Tag Archives: victim

Why we don’t always believe victims

It would seem a no-brainer, if you are a decent human being, that you would listen to and believe people who report abuse and bullying. But we don’t, and it is important to look at why if that’s ever going to change.

Bullies and abusers don’t go along with being called out. They deny everything, or they tell you that they are the real victim and the person who first clamed victimhood is really the bully. There are bullies who, as part of their routine, accuse their victims of attacking them. If two people are claiming to be victims of each other, the idea of always believing the victim doesn’t stand up very well, because you may not know who it is. More thoughts on this over here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/07/28/calling-out-abusers/

Most of us have a morality that depends to some degree on relationship. So we tend to believe the people we care about and disbelieve the people we don’t know or care about if that threatens someone we like. We also don’t want to believe that we love someone abusive, so we look for reasons to explain away claims of abusive behaviour.

Victim blaming is widespread. Many of us have internalised some of that.

Abusers know what they are doing, and around people who are not their victims, they act in ways that hide this. We are persuaded because they were always so nice to us. In public, they may have seemed like exemplary spouses and parents. They may tell us, with great love and concern how worried they are about the poor mental health and strange beliefs of their victim. We may sympathise, and go on to not believe the victim when they confide in us.

Victims are usually in distress. If they’ve suffered gaslighting, been blamed and made responsible, they may feel it is all their fault. If the bully has persuaded the victim that the victim is the bully, you’re going to have a hard time figuring out what to believe. I am inclined to take care of people who are afraid and distressed and seeking safety. I tend to disbelieve people who are angry and demanding retribution. I look at the power balances. I also figure, if I get this wrong, the angry person is probably better resourced to take care of themselves. It’s not foolproof. Nothing is.

An un-nuanced approach that goes ‘I always believe victims’ can be deeply threatening if you are someone whose abuser has cast them in the role of the bully. If you have had your reality dismantled in this way, this is such a hard thing to deal with. For a long time, I believed myself to be an awful person, deserving of any punishment that came my way. For some years now, I’ve lived in a strange, inbetween place where some days I think I have experienced gaslighting in the past, and some days I think I’m an awful person who deserves everything they get. On the good days, I dare to think I might get over having been made responsible in this way. I’m able to write this because today is a good day.

On a bad day, a flat statement about always believing victims can, and has panicked me. I think about the people (there were several) who were so loud and confident about being my victims, and how knocked down and powerless I felt in face of them. There is always the fear one of them will come back for another go and that they will be believed, and I will not. And the fear that no matter how hard I try, I am so inherently awful that I can only cause harm. On a good day, I think that’s the gaslighting impacting on me.

And I also know that for some people, any experience of being said no to, any criticism, any less than perfectly positive feedback counts as an attack. I know that several of the people in my history experienced me as a terrible person because I couldn’t give them what they needed. I did not prove kind, patient, generous, forgiving, understanding and co-operative enough for them and they experienced that insufficiency as abusive. They’re not making it up, it was their experience of me, and some of them I have seen go through similar issues with other people.

Abuse and bullying are really complicated. A superficial response that says ‘I will always believe victims’ and doesn’t dig into the mechanics and specifics of anything it encounters, is not a magic solution to the woes of the world.


How not to be a victim

So much advice about safety and avoiding crime is about how not to be a victim. We teach girls how to avoid sexual assault while investing little or no time teaching boys that is their responsibility not to assault girls. Victim blaming, and misplacing the responsibility has massive consequences.

Part of what we teach when we teach people to stay safe, is that it is the victim’s behaviour that causes or attracts the crime. If I was assaulted when walking across town alone at night, it would be understood that I had been assaulted because I was walking across town alone at night. We tell each other that it is just common sense to take safety precautions without examining what the safety stories actually do.

If your clothes, or where you happen to be make you a target, then we’re telling each other that the criminals can’t help themselves. They have no defence against a woman in a short skirt, or a person who is alone and looks worth mugging. We apply this more to the victim of sexual assault than we do to the mugging victim. We tell a story that says crime is responsive. It can’t resist your open window, your unlocked car, your low cut top. If you can’t expect people to avoid temptation, you tell a story that we’re all basically awful and that perhaps any of us would do the wrong thing given the chance. That’s affirming to those who are inclined to harm others.

This is an especially pernicious idea when it comes to sexual assault. We are too quick to ask what a person could have done to avoid being a victim. Every time we do this, we send out a message that we don’t really expect people to resist temptation. Every ‘stay safe’ message carries a subtext that the woman who isn’t staying safe is pretty much asking for it. Every time we ask what the victim was wearing, we give credence to the idea that clothes justify assault. We reinforce the idea that we cannot expect men to control themselves if they see a woman in a sexy outfit. We keep perpetuating the idea that anyone faced with an attractive woman in an appealing outfit might feel the urge to do something criminal to her. We normalise it.

Too often, we lose the key facts here. 100% of rapes are caused by rapists. All abuse is caused by abusers. Theft is a consequence of people stealing – not of what security measures you had in place. We don’t talk about the likelihood of your attacker being known to you – that you are more likely to be harmed by someone you trusted than by a stranger on the streets. All those safety measures we are encouraged to take don’t work if you’re dealing with someone you thought you could trust.

It’s hard to live fully if you have to organise your life to avoid becoming a victim. Many women are doing this. We need to be much clearer that the responsibility for crime does not lie with the victim, but the perpetrator. Here in the UK, we really need the police to stop telling people what to do to stay safe (invariably aimed at women) and to start being a lot clearer about the legal responsibilities of perpetrators and the things that you are not allowed to do to another human being, no matter what they were wearing at the time.

The best way to avoid being a victim, is not to have anyone feel entitled to attack you. Until we dismantle the things in our culture that create those feelings of entitlement to attack, no amount of doing things to try and stay safe can actually guarantee your safety.


Healing, and playing the victim

Devote too much attention to your experience of being a victim, and someone will come by and knock you back. Wallowing in victimhood, you will be told, is bad, and wrong and just keeps you in that victim place and you should shut up about it and move on. We have a culture that does not give any of us much space for supposed negative emotions – grief, rage, pain, and so forth are to be tidied away and denied. It can also be uncomfortable for people who are fine, to hear from people who are not, because it may challenge assumptions and beliefs, expose vulnerability and/or complicity.

A person who has been a victim – be that of exploitation, abuse, assault, emotional, physical or psychological mistreatment has a process to go through. Abusers tend to be good at victim blaming. There will be reasons for what happened and the victim will have been faced with the reasons enough times to believe them. This happens because you are bad, you deserve it. You aren’t worth a proper wage, or respect, or kindness. You don’t properly qualify as a person so human rights don’t apply to you. Hearing those reasons keeps the victim in a situation. However, oppression can be bigger and systematic – as with racism and sexism. Your people deserve no better. Your gender has less value to this community.

In order to change anything, the victim needs to see their own victimhood. They need to recognise that what happened was not fair or deserved. Often this process means connecting with others who have had, or are having the same experiences. It is easier to see what’s wrong when you see it happening to someone else. In swapping notes, victims gain insight, courage and confidence. At this point, it is not unusual for non-victims to pile in and complain about the pity party, the reinforcing of the idea of victimhood. I’ve never experienced sexism so you other women are clearly the problem. I’ve never experienced racism so I don’t think it exists… and so forth. It doesn’t help.

When people recognise the abuse, and start picking apart the mechanics of the abuse, they become able to make changes. They get out of the relationship or the job, if it’s that easy. They start protesting and demanding equal rights – which evidently takes decades if not longer. There comes a point when the victims start demanding that the non-victims pay attention and make some changes.

If you don’t let people recognise their victimhood, you don’t give them the space to get angry and change things. If you don’t let people swap notes about their exploitation, you don’t let them organise to make change. If you don’t let victims speak about their mistreatment, you will never see what in the system facilitates it. You stay comfortably inside the system that is facilitating abuse. That’s no doubt why it is easier to complain about the pity party, tell people to shut up, and denigrate them for ‘playing the victim’. Otherwise we might have to deal with our own advantages and complicity, and that would be uncomfortable. It is easy to put personal comfort ahead of social justice.

Abuse and exploitation are not things that happen away, in private arrangements. These things happen in the context of cultures we are part of – systems, laws, balances of privilege that we are all upholding. If we make it the business only of the victim to work out how to turn that around and become a survivor, the underlying causes of abuse and exploitation remain, with our tacit support.


Is it bullying?

Person A says that person B is bullying them. Person B denies it. Who do you believe? If you ignore it, you could well be enabling bullying and leaving a victim open to further abuse. One of the biggest problems in this scenario is that bullies are often very quick to claim victim status. Take as an example the man in the habit of screaming ‘you’re abusing me’ at the woman whose bones he broke (true story).

There are no foolproof ways of resolving this kind of situation, but here are some things to bear in mind.

People who can get out of bullying situations early on, do. However, where there’s a power imbalance – as there can be with workplace bullying, the victim may not be able to leave. Domestic abuse can include hidden power imbalances. Money, work, age, physical condition, size, and the invisible power of emotional blackmail can all be factors here. That a person has not managed to leave is not proof that they aren’t a victim.

People trapped in bullying situations become demoralised and less able to protect themselves. They may internalise blame and shame and feel it really is their fault. The person who admits they’re a horrible, worthless person may not actually be the bully. Demoralised people stay because they don’t believe anything better could happen anywhere else – this is what they deserve, it’s their fault and they may feel obliged to stay and try to put things right.

It is not bullying to express pain, difficulty, distress, or unhappiness. It is not bullying to disagree with someone or say no to them. People who bully seem to feel they have to be right, superior, more important and more powerful. This means they often can’t hear genuine negative feedback. They may try to call out as a bully anyone who doesn’t actively support their fragile egos. People in this situation are actually in trouble and potentially headed for more trouble – tortuous double thinking and mental health problems arise for people who can’t admit they make mistakes, and can’t hear negative feedback. Most of us are not equipped to deal with their problems, and misplaced support can increase the cognitive dissonance for someone unable to face their own shortcomings.

However, when all you do is feed back in a negative way, while insisting on staying in a situation, all you do is grind the other person down. What should happen if one person is doing a dreadful job but can’t be told and can’t be removed, and reacts to truth as though they are being victimised? And how do you tell this from a person who is actually being victimised?

A genuine victim will very likely be glad of any help and support, even if they feel they are to blame. They are likely to want to co-operate, and will be looking for ways to deflate the situation, make sense of it, reduce the drama, improve their own safety and get things on a more comfortable footing. They may be confused about what’s going on, distressed, or they may be angry if they understand what’s happening.

A bully pretending to be a victim wants attention and drama above all else. They don’t want the situation to resolve – and if it does they will rapidly create a new one to replace it. They will likely make demands about outcomes, they will be more likely to want the kind of justice that harms their ‘aggressor’ and their actions are more likely to move things towards isolating, excluding or otherwise harming the person who is actually their victim. They won’t hear criticism and they won’t accept mediation that requires them to take any responsibility at all for their own role in things. They may present as wounded and distressed or as angry alongside this.

It isn’t an easy way to go, but often the best way to find out who is actually a victim, and who is playing the victim in order to bully someone, is to get in there and offer help and mediation. Go in as a neutral party with a view to resolving things, and you’ll see the inside of the situation more clearly, and the responses of those you are trying to help. That gives you a basis in personal experience from which to decide how then to proceed. If it’s genuinely a personality clash, you can help resolve it, and if there’s really a victim and an aggressor, you’ll be better placed to see who is taking which roles. In situations of domestic abuse, the victim is in most danger of being killed or injured at the point when they try to leave. I strongly advise seeking help from the police. If you can’t take the mediator’s role, actively support a path towards mediation.

People die as a consequence of bullying – from aggression that goes too far, deliberate violence that murders, and as suicides. It’s important to take these situations seriously, because often it takes input from someone else to solve this and keep people safe. I suggest that if anyone claims to be being bullied, they should be heard with compassion and respect, as a first move. A person who comes forward as a victim is always in trouble, it just may not be the kind of trouble they’re claiming it to be.


The allure of victimhood

There’s nothing attractive or desirable about suffering a crime, cruelty, or oppression. However, there are attractions to casting yourself in that role, or staying in it if bad experience puts you there. Some of those attractions are more problematic than others in terms of impact on your own quality of life, and impact on people around you. I write this probably not exhaustive list all too aware that I’ve done at least one of these, and seen all of the others in action. That most reasons make sense (from a certain perspective) makes them all the more alluring. They tend to harm the victim more than anyone else.

  • It’s the biggest thing that has ever happened to you, perhaps the only thing you consider to be of interest or note, the only thing anyone has given you attention for. It becomes tempting to stay, and easy to have it be the story that defines your life.
  • Having little or no self-esteem means that victim status confirms that you are undeserving. This may be more comfortable than considering unfamiliar alternatives.
  • It is the only way you have found to elicit compassion, kindness, help, comfort or attention.
  • By taking the role of the victim, you guilt trip your elected oppressor so that you get your own way. Especially productive if you favour passive aggressive approaches to relationships.
  • You are in a culture that competes to be the most martyred, the worst off, the most mired in drama, and so you feel socially rewarded for being a victim.
  • You genuinely believe your life is ruined and/or entirely defined for the future by whatever has made a victim of you. (Especially likely in the short term after trauma, but possible to recover from nonetheless).
  • Your spiritual path rewards martyrdom, or you see suffering as innately noble and therefore worth hanging on to.
  • Your victim status is used to explain (at least to yourself) every other thing that goes wrong, or that you do not do. It becomes the ultimate, unassailable excuse.

There is a time, after any injury to mind or body when a person needs to hole up, whimper a bit, heal, grieve and generally get to grips with the experience as best they can. We are all wounded in some way and at some time in our lives. No one gets through unscathed. There is no universal right answer for how long that takes, or when you should start to feel safe and more functional again. Having time to take whatever healing journey you need is really, really important. There are some experiences that don’t heal readily, or perhaps ever, but there is a huge difference between carrying wounds and scars, and carrying your victimhood. With one, it is still possible to go on and make a life, with the other, it isn’t. Victimhood seeks pity. Wounds seek compassion. Victimhood seeks power over others, in slightly perverse ways. Scars seek peace.


Rioting, prisons and justice

In the aftermath of the UK riots, we’re hearing that about three quarters of the arrested rioters and looters have already been in trouble with the police before. At the moment, the solution of preference is to slap longer sentences on people. But, if these are people who have already been through the prison system, there’s little reason to think another stint inside will change their ways.

A lot comes down to how you understand justice, and what you believe prison is for. If prison exists as punishment only, then it has some function as a deterrent. All the evidence makes clear that deterrents, even extreme ones like the death penalty, flogging, cutting off body parts, do not cause crime to cease. We’ve been locking people up for a long time now, and they still go out and re-offend.

I think to understand why punishment isn’t effective as a deterrent you have to consider why people commit crimes in the first place. On one hand we may have crimes of desperation – theft and violence occurring because people feel (rightly or wrongly) that there are no other alternatives. This feeling of no alternatives will not be challenged by additional risk of punishment. Alternatively, there is an idea I first encountered through Brendan Myers talking about attitudes amongst native Canadians. Crime can be perceived as a breakdown of relationship. Thus the criminal may feel that there are entitled to use and abuse – a might is right attitude for example would lead to this. They may consider themselves superior to others so that they imagine the normal rules are not, or should not be applied to them. They may consider their victims to be inferior, inhuman, irrelevant such that the crime against them does not matter or is justified. This would be true of all hate crime. All of these reasons go with a mindset that will not expect to be caught, and if caught, will not expect to be seriously punished, and if punished, will not necessarily give up the beliefs that underpin the criminal behaviour.

If people commit crime through desperation, social isolation, hopelessness, anger or poverty, punishment won’t fix that. If people do it because they have no respect for anything, locking them up will just reinforce their ideas. And on the other side, putting someone in prison gives nothing back to the victims, there is no redressing of wrongs.

I’m a big believer in getting offenders who have committed smaller offences to do community work that will help them re-engage. This is part of my Druidry, in which justice is a very important idea. Not just any old job that occurs to the powers that be either, but something that will affect them. Cleaning up their own mess, repairing the damage they have caused where possible. I’m also hugely in favour, where appropriate, of sitting offenders down with  their victims and making them face those people as people. That can be tremendously healing for the victim as well.

There are people who are so sick and antisocial in their behaviour that, for everyone else’s safety, they need taking off the streets. Locking them up for a few months or years and then sending them back out won’t fix anything longer term. Prison has to be about re-education. Many prisoners have already fallen through the cracks and have major literacy and maths issues (I know, I have friends who teach in prisons). Many have mental health issues, drug addictions and other problems that need fixing if they are to escape from crime. There is also the issue of violence as learned behaviour. In Strathclyde, I gather, police are tackling violent crime as though it was a contagious disease, taking the stance that people who are normalised to it are more likely to perpetrate it. This makes a lot of sense to me. It means not only tackling gang violence on the streets, but looking at where our young humans learn that bullying pays, violence is fine and he who shouts the loudest and punches the hardest gets to rule the roost. And where do they learn this? At home, all too often.

Domestic abuse is widespread. Children who grow up exposed to not just violence, but disrespect, verbal abuse, emotional, and psychological abuse learn to abuse, and to accept certain kinds of behaviours as normal in their peers and future partners as well. I’m not saying ‘blame the parents’ here either, because abusers do not exist in a vacuum, they exist in the context of cultures and histories, attitudes to women, belief about might and right, and the pernicious belief that if you can claim provocation, violence is ok.

If we want justice, and if we want to tackle criminal behaviour, then locking up offenders is not going to get us either. It is not a solution, just a reaction. It doesn’t prevent crime. If we want to not have rioting and looting, if we want to not have violent gang cultures, then we need to start by looking at the context in which these things happen. I feel very strongly that we need to start paying serious attention to both the direct, and the knock on effects of domestic abuse. Violence begins in the home, all too frequently. If we want to deal with it, we have to figure out how to tackle it there as well.