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Why I Don’t “Blame Victims”

by Izzy Kalman (July 2008)The single most common–and angry–criticism I get is that I “blame victims.” Today, in the view of the mental health professions, the worst thing that one can do is to blame victims. If you suggest that victims of bullying or abuse have anything to do with the way they are treated, you are asking for trouble. Since my approach to helping victims of bullying is to teach them how to solve their problem by themselves, without anyone’s help and without getting anyone in trouble, many people accuse me of this most heinous of crimes–blaming victims.

To understand why I don’t “blame victims,” I will explain four pairs of dichotomies:

  1. Law versus Science

  2. Crime versus Morality

  3. Bullying versus Crime

  4. Blaming versus Taking Responsibility

Law versus Science

There are two basic approaches to solving social problems: the legal, and the scientific.

The legal approach to social problems is based on force. The government declares certain behaviors to be forbidden, and anyone who commits them is “guilty” and needs to be punished. The victim of the crime is considered “innocent” and needs to be compensated. The legal system therefore seeks to attribute blame.

The legal process is not scientific. Laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and are infulenced by political pressures and subjective human values. They can be changed or repealed by human decision. Furthermore, while the hope is that punishing violators will lead to an increase in lawful behavior, there is no guarantee that that will actually happen. In fact, many laws even cause an increase in the forbidden behavior while creating a host of other problems. But once a law is on the books long enough, most people come to believe the law is just and cease questioning whether it made any sense in the first place.

The scientific approach is based on understanding the laws of nature, which are universal and immutable and cannot be changed by human declaration. Scientists work in accordance with the laws of nature to solve problems. They don’t get airplanes to fly by ignoring gravity. While science is concerned with uncovering cause-and-effect relationships, the concept of “blaming” is irrelevant to science. Blaming is a legal activity.

Scientists understand that everything affects everything else, that every action or inaction has consequences, and that there is a reason for everything. And they are aware that if they interfere with natural processes, they may end up causing more harm than good. Ideally, scientists accept their findings regardless of how unpleasant or disturbing those findings may be. If research reveals that a procedure they devised to solve a problem doesn’t work or makes the problem worse, they are supposed to declare the procedure a failure and reject it.

Psychology’s confusion between law and science

Psychology considers itself to be a branch of science. If it were to take a scientific approach to bullying, the following are a few of the conclusions it would come to: 1. Bullying is apparently a universal phenomenon among social creatures–including human beings. It can’t be eradicated simply by making it illegal. 2. Bullying must be fulfilling some biologically adaptive function, so we must be conscious of the possibility of unintended negative consequences of intervention. 3. Victims, being bound by the laws of nature, must have something to do with what is happening to them. 4. Most anti-bullying interventions should be abandoned because research studies show they don’t work or even make the problem worse.

Unfortunately, no one bothers to think about the fundamental difference between science and law. Because of this ignorance, psychology, without realizing it, has taken a legal approach to bullying. It has declared that people have a legal right to go to school and work without being bullied. Victims are considered innocent and must be defended, and bullies are guilty and must be apprehended and punished. And because psychologists have abandoned objectivity by making a value judgment to support victims against bullies, they continue to affirm the importance of implementing anti-bullying programs despite their dismal effectiveness.

Not only has psychology chosen law over science, the field has become even more legalistic than the legal profession, or, as they say, “holier than the pope.” When the legal system says that a person is a victim, the legal system does not mean that scientifically the victim had absolutely nothing to do with what happened. It just means that the victim did not commit the crime; the perpetrator did. Let’s say I leave my car parked with the door unlocked and the key inside, and the car gets stolen. I am an innocent victim of a crime. You are not permitted to steal my car just because the door was unlocked and the key inside. And there is no law that says that I must always keep my car locked and the keys safe. But if I were to insist that my behavior had nothing to do with the car being stolen, you’d laugh at me. Do you think my insurance company would reimburse me for the entire value of the car?

(For a comprehensive exposition of why psychology has taken a legal approach, read The Bias Shackling Psychology.)

My approach

I am not a lawyer, judge or law enforcement officer. My job is not to protect people from each other or to punish them for the way they behave. I am a science-oriented mental health professional and my job is to help people solve their problems. For close to four decades I have intensively studied human nature, not only through psychology but philosophy, anthropology and primatology. The methods I have learned and developed work because they are in accordance with human nature, basic psychological principles, and simple logic. They are completely consistent with highly regarded psychotherapeutic systems such as cognitive behavior therapy, rational emotive therapy, as well as with universal wisdom. I teach people what is really going on when they are bullied, and how to stop being bullied by using psychological principles. Unfortunately, this gets me accused of blaming victims.

If you prefer the legal road to bullying and want to blame and punish bullies, that is your prerogative. But don’t mistake yourself for a scientist.

Law versus Morality

It is important to understand the difference between law and morality. We expect the law to be moral, but the correlation between law and immorality is far from 100%. Just because something is a law, it doesn’t make it moral, and just because something is immoral, it doesn’t mean there should be a law forbidding it. I will present two general reasons why law and morality are not identical.

1. Very few laws are the result of honest, soul-searching deliberation by experts in the philosophy of morality. The great majority of laws are passed because of the political lobbying of narrow interest groups. As a result, many laws are blatantly immoral, causing more harm than good, granting advantages to one group at the expense of others, and/or administering punishments that are far worse than the crime. Unfortunately, many people naively believe that if something is illegal, it must also be immoral, so they do not fight the law, and thus many immoral laws get the acquiescence and support of most citizens.

2. For a variety of reasons, the very act of making all immoral behavior a crime would be immoral. These include the following:

a. It would eliminate morality because we would be acting from a desire to avoid punishment rather than from a sense of right and wrong. Behavior that’s meant to avoid punishment is not moral; it is selfish.

b. Rather than promoting a moral society, we would be creating an overbearing totalitarian police state that oversees all of our behavior. We would lose our liberty and our privacy as the legal authorities make all of our actions their business. How would you like to be arrested, interrogated, tried and punished whenever you failed to act like a saint…whenever you said something negative about someone, or declined to be someone’s friend, or turned down a request for charity, or took a private phone call during work time, or coveted your neighbor’s spouse?

c. Morality is highly subjective. There are certain behaviors that are universally accepted as immoral by virtually all societies, and these are defined as “crimes.” These crimes all fall into the category of acts that cause objective harm to people’s bodies, property and liberty–things like rape, murder, theft, arson, blackmail, lying under oath, kidnapping. But the morality of most other actions is highly subjective. People argue vehemently over the morality of almost every type of behavior.

d. It would be economically unfeasible to make all immoral behavior a crime. We would need so many people working in the legal justice and law enforcement systems that we would go broke trying to finance it.

e. For punishment to be moral, it has to fit the crime. But what is the appropriate punishment for insulting someone, for laughing or rolling your eyes when they say something stupid in class, for excluding someone you can’t stand from your social group, for not wanting to sit next to someone with terrible body odor? Suspension? Expulsion? The punishments for such acts tend to be much worse than what the offender did, and are therefore immoral. You can’t make society more moral by punishing people immorally. Furthermore, since there is so much ambiguity regarding moral behavior, many people would end up being punished for committing acts that are, in fact, moral. (This is not a theoretical consideration. It happens every day in every country, including our own.)

f. If it were actually possible to get rid of immoral behavior by making it illegal, every society would have done so ages ago. We would all be living in Utopia. But it is impossible to achieve Utopia through punishment. As I am fond of saying, “The best legal way to get someone to despise you is to tell on them to the authorities.” If I get you arrested because you weren’t nice to me, would that make you want to be nice to me? Of course not! You will hate me and want revenge. That’s why philosophers have taught for thousands of years that you can’t legislate morality. The belief that a moral environment can be established by legistaion is little short of insanity. This is no less true today than it was in Aristotle’s time.

Crime versus Bullying

Where does bullying fit into this picture? Anti-bully activists and the sensation-loving media love to present shootings, theft, rape and murder as incidents of bullying. But these are not acts of bullying. They are true crimes. Honest bullying experts will tell you that bullying is, almost by definition, behavior that is within the confines of the law. The behavior may be immoral, but it is not illegal. Bullying includes things like insults, rumors, sarcasm, negative gestures, showing preference for one person over another, coercion, and social exclusion. They are, in short, the inevitable unpleasant social facts of life that everyone encounters. They happen in every social group, from the home to the school to the workplace to the church to the government to our own professional organizations. Even anti-bullying activists bully people.

If someone kills you…robs you…burns down your house..rapes you…blackmails you…they haven’t bullied you. They have committed a full-fledged crime against you. The government will prosecute and punish people for doing these things to you. There is no need to include these crimes in anti-bullying legislation because they are already illegal. But anti-bully crusaders have conveniently discovered that they can get everyone to eagerly support anti-bullying legislation by presenting the most horrific acts of violence, including rape, genocide and slavery, as bullying.

Anti-bullying legislation is, in fact, nothing less than an attempt to legislate morality. It forbids you from doing anything that someone else might not like. You had better not laugh when people say idiotic things. You can no longer decide who will and won’t be your friend. You can’t say anything bad about anyone either to their face or behind their back. You can’t hint to your employees that they may get fired if they don’t work harder. You can’t show greater attraction for a beautiful, fit person than for an ugly, sickly one. In other words, you had better be an absolute saint or you will be prosecuted as a criminal.

To add to the insanity, anti-bullying laws don’t hold the bully responsible for the bullying. It holds the school and the employer responsible! If you’re my boss and I don’t like the way my colleagues treat me, I don’t sue them. I sue you! What a brilliantly moral law! (Read The Insanity of Workplace Anti-Bullying Laws and The Insanity of School Anti-Bullying Laws.)

If we wish to have a sensible, effective and moral legal justice system, it is essential to differentiate between criminal behavior–behavior that the government will prosecute–and behavior that may be immoral but is not the business of the government. And bullying behavior is, for the most part, behavior that is legal and should be handled by the individual. Any attempt to make all bullying behavior illegal will lead to more harm than good. Which is the reason the bullying problem is growing despite the proliferation of anti-bullying laws: we are trying to do the impossible–legislate morality.

“Blaming” and “Taking responsibility”

The last dichotomy I will be discussing here is “blaming” versus “taking responsibility.”

In order for me to solve my problem, I first need to take responsibility for the problem. Blaming will not do me any good. If I blame you for my problem, it is not going to solve my problem. I will just be mad at you. I can blame myself for the problem, but it still won’t solve my problem. I’ll just be mad at myself. And I can blame “bullies” for my problem. But that, too, is not going to solve my problem. I’ll just join in the international hate-fest against bullies.

In order to solve my problem I first need to take responsibility for the problem. But how can I possibly take responsibility if I have no way of knowing what I am doing wrong?

Taking responsibility for a problem does not necessarily mean that I created the problem. What it does mean is that I am the one in a position to solve it. If I own a house and it snows, it is my responsibility to shovel the sidewalk. It doesn’t mean that I made it snow.

Let’s say I was raised by abusive parents, and as a result I have developed emotional problems. If I want to become free of my emotional problems, I must take responsibility for them. My parents can’t be held responsible. They couldn’t solve my problems even if they wanted to. And if they get punished for the damage they caused me, I may enjoy the satisfaction of getting revenge, but my emotional problems will continue. Society at large can’t solve my problems for me, either. How can others rid me of my emotional difficulties? Only I have the power to do that.

There is no such thing as living a life in which everyone is always nice to us. That pleasure is reserved for Heaven. One of the basic tasks of life is learning how to deal with difficulties. The knowledge of how to deal with life’s problems is called wisdom. You can’t be a fool and expect to be happy and successful. And the belief that we are entitled to life in which no one bullies us is the epitome of foolishness.

If you come to me for help because people are bullying you, how relieved will you feel if I tell you: “Don’t worry, I will solve your problem for you. I am going to change society! I am going to fight for anti-bullying laws so that no one will be allowed to be mean to anyone anymore! Then you will stop being bullied!”? How many decades will you be willing to wait until this Utopian society is created?

The truth is, the only person who can reliably get people to stop bullying you is you. It doesn’t mean that you made the bullying start. But you need to learn how you are unwittingly encouraging your bullies to continue harassing you, and you need to learn how to make them stop.

As Abraham Lincoln said, “You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.” And dealing with bullying is something we could and should do for ourselves. We just need to acquire the wisdom of how to do it.

And that’s what I do. I get people to take responsibility for their problems and teach them how to stop being victimized. And for this I get accused of “blaming victims.”

My own accusation

I will conclude with an accusation of my own. The reason society is failing to solve the bullying problem is not because people like me “blame victims.” It is because our social scientists are so terrified of being accused of blaming victims that they don’t dare hold victims responsible for solving their problem. Thus, they reject the only approach that works. Instead, they all blame bullies, and all you can ultimately achieve by blaming bullies is an intensification of bullying.

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