Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Blaming the victim

[UPDATE 13:50 BST: The post below was written before the Metro changed their awful headline. It seems to have happened about an hour ago, judging from the comments on Feministe. I'm glad. I just wish that the bigotry behind it was as easily redacted]

I wasn't going to blog on the incomprehensible murders at Virginia Tech, or at least not yet. In a week or so I planned to review the posts on the various academic blogs that I look at [1]. After all, what do academics manufacture, if not understanding? Maybe between them all they could explain why what had happened, happened. But my hand has been tipped by two emails I received today.

I know that 1,000 times this number of people are killed in the US by guns each year. Each one of those deaths is a tragedy. How many of those deaths would still have occurred, had the gun not been readily available? I suspect it's much fewer. I honestly don't know.

Why do I personally find these thirty-some deaths so shocking? Because they happened on a university campus. I still have a naive hope that university campuses are places that young people go to discover life, widen their boundaries, and learn responsibility. When it turns out that all is not well in the Ivory Tower, it feels like the carriage I'm in just gave a sickening lurch.

I am incensed, if there is any truth to the reports, that the teachers of the young man responsible were ignored when they voiced their concerns.

The reason I'm blogging now is this: I received, one after the other, two emails that dealt with the aftermath of the incident. The first one was a press roundup, that covered how the shooting had been dealt with in the British media. Our tabloids have a penchant for the scarlet lady, the vile temptress, the fallen woman [2]. It seems they've found another one. The most nauseating of their endless, masturbatory speculation seems to have fixated on the young woman who was the first victim. Headlines include this from the Metro - a paper so bad they give it away for free:

Face of the Girl who Lead to Massacre


I'm physically shaking as I type this. I am so damn angry. This is but one headline, typical of the tabloid press today, particularly those owned by the D**ly M*il. The sneering implication behind all of them is that this "vibrant girl with an engaging personality" had brought this horror down on all the victims, by rejecting the romantic/sexual advances of the murderer. This is the overwhelming message spun by the our gutter press in the UK.

I'm appalled. I'm ashamed.


On to the second email. It was left to a (male) cartoonist to describe, so insightfully, the feeling of many young women on campus:

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?n=850
(Image copyright Jorge Cham.)

I remember my own undergrad days with more clarity now. I was lucky - I've always been defensive and prickly. Those female friends of mine who made the mistake of being "vibrant girls with engaging personalities" ended up in some awful situations. I know at least one victim of rape, and two who had to endure months of terrifying and sometimes violent stalking. I'm reminded too of the Ecole Polytechnique gynocyde [3] in 1989. I'm forced to confront the fact that my naive view of the halcyon days of campus life are far removed from the truth for many students. Blaming the victims is sick.


[1] There is a useful roundup already on Cognitive Daily.

[2] q.v the current treatment of Heather Mills-McCartney, and Princess Di, pre-sainthood.

[3] "[The gunman] asked the women whether they knew why they were there, and when one student replied “no,” he answered: 'I am fighting feminism... You're women, you're going to be engineers. You're all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.' Lépine then opened fire on the students from left to right, killing six and wounding three others." From Wikipedia

18 comments:

Martin Sewell said...

Cho Seung-hui was the ultimate low status man, and nobody cares about low status men. The media, like the rest of society, will always prefer an excuse to focus on high status men or women in general (especially if they're young and photogenic). This was evident during the Iranian seizure of Royal Navy personnel and the reporting of the female British soldiers killed in Iraq. Men at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy feel excluded from society, and the results can be tragic.

Auntie Em said...

Many people feel excluded. Not many kill.

Auntie Em said...

Reading your post again I realise it's even more off base than your usual baseless rants on this subject. The subject of the post is blaming the victim. It was not about why killers kill - but as you've stepped onto this ground:

As to the killer being "the ultimate low status man" - for heaven's sake - he was doing a master's degree in english lit. I know middle class means something different in the US, but in UK terms that's as middle class as you can get. It denotes a certain amount of money and the ability to take a year out of employment to persue a "pure" (rather than vocational) discipline. This is not the badge of a lack of privilege.

As to him being ignored - simply not so. His departmental head considered his behaviour so worrying that she chose to teach him herself rather than expose her department to his behaviour (photographing women from under their desks, stalking and harassing female students...). As a result of his antisocial behaviour he had private tuition from a world renouned author in her field. That's not neglect. That's a professor going above and beyond to try to reach out to a dangerous and unbalanced person.

The people who were ignored by society were the victims of his prior stalking and harrassment. The people who were ignored were his professors who witnessed, and compained about, his behaviour and received no institutional support.

If these people hadn't been ignored, this by no means underprivileged man would have been less likely to carry his unbalanced behaviour so far and kill so many - men and women.

Think before you post.

Martin Sewell said...

Despite dodgy headlines, I don't think the press either believe or want their readers to believe that the victims were personally to blame for the tragedy, my point was that the press need little excuse to focus on a pretty girl rather than a male "loser".

I should have defined my terms. Status is equivalent to 'rank' in the male dominance hierarchy, so 'status' would be defined by dominance-submission signalling between males. He was the ultimate low status man.

Most certainly he was ignored, and would have been essentially invisible to females. Low status men are subject to inherent prejudice in social systems through 'cheater detection mechanisms'.

Auntie Em said...

"Most certainly he was ignored, and would have been essentially invisible to females."

"Men at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy feel excluded from society, and the results can be tragic."

What exactly is it you're trying to say here?

Martin Sewell said...

Explanation of first quote: He couldn't get any sex.

Explanation of second quote: Neither men nor women have time for low status men.

Hypothesis: We have evolved in such a way that our motivational set dictates that everything we do is either reproduction or instrumental to it. Although the most fundamental (distal) motivation is to reproduce, we are only aware of the proximal motivation which is to have sex. Women and high status men ensure that all societies are set up with a primary goal of preventing the majority of males from expressing their sexuality in anything but a minimal way. The upshot of this is that the lowest status men will have great difficulty in accessing the only thing in life that they really want: sex. It is for this reason that the small number of unstable men who stalk women tend to fit the stereotype of a shy loner like Cho Seung-hui.

Auntie Em said...

Fact - the majority of sexual violence is not perpetrated by "unstable loners". It is perpetrated by those close to the victim.

Your argument is based on the hypothesis that you keep asserting here and elsehwere - in the face of the evidence - that the underlying motivation for all human behaviour is, for men, to have sex with as many women as possible and, for women, to "save" themselves for "powerful" men.

Your hypothesis is easily refuted, in that it does not explain career women, full time dads or for that matter homosexuality. Either you're arguing that for some reason these types of people arent "really" men and women, or you're arguing that they aren't "data".

So you're still not making any sense to me. On this particular subject - violence by men against women - you seem to be arguing that all "thwarted" men will be motivated to rape. If so, doesn't that put you rather firmly in the camp of the separatist feminists that you claim to despise?

Until you can explain why your "universal" law doesn't hold for large numbers of real people, and until you can say clearly what your hypothesis means with respect to this case and sexually/gender motivated violence, you have nothing of interest to contribute on this subject.

Martin Sewell said...

"A Purdue University communication expert says incivility is on the rise because people are lonely from lacking the basic relationships and friendships that are essential to human beings."
ScienceDaily: Professor Isolates Roots Of Some Violence

Auntie Em said...

I have deleted the penultimate post from Martin Sewell because it perpetrated the same baseless myths touted by him elsewhere in the comments here. I refuse to "host" ridiculous distortions of the statistics on domestic violence, and the current state of knowledge about sexual offences. For example:

"No normal man is motivated to harm a woman and most domestic violence is initiated by women."

This such a shocking corruption of the data available as to be laughable.

From Amnesty international:

* 81% of all reported victims of domestic violence were women.

* Women experienced on average 35 incidences of domestic violence before going to the police.

* 104 women per year are killed in domestic violence incidents.

In the handful of cases where men are killed by female parners there is, overwhelmingly, a history of spousal abuse against that partner. That's not to say there aren't some nasty women out there. But a society in which women have less economic independence and are socialised into being compliant and submissive is a society which sets up these women for victimhood.

Martin - I welcome dialectic. I welcome debate. But you refuse to engage in honest broking by making up your own "facts". Please stop posting here.

Sorry to other readers that this has become so heavy handed. Anyone who is prepared to abide by the rules of honest debate is welcome.

Martin Sewell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Quotes from the British Crime Survey http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs07/hosb0207.pdf pg 56, 2005/06 data

From my interpretation of the data women do seem to be much more vulnerable than men to all types of intimate crime particularly to sexual abuse. And I know of no reputable survey which measures the '*initiation* of the domestic violence'

Prevalence of intimate violence since the age of 16

Sexual assault women 24%, men 4%....family abuse(non sexual) women 12%, men 9%...stalking women 23%, men 12%...(but in the last year...women 9%, men 7%)...multiple victimization women 48%, men 33%.....

Relationship of victim-offender
Women: less serious sexual assault known 53%, stranger 63%, but serious sexual assault known 94%, stranger, 11%

"Women were more likely to have experienced all types of intimate violence than men, although
the difference was less marked in relation to prevalence of family abuse (Figure 3.1, Table 3.1). "

Family abuse includes
abuse, sexual assault and stalking by a family member.

Auntie Em said...

Thanks for the summary of the BCS Anon. The drop in stalking figures is interesting: i guess that stalking laws are either a) working or b) making it less likely that stalking behaviour is reported as such. Any idea which it is?

Anonymous said...

I am not an expert on this survey but it should be noted that this is not a time series. The since age 16 reflects the lifetime experience of the interviewee compared to the in the last year. So the lifetime victimization may differ from the current situation and responses - for example in the case of multiple victimization - over a liftime yes, but in the last year may only be a victim of one type of violence. It is found that married women have lower odds of stalking than all other groups of women.

Anonymous said...

stalking is often connected with the end of a relationship so that could explain the greater propensity over a lifetime as an individual has had more time to fall into these categories of separated etc.

Auntie Em said...

Ah - my apologies - I misconstrued the meaning of "in the last year" - having looked at the table i see what you mean.

Thanks again for the link (assuming you're the same anon!)

Auntie Em said...

This comment is in response to the discussion over at on this topic. One of the commenters (NowhereMan) has "blogrolled" me, and others, on the subject of the use of language and how we get "blaming the victim" from the headline "The Face of the Girl who Sparked the Massacre". I posted this there too - but it's not shown up yet. So in the meantime - if you came here from there - here's my response:


Hi - I'm Auntie Em of the
House of Cookies. Just to save you dragging yourself all the way over to my place (where you would be most welcome, and get a civil response) I thought I'd shove my twopennorth in here.

Yeah semantics - it's a tricky business. In my 'previous life' I was postdoctoral analyst using semiformal logics to examine the use of language in policy making, so I know about the grounded theory paradigm and the need for intercoder reliability when analysing text. Did I bother about these things when I wrote my post? No - I wrote it from the viscera.

But as NowhereMan says - Alex didn't invent this idea alone. So there's a high degree of intercoder reliability right there when it comes to "coding" that headline and others like it as victim blaming.

Aha - you may say - but we're all from the feminist paradigm. Surely we need to unpack our biases.

You're right. This wasn't academic work. This wasn't rigorous social science. This was the visceral reaction of folks who were sick of the fact that one of the dominant narratives that emerges after events of this kind is that of the femme fatale, the scarlet lady, the girl who done him wrong.

Hold up! you say - you get all that from "sparked"? Does sparked really carry connotations of blame?

So let's do what the OED does - let's look at how sparked is used in 'print':

Arab racist sparked riot in Antwerp, say Belgians (UK Telegraph)

English thugs sparked riot (UK Mirror)

Fatal Police Beating Sparked Riot Sydney Morning Herald

Dino-killing asteroid sparked global fires CNN

Police on trial for killing that sparked 'orange revolution' UK Independent.

So the subjects of the verb "sparked" are:
A racist

Some thugs

Police who beat someone to death

A "dino killing asteroid"

More police who kill

From my perspective at least - these subjects are "value laden", in that they are doubly blamed. They perpetrated some dreadful act (being a thug, killing the dinosaurs...) that then caused some dreadful repercussions.

Keep in mind that these were not cherry picked examples - they were the top hits when searching Google for headlines containing sparked that weren't about VT.

Perhaps it's now more apparent that this parsing of the headline as blaming the victim was not a huge stretch for many of those reading the article. "Sparked" does imply at least shared blame in those headlines mentioned above.

With apologies to Emily's friend, to whom my heart goes out, there's a linguistic point I feel obliged to make. Try inserting Emily's name in that list of "subjects" above (Racist, Thug, Killer). Sits well? If you say no, then that's a good indication that "sparked" was the wrong word, with the wrong connotations, to use in this context.

Alex said...

This is Alex from the Juxtafeminist Café. I just wanted to say thank you for you post over at the site (I am a fan of yours, so on a personal level I must admit I was a bit giddy). I wanted to thank you for clarifying and simplifying the V-Tech post for some of our commenters. We are new and relatively unknown outside of our own college community, so fielding some unexpected traffic was interesting. I should have known better, but that revelation has only precipitated to my consciousness in hindsight. Basically, I think you wrapped it up beautifully.

I would also like to apologize for your comment to be stuck in moderation for so long. We have been getting spammed by wh1te pr1de groups and the general homophobic, MRA and pro-life communities, that going through it, especially during finals week, has been tedious.

Martin Sewell said...

In partner violence, physically violent men are far more deviant than physically violent women (Magdol, et al., 1997). Within western heterosexual partnerships, women are slightly more likely than men to use one or more act of physical aggression (Archer, 2000).

ARCHER, John, 2000. Sex differences in aggression between heterosexual partners: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 126(5), 651–680.
MAGDOL, Lynn, et al., 1997. Gender Differences in Partner Violence in a Birth Cohort of 21-Year-Olds: Bridging the Gap Between Clinical and Epidemiological Approaches. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(1), 68–78.

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