Half-Hearted Disclaimers

Is there a name for the half-hearted disclaimer attached to victim-blaming essays — the disavowal at the end of an argument implying that a dead or raped person had it coming? There should be.

Rod Dreher — whose writing I generally find compelling, interesting, and often beautiful — recently offered a standard example of such a disclaimer in his post titled “Tips for Not Getting Shot by Cops.” Responding to Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Dreher argues that if Brown hadn’t been a rude, bullying thief, he would still be alive today. Note that Dreher does not focus on the shooting itself — the circumstances that would justify or condemn the shooting in court. His tips have nothing to do with whether or how Brown attacked Darren Wilson. Instead, he focuses on Brown’s history as a trouble-maker, his theft and aggression earlier in the day, and his allegedly defiant attitude towards Officer Wilson. In keeping with the dictates of the genre, Dreher finishes his post with a disclaimer: “None of this means that Wilson was justified in using deadly force against Brown.” We need a good name for that kind of disclaimer — the one where an author unconvincingly denies the very thing he spent a great deal of time implicitly arguing.

Every time an unarmed young black man or youth gets shot by police (or a neighborhood watchman), there’s a frenzy to unearth every crime he’s committed, every mistake he’s made, every instance of aggression or rudeness, whether in person or through social media. And tagged onto the end of each of these lists of failings is the half-hearted disclaimer: “Of course, none of that justifies…”

The victim-blaming genre doesn’t just apply to dead young black men. Young women who are raped or murdered often undergo the same treatment, with each mistake or character flaw duly noted until a list of indictments has been compiled. Take conservative hack Debbie Schlussel’s response to a recent abduction and murder here in Charlottesville: “Not that I excuse any crime or violence, but if you walk around alone and drunk in half a shirt at night, this kind of thing does happen.”

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Here’s the deal: If Michael Brown attacked Wilson as Wilson describes (or at least in a similar manner), and if he was shot while charging at Wilson, then the shooting was justifiable, though still a tragedy. If witness Darian Johnson’s version of events — Brown on the defensive, surrendering when shot — is closer to reality, than it wasn’t justified. And that’s it.

All this sound and fury about him being a thief and a bully and a rude and foolish person — all of it is a distraction that serves no purpose except to suggest on the sly that winding up dead is the proper outcome of such character flaws. It implies that there’s an obvious progression from simple theft, bullying, and rudeness to getting shot by a cop — that the latter constitutes a proportionate response to the former. It justifies the frenzied unearthing of personal mistakes invariably used to portray the dead as somehow deserving of their fate due to their flaws and failings. The implicit message is not one of mourning for the death of one of God’s children. Instead, the message is good riddance.

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The genre responds to other narratives at work. The shooting of Michael Brown has been overtaken by and enveloped in the events that followed — in the perceived sluggishness of the police department’s investigation, in the protests and the subsequent militaristic police response, in the overarching narrative of structural racism in America. Thus, Michael Brown ceases to be simply the person that he was, instead becoming the exemplar for all black victims of police abuse. Officer Wilson transforms from a human being into a type — the racist and violent cop. The death of Michael Brown has become one piece of the larger story that is #Ferguson. And to those for whom Brown becomes a rallying cry, the particulars of the case become obscured, irrelevant, or even inconvenient. From this combination, we get the perpetuation of an increasingly unconvincing portrait of Michael Brown as a “gentle giant.” It is against this narrative that Dreher reacts.

When it comes to the victimization of women, it can be difficult to distinguish which narrative responds to which. Only recently has the long-standing tendency to degrade rape victims been rightfully denounced. Victim-blaming is wrong because it shifts the focus from rapist to the victim’s flaws, and because it implies that rape amounts to a just response to foolishness, imprudence, and vice. But in media and academia, the rejection of victim-blaming now occurs on other grounds — namely, the idea that moral judgments are inherently arbitrary and oppressive. Even prudential considerations are deemed unacceptable when they risk trampling on the autonomous individual’s sovereign will. Any behavior — no matter how destructive or debauched — is acceptable, so long as it is chosen. Moreover, calling dangerous behavior dangerous is highly offensive in a society in which the greatest conceivable good is choosing. When it comes to the rape or murder of young women, the acceptable response among college administrators seems to be finding ways to reduce the consequences of bad decisions — more lighting, more cameras, more police — without ever calling for better decisions.

Schlussel and Dreher see themselves as clear-eyed prophets speaking hard truths to a soft culture. As the title of his post implies, Dreher claims that he’s not offering a justification for Brown’s shooting. “I simply want,” Dreher writes, “to say here that the behavior of Brown and Johnson on that day is a good example of What Not To Do.” Similarly, Schlussel’s “bottom line” is a P.S.A. to parents: “Teach your child to take personal responsibility for what happens to him or her.” In other words, these kind souls are not minimizing tragic deaths so much as offering sage and compassionate advice.

When it comes down to it, it’s hard to disagree with most of the “advice” offered by Dreher and even Schlussel. Don’t be a thief or a bully. Don’t be a rude idiot to anyone, police included. Don’t get drunk and wander around alone at night while scantily clad. Behaving in these ways is imprudent, stupid, and foolish.

But if you place all that foolishness on the one hand, and on the other hand you place the violent death of a young man or woman, the discordance becomes jarring. The focus is skewed. There’s great tragedy — bloody crying out from the ground — and these writers want to focus on the proper way for a polite young man or nice young lady to comport themselves in society.

What causes this misplaced focus on the victim’s flaws? Sometimes callousness or indifference is at work. In Schlussel’s case there’s a downright terrifying degree of spite for the dead and for the family of the dead. I suspect she’s chasing the notoriety and celebrity of the Ann Coulter persona.

But victim-blaming can also be a complex phenomenon. When confronted with tragedy, many of us wish to shift attention away from the inexplicable and onto a circumstance within our control. We want to put rhetorical distance between the victim and ourselves or those we hold dear. I think what’s happening is a kind of line-drawing between the good people to whom such terrible things could never happen and the not-so-good — who may not have deserved their tragic demise, but who surely would never have met it if only they had behaved better. We all would like to live in a world in which bad things only happened to bad people. Even when we intellectually know that this is not so, we wish it were. And so we shift our gaze from the terrible monstrosity — the shooting or the rape — to the person shot, the person raped. Or, rather, to their mistakes.

These responses are inhumane and uncharitable. They transform women from victims of tragedies into object lessons for the moral education of the youth. At the expense of the victim, we insulate ourselves from worry and excuse ourselves from wrestling with tragedy in any meaningful way.

Dreher’s focus on the rude and foolish behavior of Brown echoes the helpful advice of Sunil Dutta — a veteran police officer and professor of homeland security at Colorado Tech University. Dutta suggests that “if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you.” Like Dreher, Dutta would never advocate police brutality. If a police officer violates your rights, Dutta urges you first to accept your abuse calmly and meekly. “Later, you can ask for a supervisor, lodge a complaint or contact civil rights organizations if you believe your rights were violated. Feel free to sue the police!” Indeed! And you can rest assured that the abusive officer will be brought to justice! Maybe. Five years later. If you were lucky enough to catch the abuse on tape.

There’s so much more that is worth our time and effort. It seems that a new tragedy unfolds every day. With the authoritarianism and militarization of police forces everywhere, with black boys being shot for holding BB guns in parks, with young black men shot for holding BB guns in Wal-Mart, with police assaulting young black men for the terrible crime of sitting on a bench while waiting to pick up a child from preschool…. With these just being the recent and recorded instances of police brutality among so many other victims forever consigned to obscurity, unknown and anonymous to all but their grieving families and friends, Dreher chooses instead to focus on how one particular young man was a rude and foolish bully. And he follows it up with the most unconvincing of denials — a half-hearted disclaimer intended to exonerate him from the clear thrust of his own argument.


Originally published at porterperkins.blogspot.com on December 2, 2014.