The Situationist

Archive for February 22nd, 2011

Blaming the Victim

Posted by Adam Benforado on February 22, 2011

Of the many experimental results that have surprised me over the years, Cathaleene Jones and Elliot Aronson’s classic experiment on rape victims stands near the top.  How could it be that when a victim was described as a “virgin,” participants were more willing to hold her responsible for the rape than when she was described as a “married woman” or “divorcee”?

As Melvin Lerner and Dale Miller later explained, “[T]he knowledge that innocent, highly respectable females can be raped was particularly threatening to the subjects’ belief that the world is just, and to avoid the threat posed by this type of admission, it was necessary to find fault with the actions of the victim. Thus, the subjects appear to have tried to convince themselves that the victim was really not innocent and that she must have contributed, at least in some small but significant way, to her fate.”

Today, evidence of blaming the victim is all around us, particularly with a depressed economy.  One can find numerous examples in television programs, op-eds, and casual conversations of blaming the poor for being poor, the unemployed for being unemployed, and the foreclosed upon for being foreclosed upon.

That said, I wasn’t exactly prepared for Mobile, Alabama resident Joe Dupree’s response when a New York Times reporter questioned him last weekend, during a public celebration of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy, about the complete omission of any discussion of slavery during the festivities.  As the reporter pointed out, this seemed particularly strange given “the prominent speeches and documents [from the Confederacy] that describe the protection of slavery as the primary cause of secession.”

According to Mr. Dupree,  “African slavery is a 4,000-year-old African institution that affected us a couple of hundred years.”

Making slavery into an African — that is, a “black” and “foreign” problem — is a shocking move, even at a rally to celebrate the Confederacy.  But I worry that it might have some staying power, given our self-, group-, and system-affirming motives.

There is a coordinated effort afoot to remove slavery from the narrative of the Civil War — to make the “War for Southern Independence” about self-determination, the fight against big government, and tariff and tax disputes.  When Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnel issued a seven-paragraph proclamation last year, declaring April to be Confederate History Month, he left out any reference to slavery, explaining that “there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”

The reframing is inaccurate and dangerous.

Slavery is an ugly stain on this nation and it should not be painted over.

February is Black History Month and it is time for us to remember our history, as discomforting as the truth might be.

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