Why We Blame the Victim, and Why We Have To Stop: a Perspective from a Historian

Mikki headshot

Dr Michelle Brock is an Assistant Professor of History at Washington and Lee University, specialising in British History. In this guest post, Mikki examines the culture of ‘victim blaming’ that has been reinvigorated in the United States over the past six months, from the perspective of an early-modernist who researches belief and the Devil.

From the decisions not to indict the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner to the disturbing Rolling Stone article on a brutal gang rape at UVA, this country has produced a harrowing month of news. The reaction of much of the American public to these stories has been as distressing as their content. Many have turned not to self-searching or activism, but to stereotype and judgement. They rush to point out that Brown and Garner had, after all, committed crimes, drawing on centuries-old racial tropes to point out their size or comment that they were acting like “thugs” with “bad attitudes.” When they hear about the epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses across the country, they question the victim’s dress, behaviour, and alcohol consumption, wondering if not explicitly saying that she might have been “asking for it.” In short, we are a country that blames the victims.

Wolfram Burner (Flickr)

Wolfram Burner (Flickr)

As a professor of history, I am struck by the fact that not once has one of my students ever blamed the victim of a historical injustice. In my course on the so-called Age of the Witch-hunts, for example, we speak at length about those tried and executed for the alleged crime of witchcraft. This is an immensely complicated topic, the subject of many hundreds of books and articles, but here is the gist: between 1450 and 1750, at least 100,000 individuals, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft in Europe and North America. Of these, roughly half met their demise at the stake or in the noose. They died for an imagined crime, centred on the idea that to gain magical powers, witches entered into a demonic pact with Satan, surrendered their souls, and vowed to do his evil bidding. These beliefs crystalised in an age of religious and political turmoil and collided dramatically with key developments in criminal law and regional social tensions. The result was a nearly 300-year period of witch-hunting that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people.

When I teach about this, my students and I discuss the fact that in most places, the majority of those accused of diabolical witchcraft occupied weak and marginalized positions in their respective societies. Roughly 80% of them were women, many older and some widowed, all living within a decidedly patriarchal world. Others were destitute, barely scraping by on the charity of their neighbours. Some had attracted the suspicion of the local community by behaving erratically, living in unconventional seclusion, or failing to attend mass. Still others flouted church and state laws by providing healing services to their villages, thus performing magical practices deemed illegal and demonic by the authorities.

NB witch-hunt

Woodcut depiction from the trial of Agnes Sampson in 1591, Scotland

In discussing the victims of witchcraft accusations, not one of my students has ever raised his or her hand and said “well, since she was selling potions, skipping church, and therefore breaking the law, the woman was asking to be burned alive.” Not one student has suggested that the clothing or conduct of a supposed witch merited their arrest and execution. Not one student, upon learning that some of the accused did resist arrest and even assault members of law enforcement, has insinuated that they deserved to be tortured and killed. Instead, my students are appalled by the historical injustice illustrated by their readings. More often than not, I end up asking them refrain from labelling pre-modern authorities barbaric or ignorant in hopes that they will seek to understand, rather than to anachronistically (and sometimes ironically) judge, societies of the past.

Why are we willing to offer to victims of past injustice our empathy, solidarity, and benefit of the doubt, while jumping to stigmatise and even demonise the vulnerable and oppressed in our own society? It is easier, of course, to see from a dispassionate distance the systemic prejudices, blunders, untruths, and crimes of history. That is not our world. Those are not our ideas, our choices, or our people. We can feel smug in our own modernity, collectively viewing ourselves as enlightened and above such injustices.

But of course, we are not. We want to believe we are, and we should strive to be. Yet when we fault young women for short skirts or drunken antics, when we automatically criminalize black men, calling them thugs and even demons, when we label the poor as indolent or reckless, we fail to assume responsibility. We pretend these people aren’t victims of injustice. We take the easy road by deluding ourselves into believing that the fault lay with them, not us. If only they were smarter, less physically intimidating, more sober, less lazy, chaster, or more compliant. It’s not us, it’s them.

To stop blaming the victims and to critically examine our own society, in the way we teach our students to grapple with the messy and often horrifying complexities of the past, is a much more difficult, and much more imperative, task. Because in doing so, we are ourselves implicated. The entitlement and hypersexualisation of women that leads to rape culture—these are our attitudes. The implicit and explicit biases in policing and the justice system that allow a cop who chokes a man to death to walk free— these are our biases. When we seriously ask why unarmed black men keep dying, why women keep being sexually assaulted, and why the inequality gap is ever widening, we cannot extricate ourselves from the answer. We are the cause, and we can be the solution.

As a society, we must collectively accept that this is our problem, remove the burden from the already encumbered, and ask the hard questions and listen to the answers, always looking in the mirror when we do so. This is the only path to healing. Critical, painstaking, comprehensive analysis is the only way we learn from the past, and it is the only way we can avoid moving blindly and blithely into the future. But before we can begin to change, we must start by giving the victims of present injustice the same dignity, empathy, and benefit of the doubt that we so easily afford those who lived and died centuries ago.

Dr Michelle D. Brock


‘A special thanks to the students in my Age of the Witch-hunts class, whose careful and compassionate insights this semester have helped me think further about the discrepancies in how we treat victims of injustices past and present.’ – MB