Saturday, October 22, 2011

Blaming the Victims

I first became aware of the blaming-the-victims strategy for avoiding responsibility soon after Hurricane Katrina when an ultra-conservative friend of mine went on a rant about why his tax dollars shouldn't be used to provide disaster relief or repair the levees that had flooded the city of New Orleans. He argued that the residents of the area had known for a long time about the dangers, and foolishly chosen to live in an area that lower than sea level. Clearly, it was their fault, and they were so stupid that they wanted to rebuild their city and take the chance of the same thing happening again. Why should the rest of us have to pay for their mistakes?

In 2008, as the housing bubble was collapsing, this same friend meticulously collected “evidence” from a number of dubious sources, “proving” the cause was Clinton-era policies that enabled greedy, stupid, poor people to get mortgages they knew they couldn't afford. If they lost their homes, they deserved to. It was – and is – a common assessment by many on the political right.

The last straw for my friend was the possibility that a black, former community organizer (who by definition was in favor of the pernicious giveaway mentality of the political left) could become president. When Barack Obama won the election, undeserving people might get much more of his money, and the new president would have to be impeached. It was the last time we would speak, because, after years of tolerance, I had come to loathe the idea that some people's lives are more valuable than the lives of others, and to believe that we must take responsibility for harming others, whether directly or indirectly (such as through neglect).

Blaming people for their condition is a justification for neglect. It also permits us to harm people without internal deterrent, just like a person with a sociopathic personality disorder. It has enabled the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a few people who were neither inclined, nor capable, of using that power to stop huge population loss, and might even favor it as a logical consequence of their competitive ethos. This, for me, is the ultimate evil.

When we refuse to help others, or harm them either directly or indirectly, we not only allow or increase the amount of pain and death in the world, we potentially harm ourselves because we can't learn what they might teach us. I've written about the blind spots we all have, which both endanger us and keep us from becoming aware of opportunities to increase happiness. Others can potentially see things we can't, and vice-versa; so working together is the best chance we have to improve our visibility. In addition, collective efforts at exploration can help us learn about things we don't currently see, and move together toward opportunity and away from danger that may be right over the horizon.    

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