Day 10: Listen and Believe

Certain favorite bloggers of mine have taken up the assignment of blogging 31 days in a row (#write31days), and in an attempt to re-galvanize my own writing, I decided to join in the fun. The idea behind this particular blog-a-thon is to be as real and vulnerable as possible, which is (almost) always a healthy exercise. I've tried blogging marathons in the past (to varying degrees of success), and my seminary schedule does not allow for much flexibility. so the process may be fitful or short-lived, but it couldn't hurt to try!

Day 10: Listen and Believe

So there's this thing called victim blaming. And it's not great.

Victim blaming is when something awful happens, when somebody hurts somebody else, and instead of holding the perpetrator responsible for his or her actions, people pass judgment on how the victim should have behaved differently in order to avoid being victimized in the first place. He/she/they oughtn't have worn that skirt, had so much to drink, stayed online, walked through that part of town.

I'll bet the language sounds familiar; it happens all the flipping time. And I'd wager some of you even fail see the problem with this line of thinking.

Here, let me help you out:

When someone gets assaulted/raped/bullied/victimized, it has nothing to do with the victim's actions/motivations/thoughts/past behavior. It has everything to do with the bully/rapist/perpetrator and his or her inability to behave like a human.

Unfortunately, devastatingly, this victim-blaming mentality is not merely prevalent but ubiquitous in public discussion surrounding tragedies, particularly those involving sexual assault or bullying/harassment. For whatever asinine reason, young women are regularly asked to shoulder responsibility for their own assaults, because they should know better than to, say, attend a party, wear this or that article of clothing, have a drink. They were "asking for it."

No, actually, they weren't.

Partying, drinking, wearing clothes, these things are not, I repeat not tantamount to asking to be raped.

Rape happens because rapists choose to rape. They shoulder all blame for their heinous actions.

Further, think of the child who is constantly harassed by his/her peers on the bus to school each morning. How often is this child advised to simply "stop reacting"? "Don't let him[her] get to you." Well-meaning adults, attempting to provide sound wisdom unwittingly wind up saddling bullied children with some dimension of responsibility for their being bullied.

The presupposition within this line of thinking seems to be that bullying and assault are inevitable (they are not), so we must train the rest of the world to accommodate for such behavior (we must certainly not). Instead of addressing the root issues head on, by, say, confronting the bullies, reporting their behavior to the authorities, or training young men not to rape, we take such wickedness for granted and demand potential victims shape their lives around avoiding victimhood. This approach treats a symptom (or attempts to) while the sickness beneath rages on, which would be innocuous enough if not for the side effects of said treatment: shame, isolation and promotion of unnecessary fear in victims.

So how do we handle when those who have been hurt approach us to share their experiences?

Two words: Listen, and believe.

Before we go any further, I must admit I'm borrowing this paradigm from feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian. Her work centers on critiquing popular media, most recently video games, in order to highlight and hopefully work against harmful portrayals of women in our entertainment. Being a feminist critic, she is aware of the prevalence of victim blaming (we have feminist scholars to thank for bringing the issue to our attention in the first place), and being a woman in the public sphere, she has received a heartbreaking amount of vicious, gendered harassment. So when she asserts that the rest of us can help victims by listening to them (rather than speaking over them or making assumptions regarding their experiences), and believing their accounts (rather than second-guessing or dismissing them), she speaks with authority.

Listen and believe.

It doesn't sound so hard.

But it is, because it would require something of us.

It would require us to take as true the accounts of women (and men, but mostly women) who tell us about the gendered harassment they receive on a regular basis.

But we don't want to live in a world where sexism or bullying are real issues. So we pretend they aren't. Some of us, however, do not have that luxury.

Some of us have been victimized. Not playing the victim. Not seeking attention. They have actually been victimized by real bullies, by real rapists.

This kind of stuff doesn't have to happen. It is not a given, not a necessary part of human life.

It is born of sin, and sin is a contingent, not necessary, part of human nature. This is evidenced by Christ, who was fully human, yet without sin. When we take these things for granted, we surrender to the world as it is, rather than the Kingdom-come reality for which Jesus commanded us to pray.

I am hesitant to even mention any "religious" dimension to this conversation, because the church has so utterly botched its handling of issues like this far too many times. Abuse scandals within churches are rampant and as a result, Christians are seen as unsafe to victims. It is a failure on the part of God's people to live in the world as God's hands and feet. But I bring it up, I mention the church, because I am a part of it, and I believe in it, and I know we can do better. For those who do not identify with this theology, I mean no slight against you. But for those who do profess Christ, I call you to action. I call you to stand with victims and the abused, as did our Lord and model for faith and conduct, Jesus Christ.

So let us not put pressure on those who have been sinned against to prevent these things from happening. Let us hold responsible those actually responsible. Or may God hold us in judgment for our failure to do so.


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