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Blaming the Victim

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As Media Matters reported, a slew of right wing pundits, including Neal Boortz and Michelle Malkin, have stooped so low as to blame the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre, for their own deaths. Safely from their TV studios, they decried the lack of courage these college students demonstrated in the face of an enraged, mentally ill gunman - Why didn't these college kids just storm the gunman? Piece of cake!

It is, of course, a ridiculous question. But besides extreme insensitivity, these pundits were demonstrating a
social psychological defense mechanism known to researchers in the field of social cognition. On the one hand, people who “blame the victim” are trying to defend the comforting concept that we live in a “just world.” Even the most cynical of us needs some degree belief in the “Just World Hypothesis,“ in order to go through life. On the other hand, they’re defending their sense of their control over their environment, another survival skill. Thus, by blaming the victims, those not party to the crime can control their own sense of vulnerability. In other words, by convincing themselves that they would have stormed the mass murderer (yeah, right), they can assure themselves that they could never be so victimized.

It's ironic to recall that the same accusation was hurled at the Jewish victims of the Holocaust - they were
accused of being too passive, in the face of the huge, efficient machine erected by the Nazis. It is doubly ironic that a hero of the Virginia Tech story was himself, a Holocaust survivor, who died - as Keith Olbermann pointed out - on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

(It almost goes without saying that rape victims have also been blamed for their victimization - though that dynamic has additional baggage associated with it, due to the bizarre, cross-cultural tendency to assign women responsibility for men’s sexual behavior.)

However, this psychological defense mechanism does not explain why this absurd response to Virginia Tech is so concentrated on the Right. George Lakoff pointed out the association of conservatism with the “Strict Father” view of the ideal family, where discipline and self reliance reign supreme. Lately, however, it seems the continued obsession by the Right with machismo, and homophobia, has exceeded even Lakoff‘s scenario. The unrelenting drumbeat of “Sissy!” -if only by implication - would be comical, if it were not being used on matters of life and death, such as the Iraq occupation. From Ann Coulter’s calling John Edwards a “f*ggot,” to Bush and Cheney accusing critics as not having the “stomach” or “resolve” to finish the job, to Tucker Carlson’s reference to Senator Clinton as “castrating” (though he never seems to call her Senator); this obsession needs to be challenged.

After all, is the world suffering from a lack of testosterone? Is there a shortage of heterosexuals? Are we all suffering from an overdose of empathy?

This obsession constitutes a set of values, that have led to many of the problems that plague us today. For instance, from a macho point of view, it’s so much more satisfying to engage in acts of violence and war, than to engage in diplomacy and long-range foreign policy strategy. It provides a better sense of ego gratification to execute convicted criminals than to advocate gun control. And it’s so much easier to fill our prisons, than to work toward improving education and health care, and support parenting and child care. But then, that wouldn’t be the macho thing to do.

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Amy Fried is the author of "Escaping Dick Cheney's Stomach." She received her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior, and has been an advocate for church-state separation and other civil liberties issues. She writes on women's issues, media, veganism (more...)

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