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Blaming the victim for a crime is absurd, but we still do it

February 22, 2014 11:11 IST

Why do people need to trot out a moral justification for doing certain appalling things and not for others, asks Devangshu Datta

A woman walks down a street carrying a sum of money. A snatcher lifts her purse and is chased and caught. The snatcher is then charged with theft. He may claim that the woman tempted him by being stupid enough to carry cash on the street. It will make no difference to the sentence.

In most crimes, blaming the victim is not a legal defence or a moral justification even if it is something society indulges in. There are, however, a few broad categories, where victim-blaming is trotted out as some sort of legal, or moral justification for committing a crime.

One is the category of rape and sexual assault. It is normal for the defence in rape cases to claim the victim was (a) dressed provocatively, however that is defined; (b) "habituated to sex", whatever that means (even though this is not a legal defence); (c) inebriated and behaving provocatively; (d) did not state upfront that he/she was underage.

Variations of these smears have been used in multiple jurisdictions, quite often successfully. They have even muddied the waters in cases of gang rapes, such as those that have occurred in colleges in the United States. Why does the "character" of the victim matter so much in the case of a rape?

A second category where blaming the victim is normal is the broad area of racial or communal violence. Out of context, the triggers for communal conflagrations sound absurd. There are, of course, always background tensions before communal situations erupt. But the trigger itself can be absurd and the victims are generally just convenient soft targets.

For instance, somebody has a violent altercation or kills somebody who happens to be a member of another community in a geographical location, X. At this point, people who live thousands of kilometres away from X may go out and perform what they consider their civic duty by killing some people who manifestly had nothing to do with the X incident.

Sundry political leaders will also make fiery speeches and say that the pride of their respective communities has been hurt and the rioters were unbearably provoked. This is not considered a legal defence, but it is considered a moral justification. Importantly, communal "pride" allied to an ability to indulge in violence can decisively swing elections and has done so multiple times. I guess that is enough justification for this brand of victim-blaming.

A subset of this sort of victim-blaming occurs when mobs resort to violence to shut down a movie, an art exhibition or a book.

Again, the defence for embarking on violence revolves around victim-blaming. The writer has a "heretical" idea; the artist has drawn a "provocative" picture; the movie dealt with a "sensitive" subject.

It is somehow the creative person's fault that audiences have been made uncomfortable. Again, violence in this context is not legally defensible and Indian courts have unambiguous judgement stating the state has an obligation to protect the artist. But the Indian State is unwilling to offer physical protection to creative artists, and therefore victim-blaming works.

There is another, completely different area where victim-blaming has been historically prevalent. This is in the grab of natural resources.

The justification for such grabs across multiple continents during the colonisation era was that the locals did not know how to govern themselves or use natural resources. So the colonisers had to pick up the burden, regrettably exterminating or enslaving the locals in many instances.

The grab of natural resources remains a very popular pastime, and so does the victim-blaming. The blaming also gets more emphatic if locals pick up the gun and object, as they often tend to in post-colonial societies.

Given that victim-blaming is a logical absurdity, it is interesting to see the areas where it is commonly resorted to. Why do people need to trot out a moral justification for doing certain appalling things and not for others? That might be a good question for social scientists to investigate.

Devangshu Datta