One of the weirder habits our society has picked up is the tendency to blame people when shitty things happen to them. A man gets shot and killed? Well, it's probably his fault for stealing cigars. A really young kid gets shot? Well, he shouldn't have been playing with that toy gun. Not to mention the fact that every conversation about sexual assault comes down to whether the victim invited it with her clothing or is just outright lying.
Sure, advice like "don't dress slutty" and "don't be outside while black" might seem at first glance like it's coming from a place of good intentions, but it is weird if you think about it for half a second. If someone gets hit by a car, you don't shake your head and mutter, "Why does anyone ever go in the street? If everyone stayed curled in the fetal position under their bed all the time, like I do, we'd all be safe."
Except ... we kinda do.
Sometimes the only difference between victim blaming and vigilantism is your dedication to the cause. The thing is, we take pleasure in other people's suffering all the time, and we're never going to stop, because ...
#5. We All Secretly Believe That People Deserve Their Suffering
One of humanity's strongest urges is to solve problems, right? God, I hope so, because that's the least misanthropic thing I'm going to say in this article. The drive to make the world a just and fair place has motivated us to invent cities, penicillin, and insert-soles for our shoes so you can wear trendy sneakers without sacrificing arch support. The trouble is, when we find out that we can't fix a problem, our overwhelming impulse is to decide that it's probably just fine the way it is.
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It's known as the "fuck it" instinct, and it's why you're assuming this kid is over 21.
Studies have found that if someone shows you another person's suffering (say, they put a stranger behind a glass wall and start electrocuting them repeatedly while laughing like a hyena) you'll generally try to help, because deep down you're pretty all right, just like you always thought. But if they tell you that there's nothing you can do to stop it, you'll immediately start coming up with reasons why the person deserves that kinky electro-torture. The harder Joe Stranger gets zapped, the shittier a person you imagine him to be. Any time your human nature objects, your brain will just smile and ask, "If this guy's so nice, why are these scientists zapping him? Ha! Didn't think of that, did you, human nature?"
It's really easy to see why this happens. Most people feel a kinship with the rest of humanity and want things to be good for them. They also see themselves as not-selfish, not-shitty, not-demon-fuckers, who would step up and be a hero if the world asked them to. But when the world actually goes to shit and that "I should do something!" urge starts up in your chest ... well, it's easier to convince yourself that the world isn't that bad than it is to go protest on the street. Right? This is why, right now, with cops killing black people for little to no reason being the biggest subject in the news, white people are more confident than ever that cops in their neighborhood treat black people fairly. See? Their neighborhood is fine! Their cops would kill someone only if it was absolutely justified. The news never gives them the complete story, so they're filling in the blanks as best they see fit.
And why don't they get the whole story from the news? Because ...
#4. News Reports Need to Be Very Simple Stories
Soooooo "news" is really just topical entertainment these days, right? I'm not trying to be sardonic or cynical; that's really what it is. If you read Cracked regularly, you know that David Bell has been chronicling B.S. news stories that go viral -- and those archives aren't just a list of details that some people got wrong or odd tabloid pieces; it's every hot issue, every month, from every source. The New York Daily News is a frequent peddler of B.S., and they've won multiple Pulitzers. Somewhere between the "good old days" and whatever right now is, the news stopped being about public duty and informing people and became about telling the most interesting story and harvesting the most clicks. Because clicks are cash, and cash buys sports cars. So to get those clicks, the news can't just tell you what's happening -- they have to tell a story. This isn't just sensationalism, this is building a narrative that's "based on a true story" the same way In the Heart of the Sea will be.
The working title was No Seriously, It Was This Big.
Take, as a totally random example, the fairly big recent trend of cops gunning down innocent black people in broad daylight on camera and not facing any kind of retribution whatsoever. Just doing a little bit of digging reveals that this isn't a new issue at all. Unambiguously innocent black folks are killed by police officers all the time, especially in poor neighborhoods and inner cities. Just two years ago a black Marine veteran was killed by police who were responding to his call for medical help, which astute readers will note is the objective opposite of their job description.
But the big story that captured national attention is one that we found a way to make controversial: right after Michael Brown was shot, one of the biggest parts of the story that was told was about whether or not he stole cigars -- but, as we noted before, that question is utterly meaningless. That didn't stop it from becoming one of the most obsessed-over details of the story. If he's guilty of the crime, then him being shot makes sense, right? That's how justice works: Good Guy fights Bad Guy, Good Guy wins.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Other times, it's a synecdoche for all our repressed
racist assumptions about black teenagers.
It seems like the more sensitive the subject, the more we want to blame people for bringing it up. Rolling Stone's UVA gang-rape story was big news when they released it, sure, but it became an unstoppable monster once people had an excuse to disbelieve some of the alleged victim's story. See, "a woman lied" is a better concept than "a massive institution enables sexual assault on a huge scale," because in the former case we actually have the opportunity to punish the victim.
But I think the most telling example is when CNN's Don Lemon asked one of Bill Cosby's alleged victims, Joan Tarshis, why she didn't just bite him, which is the kind of YouTube clip that makes you compulsively scroll down to read the comments and hide from the contagious discomfort. His excuse was that he didn't mean to blame her at all, and he "had to ask" because he's just doing his job -- and I think that's 100 percent correct. As a journalist, he was just trying to distill Tarshis' story into the most easily digestible narrative syrup he possibly could. He wanted a story with a villain who laughs evilly and a heroic underdog who fights back in a way we can all understand (that is, with violence). The reality of the situation he was supposed to be reporting on -- one rife with fear and control and manipulation -- can't be forced into a soundbite unless you strip it of all context, importance, and meaning. And Lemon's job is to force these situations into soundbites. Truth is an acceptable casualty, and he's just doing his job.
But because she didn't fight back the way we expect, she's not a real victim. Which means she has to be the villain. Because those are the only two options. And if that doesn't make the stakes high enough, keep in mind that ...
#3. Each Story Is Every Story
Overall, people are reasonably sharp. When they're looking for patterns, they understand that anecdotal evidence doesn't mean anything, and that we need to talk about broad studies and statistics and -- wait, shit, didn't Mark Twain have something to say on the subject of statistics?
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"... about statistics."
With all due respect to whoever Twain was, isolated incidents are way more misleading than statistics. If you're going to lie to someone with scientific data, you have to manipulate it, or hide parts of it, or change the context. If you're going to mislead someone with an anecdote, all you have to do is ... tell them about it. Because our brains think single incidents matter more than broad trends. Impossibly, a story with a single strange story name seems a thousand times as "real" as a million real stories without names. It becomes how we remember history. That one name becomes a stand-in for everyone else with a similar experience.
What this means is that, according to our brains, there are no single incidents. Everything that happens is every other thing like it that has ever happened in history. We're never just arguing about whether one kid deserved to be killed in the street or one woman was lying about her assault; it's an argument about whether every kid deserves to be shot dead or every woman is lying about everything they've ever said. This is why last year, after a woman retracted her allegation that Conor Oberst (from the band Bright Eyes) had assaulted her, a big concern was that this would discredit future assault victims' testimonies. That's why after Rolling Stone retracted the UVA story everyone was worried that we'd use it as an excuse to stop believing rape allegations -- and everyone was right.
"But maybe some of us side with the victim!" you might say. Well, sure -- some of us do that. But the problem is that we're not very good at it, because ...