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How Right-Wing Bullies Blame and Attack the Victims of Violence and Oppression

The right-wing exploits tendencies toward victim-blaming to advance its worldview. But are Americans wising up?
 
 
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A makeshift memorial to Trayvon Martin, in Sanford Florida.
Photo Credit: Agence France-Presse

 
 
 
 

When Geraldo Rivera and other right-wing figures zeroed in on Trayvon Martin's hoodie as though it provided some sort of explanation or justification for the young man's tragic death, when right-wing websites began a smear campaign against the dead child's memory, they were playing right into a blame-the-victim script.

It's a script that is used almost always to reinforce white supremacist and patriarchal power structures. And it's a script that plays off a weakness of our Western worldview, our inclination to assign negative moral value to those who suffer--what psychologists call the "just world fallacy."  

For many, it can be less disturbing, simpler to blame the victim than the system (and, by extension, ourselves) and no one exploits this weakness better than the right wing. Any time there's been a major backlash to a social movement, from civil rights to feminism to AIDS activism, the right has followed a similar victim-blaming script. The message gets injected into the culture: Black poverty is a symptom of pathology. Rape victims are asking for it. AIDS sufferers are being punished for their lifestyles. Those without health care should be left to die. And now, most horribly and tellingly, a dead young boy with skittles and iced tea in his hands had it coming. 

The idea behind these smears is: it can't happen to you. It's not your problem. But racism, xenophobia, homophobia, patriarchy--these are our problems, problems the majority and the privileged perpetuate. 

A Derailing and Damaging Process

Over the past month or so, the central injustice in the Trayvon Martin case--the idea that the killer has not even been arrested or charged--was so glaring and obvious that even complacent Americans grew outraged. The case garnered millions of petition signatures and a steadily growing stream of attention. A genuine conversation about race actually began. And then the victim-blaming script kicked in in earnest.

Here's how the process goes: First, right-wing figures express perfunctory dismay that something terrible--in this case, the most nightmarish thing imaginable--has occurred. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney even weighed in on the Trayvon Martin "tragedy." Then, extremists and their enablers get alarmed that a chorus of voices are (rightly) calling attention to the relationship between the tragedy and massive inequalities, in this case deeply embedded, deeply damaging racism.

Then, they attempt to reverse the story, and try to bully everyone else into reversing it, too. They begin to dig into the victim's history to find something unsavory. To wit, the sudden cries emerging this week that Trayvon Martin wasn't the perfect victim and therefore the entire line of thought connecting his death to racism was somehow invalid. After all, he was once found with a baggie that contained traces of marijuana. He tweeted teenage-type things and grimaced at the camera. These flimsy arguments, as some commenters on conservative blogs implied, suddenly meant we could absolve both George Zimmerman and ourselves of responsibility. Other white supremacists and racists went so far as to hack Martin's online accounts in an effort to keep smearing him.

Although only the biggest extremists said the most explicit things out loud, the idea that Trayvon Martin deserved to be killed was the exact message they were supposed to receive--and transmit. Zerlina Maxwell at the Grio called it the "Thug-ification of Trayvon Martin," writing:

It is a strategic manipulation of public perception with the purpose of turning Trayvon into a stereotypical black male predisposed to criminal behavior. The purpose is to spin the public outcry that followed as overreactions or as a rush to judgment.

Maxwell notes this is an effort to "derail" us, a crucial aspect of victim-blaming, shifting focus away from the damning facts: Zimmerman shot Martin after making an 911 call that strongly indicated clear racial profiling if not outright racism on his part; Martin was unarmed and told his girlfriend he was being followed; the police made a number of glaring missteps and didn't collect evidence.

The idea is to change the conversation to speculation, conjecture and attempts to slant the story differently. This even included Michelle Malkin's site posting fake pictures of Trayvon Martin's alleged Facebook account to make him look more "thuggish." Even after it retracted the story, damage had been done. 

Media Culpability

When conservative media, like the New York Post, got Orwellian and claimed that liberals were exploiting the tragedy to "make it about race," this also helped cow journalists, ever afraid of being labeled "liberals." Thus, the right's derailing efforts were aided and abetted by the wide media circulation of Zimmerman's account. Through family surrogates whose stories were suspect at best, Zimmerman claimed that he was overpowered and afraid for his life before he pulled the trigger. His story was spread alongside the local police's seemingly corroborating claims that Zimmerman was bloodied and bruised, claims that would have required a lot of explanation to match up with the evidence.

On Thursday night, video surfaced that appeared to show Zimmerman, contrary to his own and police department accounts, uninjured and not bleeding. Jesse Singal at the Daily Beast notes that this evidence shows there was far too little skepticism from "disinterested" observers to begin with:

In retrospect, there was so little reason for the Zimmerman account to have changed anyone’s view of the case. Neither he nor the Sanford Police Department were disinterested observers. He, after all, was facing potential murder or manslaughter charges, and the department was shielding itself from a nationwide barrage of criticism for not arresting him.

Why did some media outlets report the Zimmerman story so uncritically, and why is the right-wing able to get these counter-narratives into the national consciousness? Singal hints at the reasons:

Of course, that Zimmerman likely outweighed Martin by 50 pounds or more, or that the worst “criminal activity” alluded to in the Twitter account was smoking pot...didn’t matter. No. What mattered was that this version of events was so much more palatable and digestible than the notion that race had played a part in the death of an unarmed black teen (which is so...liberal). And that’s why the story festered and spread like a virus.

Protecting Power Structures, Comforting the Powerful

It's fair to make the point that some of the backlash arose from an insatiable conservative drive to undercut anything liberals and progressives support, even a basic issue of justice like this one. But this is about much more than politics, it's about power structures. Singal's colleague Michelle Goldberg elaborates:

...some on the right are deeply invested in the idea that anti-black racism is no longer much of a problem in the United States, and certainly not a problem on the scale of false accusations of racism. You might call these people anti-anti-racists. They are determined to push back against any narrative that would suggest that a black man has been targeted for the color of his skin.

We are living in an inverted era: it generates more outcry to call someone a racist than to be a racist. But racism--not just casual racism but the racism that denies the very humanity of people of color--is alive and well. Dozens of young people tweeted that they didn't care about the poignant death of Rue, a young girl in "The Hunger Games" because she was black. Naeesa Aziz at BET wrote that she found it: "impossible to think about how race affected people’s reaction to the death of the ficticious character of little Rue and not think of Trayvon Martin and the countless other young men and women whose lives were considered expendable because of their skin color."

The Martin case has elevated the plight of young men of color, who are posited as possessing inherent criminality and are targeted by the police and now self-styled vigilantes, into the national consciousness. This is an area in which our society--and our own psyches--need work, analysis and reflection. It's easier for media figures and onlookers to focus on something like the hoodie than to focus a hundreds-year old history of oppression and its widespread effects. As Singal noted, for many, even many who are not on the right-wing fringes, the story that Trayvon Martin himself was somehow at least partly culpable was more "palatable."

To those who have studied rape culture, this notion sounds familiar. Goldberg, Maxwell and many others have noted the similarity between the focus on Trayvon Martin's clothing and alleged pot-smoking and the frequent declaration by pundits, jury members and others that women who were raped somehow contributed to their rape by wearing short skirts or tight jeans or drinking. Trayvon Martin, who cannot speak for himself because his life was silenced, has undergone the same kind of personal "vetting" that other victims of race, gender and sexuality-based violence have always gone through--instead of their perpetrators being vetted, they are.

Historical, Psychological Phenomenon

But that's because the very concept of blaming the victim is rooted in oppression.  Although victim-blaming has some of its roots in Western Biblical ideas of sinners being punished by acts of God, more recently, it's a phenomenon that centers around race, gender, poverty and violence. Blaming the Victim is the title of a 1976 book by William J. Ryan that pushed back on "the lies we tell ourselves about race, poverty and the poor." 

Ryan debunked both right-wing scorn and middle-class liberal pieties that held the idea that the behavior of poor black families contributed to the bad conditions in their lives. This, Ryan argued, amounts to mass denial of a system that has been historically rigged to deprive African-Americans. Kai Wright, writing abouthow the Trayvon Martin case reveals the brutality of American society towards black men, makes the same point, saying that victim-blaming is an American speciality: "Surely all these people have done something to bring the murder, the poverty, the brutality down upon themselves! That’s America’s unique twist on systemic oppression. "

"The just world fallacy" (as described in this academic paper from the 1970s) is a form of cognitive bias that assumes things happen to people because they deserve them, and allows us to dismiss broad injustices, including those we perpetuate. It enables people to distance themselves from victims, whether individual victims like Trayvon Martin or larger victimized groups, like young black men. Check out these depressing statistics on how many whites believe their black brethren should just "work harder" to achieve success.

The belief in victims' culpability and in a "just world"  comes partly from socialization; when children are raised to respect authority figures, national leaders and the wealthy as "great" without critical analysis, when we watch shows or read stories that reward the virtuous and punish the evil, we ingrain the idea of a correlation between success and morality. While on some level a just-world belief may help us cope with random tragedies, when it comes to societal injustice, it can also contribute to the widening of divisions. Psychological experiments have shown that a majority of subjects will change their opinion of others based not on what they do, but on what happens to them. We are primed for a victim-blaming script, and that's why the victim-blaming script gets used every time social justice makes gains--because it often works (unsurprisingly, recent studies have shown liberals are less likely to blame victims than conservatives are, but that doesn't absolve liberals of our own victim-blaming propensities)

At Salon earlier this year, David Sirota noted that from the Southern Strategy onward, to current-day GOPers asking Iraqis for reparations after we invaded and destroyed their country, blaming the victim has been an important part of the right-wing modus operandi (and he also cites Ryan):

The list seems endless. From demonizing Occupy Wall Street protesters to bashing unions already under pulverizing corporate assault, the Republican Party is today organized around the politics of scapegoating the least powerful among us — and that’s a problem for the GOP’s opponents, because history shows that kind of politics works.

Yes, as crass tactics go, victim blaming has, unfortunately, been a reliable bet. From the mid-1960s to the beginning of the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s (as I demonstrate in my recent book), blaming the victim became the backbone of the ugly but electorally powerful backlash to the civil rights movement — a backlash that sociologist William Ryan famously identified as ”justifying inequality by finding defects in the victims of inequality.”

This sounds pretty grim--and accurate. However, there may be some optimism to be found in today's grassroots activism. The movement declaring "I am Troy Davis," the Million Hoodie marches, and year's SlutWalks were all explicity organized to create outlets for empathy and identification with victims. Occupy Wall Street's "We Are the 99%" Tumblr created an opportunity to humanize victims of the economic downturn. All these protests "went viral." The fact that this is all happening at once is remarkable; although injustices are continuing and in some cases worsening, there are near-simultaneous outpourings to explicitly reject victim-blaming and declare solidarity with the unfortunate, the oppressed, the injured.

Our society has done a terrible job fighting the stain of racism, as this case clearly indicates. But the fact that so many are standing up and refusing to buy the victim-blaming script at this moment in time offers hope. Instead of seeing the world as just, protesters clad in hoodies are saying they want justice. And their voices are being heard.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @fellowette and find her work at sarahmseltzer.com.
 
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