamists were behind it.

Time Magazine published an online piece about the bombing, titled Firebombed French Paper Is No Free Speech Martyr. I recommend you read the article in its entirety, for it is quite remarkable. Let’s see how it fares with respect to the victim blaming pattern I mentioned above:

1. The Spotlight: The article focuses exclusively on Charlie Hebdo’s behaviour. First it talks about the magazine issue in question and its contents. Then it looks back into the magazine’s past – did you know that in 2007 they reprinted the “controversial” Danish Muhammad cartoons? Shocker. It goes on to criticise the magazine’s insolence, calling it “self-indulgent” and “wilfully injurious”, and continues with heaps of concern about abuse of free speech, Islamophobia, burqa ban, etc. There is hardly a word about the people who bombed a building because they didn’t like the words that came out of there. You would think journalists would want to look into why someone would do that – interview some terrorism experts and psychologists perhaps? Nope, not here.

2. The Burden of Change: This is implicit throughout the article – it all but screams “Don’t mock Islam and they won’t bomb you”. No mention of “Don’t bomb people” anywhere. I.e., the burden of change is implicitly on the critics of Islam, not the Islamists.

3. Denial / Protestations to the Contrary: There are three points in the article where the author offers support to Charlie Hebdo – in a sense saying “I’m not blaming you or anything”:

“Sorry for your loss, Charlie, and there’s no justification of such an illegitimate response to your current edition–”

 “[I]t’s just as clear that intimidation and violence must be condemned and combated for whatever reason they’re committed—especially if their goal is to undermine freedoms and liberties of open societies.”

 “And within a climate where violent response—however illegitimate—is a real risk–”

That’s three sentences of support – qualified support in fact – amidst a 1,229 words-long article. Blink and you’ll miss them. After reading the article, the overarching sense one gets is: Charlie Hebdo was wrong and had it coming. They should change their ways or expect things like this to happen to them.

And then there’s the concluding sentence, which starts with some more support, but then undoes it all with a moral equivalence so revolting it beggars belief:

“So, yeah, the violence inflicted upon Charlie Hebdo was outrageous, unacceptable, condemnable, and illegal. But apart from the ‘illegal’ bit, Charlie Hebdo’s current edition is all of the above.”

Once you learn to identify this pattern of victim-blaming, you will notice it time and again. The recent statements by high-ranking Indian police officials attributing rape to the clothes women wear, for example, focused on what women wear, implicitly putting the burden of change on them. And the spotlight – the media storm that followed – focused on this issue, not the men who are doing the raping.

Geetha T.G. has pointed out another trope that is often seen in victim-blaming – what one might call the helplessness of the perpetrator. While the spotlight is on the victim most of the time, it is shone on the perpetrator for an all too brief moment either to commiserate with or to bemoan the helplessness of the perpetrator, who is cut some slack, as if to say, “What else could you expect, in the light of such behavior by the victim?” The crime is cast as a natural reaction, even Greek tragedy. And thus the seam between the perpetrator and victim dissolves, and their roles become equivalent in the eyes of society. This New York Times report on the gang rape of an 11-year old girl offers an appalling example:

“The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?

 “‘It’s just destroyed our community,’ said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. ‘These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.’”

No one is immune to victim-blaming; but by identifying victim-blaming bias in ourselves, we can start a process of self-examination – of second-guessing our words and actions, like a freethinker should. So the next time you’re discussing some injustice with a friend, and you find yourself talking more about the victim than you are about the perpetrator, stop for a minute and ask yourself: Am I blaming the victim?


About the author

Sunil D'Monte

Sunil D'Monte is a freethinker, feminist and secular humanist.


  • Hi, I am a freethinker and have genuine question here,
    First I agree with you that toi article was utterly an example of just world hypothesis, and they ignored real culprit and blamed the victim.
    My question is
    If people are indoctrinated/brainwashed to believe unjustified/unreasonable things, what should be the strategy to either inform or liberate them from such psychological captivation. Is it the reasonable idea to ridicule or mock ideas or belief which they consider holy/sacred and preached to act violently against so called blasphemy. What anyone as either journalist or simply rationalist should do if we simply consider it as social level disorder and approach it as a social problem to solve.

    • I think a variety of approaches – from tact and diplomacy to the ridicule of Charlie Hebdo – are needed. Personally I think ridicule works well when one is attacking false fact propositions like belief in gods (as opposed to moral or value propositions), because in such cases freedom of speech is seldom limited by the harm principle. Have a look at this Nirmukta article, which examines some case studies of freedom of speech and how it relates to the harm principle:

      The only valid restrictions on freedom of speech are those that are clearly meant to prevent harm. However, governments must go about doing this without stripping us off our freedom to offend. We must find a balance between the two. But how do we determine where this line lies? The only way to practice such a balance is to restrict the law to criminalize only those aspects of speech that clearly are intended to cause harm. Consider a case of hate speech, incitement of violence or making of death threats. A clear and intended causal effect must be drawn between the act of expression and the harm done. This is the only legitimate way in which the Harm Principle can be evoked to restrict certain forms of speech.

      • I agree a lot wit you and that Nirmukta article was very informative on current and basic issue of freedom of speech.

        I would like to share Albert Camus’s thought:-
        A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.

    • The strategy would be something like this:

      First accept that no matter how delicately you inform people, there will always be someone who will get offended. The only way to not offend them is to accept that their delusion is valid and pay obeisance to it. Sometimes the very existence of non-believers is an offense as far as such people are concerned. So the assumption that there is some way of not offending people is a red-herring.

      Since there will always be people who will get offended, the next step is to figure out how do we stop them from harming others. Now this involves the government. A good government will know what freedom of speech is and the importance of protecting it. Since a government is representative of the people, if the people knew the importance of freedom of speech, they would push the government to protect it.

      In all this, a freethinker’s job will be to recognize what the real problems are, that is – miscreants who cannot abide by laws or laws which are unjust or governments which shirk their responsibility in implementing the law. He/she will then need to address those problems.

  • This article from Butterflies and Wheels is in response to a recent case of victim-blaming in the media, in the context of a murderous reaction to supposed sacrilege. An excerpt:

    The media, and much of the public in the west, is getting the story tragically wrong. We are so consumed in our cultural relativism that we take all religious practices as weighted equally: as worthy of serious respect and polite tolerance. We discard our criticism in favour of not stepping on toes (or setting off triggers). We get mixed up about who is actually instigating the violence: not US soldiers who did or did not damage a Quran nor even a batty pastor who most definitely did threaten to burn one. We stop seeing the obvious: that it’s the direct perpetrators of the violence who are responsible. They are the adults who make choices about how to respond to being upset. As with temperamental children, we no longer hold them to the same expectations that we would our own fellow citizens, to respond lawfully, and control their anger to the extent that they don’t need to kill others for the rage to subside. And we ultimately fail to see the utter senselessness of taking human life on account of harm to a book. That’s the story. It’s that senseless, violent reaction that should shock you, not that there is anyone left in the world with the gall to do it.

    My comment on the above page :

    Also , maybe Natasha Shahid should google Doniger , Ambedkar , Periyar , D N Jha . Hinduism has always been attacked by both Westerners & even ex-Hindus . In fact bunch of India’s intellectuals , journalists , academicians esp. Left-leaning & even Centre-leaning are all ex-Hindus critical of Hinduism & Hindu society . The same applies to Judaism & Christianity too. The only difference here is Islam. Neither there are any conspicuous criticisms of Islam from within nor it is acceptable to be criticised by others ; thus the appeal is made to others to also avoid criticisng Islam. The tragedy is that despite all this ,Muslim Liberals never hesitate showing their double standards when they regurgitate criticism & polemics of other religions if & when required.

    If the West is obsessed with Islam , then so are Muslim countries obsessed with Hinduism , Christianity & Judaism . Kindly look into the fact that all these religions unlike Islam have been under attack from within for over a century now.

    And if you too can attack other religions , is it correct to crib when others attack Islam. In fact the kind of articles that you write despite being a Left-leaning (I assume) would have been termed as trash apologia of Religion had it been written by a Hindu/Christian , by the Left in those countries.

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