Blaming the Victims 2.0

By Sara Elise Brown and Henry C. Theriault

“Blaming the victim” is a tried and true method of genocide rationalization and denial, and has been used in case after case: “The Jews” were against Germany to undermine it (by supposedly creating “Bolshevism,” for instance, they had traitorously sold Germany out in World War I, or had even declared “war” against Germany). Armenians were in revolt, or were in league with the Russians against the Ottoman Empire, or even were committing genocide against Turks and other Muslims. Rwandan Tutsis were going to commit genocide against the Hutus if they were not killed off first. Indigenous Guatemalans were in league with leftist guerrillas and communists. Bosnians were committing mass rape against Serbian women and were the military aggressors. Tasmanians were killing English settlers’ livestock. The “Indians” were warlike savages who went around scalping (an English invention, for use in Ireland, by the way) any whites they could find, kidnapping and raping European women, massacring innocent whites, and anything else colonists could think of—that is, all of the atrocities that the Europeans were committing against the Native Americans—including being soulless heathens undermining Christianity.

Just as blaming the victim is a denial tactic, it is also a frequent motivator for participation in a genocide. Part of the reason this tactic is so popular with deniers is that it resonates with the propaganda used by perpetrators to motivate participation in a genocide itself. For instance, as Rwandan genocide survivor Yannick Tona explains, one young Hutu man who was raised by his parents turned against his family as a result of extremist propaganda that blamed the Tutsis for their alleged violent and oppressive agenda against the Hutus. Similarly, by blaming the victims for their real or perceived threat, denialists go so far as to lay the blame for any acts of violence squarely on the shoulders of the victims. No longer are the victims blamed simply to rationalize violence that will be recognized as the perpetrators’, but perpetrator violence itself is recast as if perpetrated by the actual victims. Through shamelessly circular reasoning, deniers’ own victim-blaming lends credence to documents capturing the rhetoric that incited genocide in the first place, while those sources lend credence to deniers’ arguments as “historical evidence.”

The tactic is not unique to genocide and related mass violence, of course. This month we learn that a girl in Maldives who was sexually abused by her stepfather for years, a stepfather who murdered the baby she bore as a result of his rapes, has been convicted of having sex outside of marriage and will be whipped with 100 lashes (a horrifically painful and quite possibly permanently disabling torture, for those used to Hollywood glorifications of the whipping victim), while her demented torturer faces no responsibility for his inhuman brutality against a child. A recent rape in Steubenville, Ohio, is another illustration. In that case, the victim of the sexual assaults documented on video is being blamed for consuming alcohol and is, in the most predictable fashion, being castigated for prior sexual conduct.

Sartre captures the depth of such blaming in Anti-Semite and Jew. Even when the anti-Semite is confronted with a host of reasons for why “the Jew” is not the contemptible creature s/he believes and why “the Jew” is not “to blame,” the anti-Semite still maintains that there is just “something” about Jews that s/he does not like, as if his/her attitude is a reaction to an actual characteristic of “Jews” rather than evidence of a groundless and irrational prejudice. It is something about “the Jews” that causes the prejudices that victimize them, and thus “the Jews” are at fault.

As incessant as blaming the victim is, however, it has long been assumed that those committed to human rights were in struggle against the strategy. But in recent years, a disturbing new trend has emerged in genocide studies circles that has committed some scholars to academic biases that blame victims in a way that might be worse than deniers’ historical falsifications, because it preemptively attacks members of genocide victim groups. This is the new scholarship on “cycles of violence.” Scholars such as René Lemarchand, Martin Shaw, and Cathy Carmichael have been presenting analyses that construe contemporary mass violence as the function of victims seeking revenge or reacting to past mass violence, and future mass violence as the expected actions of today’s victims. At the risk of simplifying complex analyses, they focus their attention on the ways that former victim groups become perpetrators of later mass violence. Some of these scholars attended, for instance, the University of Antwerp’s otherwise strong experts’ workshop on genocide, hosted by the Universitair Centrum Sint Ignatius Antwerpen in 2011.

For such scholars, there is something about being victimized that causes victims to adopt perpetrator mentalities. The logic is similar to the claim that individuals sexually or physically abused as children are more likely to become abusers as adults. Surely, if one looks carefully enough, one will find a history of abuse in the past of many adult abusers. Amongst genocide scholars, this line of thinking leads to the attribution of violent characteristics to victim groups. Quick to follow is blame, or at the very least suspicions against the victim groups, accusing them of perpetration of violence.

Many “cycles of violence” scholars have made valuable contributions in the field of conflict prevention as well as post-violence reconstruction and rehabilitation. In order to prevent recycling of the violence, scholars inform activists, policy makers, and humanitarians on strategies to rehabilitate, re-educate, and promote reconciliation among the population.

While it is true, according to Barbara Harff ’s work, that regions that experience inter-ethnic violence are significantly more likely to experience a recurrence of the violence, this is not directly related to the theories posited by “cycles of violence” scholars.

There are three major conceptual fallacies underlying their logic. First, “cycles of violence” scholars root their findings in research that emphasizes positive case studies, whereby instances of violence are perpetrated by the victim group, and ignores negative cases, where the cause of violence is not a result of victim groups. As a result, such findings, buttressed by carefully selecting from positive case studies and by disregarding negative case studies, do not provide a sound foundation for critical social science research. To determine whether or not there is actually a phenomenon of victims becoming perpetrators, such scholars would need to look at all cases of victimization and then compare the rates at which former victim groups commit mass violence to the rates at which non-victim groups perpetrate. While the authors are not aware of such a comprehensive study, a cursory reflection on the available cases suggests that while some former victim groups become perpetrators of later mass violence, victim groups do so at no greater rate (and perhaps at a lower rate) than non-victim groups. If this is so, then it is unlikely that their being victims is the key factor in cases where victims do become perpetrators.

This raises the second methodological flaw in the “cycles of violence” research. Believing wrongly that victim groups that perpetrate violence are doing so because of their collective victimization ignores victims groups that abstain from violence. In addition, this oversimplification overlooks a more nuanced understanding of why perpetrator groups participate in violence. It is not enough to state that a group perpetrated violence because they were once a victim group. “Cycles of violence” scholarship risks overlooking the complex underlying mobilization and sensitization processes that occur and are central to perpetration and, with it, opportunities for intervention and prevention. Comparative research is likely to reveal a range of factors that differentiate groups that commit mass violence from those that do not, factors independent of victim status. In fact, it is highly likely that similarities among perpetrator groups who were victims and those who were not far outweigh relevant similarities among different victim groups.

Third, this framework taps into and redeploys a standard prejudice seen, for instance, in the general public when confronting endangered species. We impose on victim groups an impossibly high standard and exclude those who do not meet it from the roles of victims. In instances of violence, human rights scholars and activists often engage with the weakest and most disenfranchised of the population. This makes sense as this group is most likely to be targeted. On the whole, it is difficult to galvanize the international community on behalf of a stronger power; a selective favoritism lies with the weak. In instances of genocide, victim groups evoke sympathy, galvanizing aid and assistance. As many have pointed out for years, just like endangered animals that are cute and cuddly get most of the attention, while other species in just as desperate situations are virtually ignored in popular movements, groups that capture the hearts of the global community because of their apparent unthreatening vulnerability and utter passivity (usually the result of the force they are facing) are considered true victims, while those that try to defend themselves, especially if they have even moderate success, are excluded from support or consideration. Victim groups selected for consideration are stripped of their agency and expected, as beneficiaries, to receive, but not to act. Victims must stay in this pre-set victim mold; they cannot progress too far or too quickly. In some instances, when they take deliberate action to ensure their security, activists, politicians, and scholars alike become alarmed. Indeed, victim groups with members who advocate for historical justice for the group are liable to be subject to a special variation of Blame the Victims 2.0, the castigation of advocacy groups and reparations movements as extremist nationalists. Self-advocacy, which dominant groups and nation-states do routinely, is considered a vice for weaker groups—precisely the groups who have the most change to advocate for and are the least able to abuse their situation. The viewpoint also threatens to devolve into the kind of logic of perpetual, timeless, irrational ethno-national conflict—precisely the viewpoint that allowed the U.S. government and press not only to ignore but also to avoid the real reasons for genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda as they occurred.

Rwanda is a frequently cited case study for “cycles of violence” scholars and gives insight into the lens that mars their analysis. Scholars appear almost uncomfortable with Rwanda’s progress since the 1994 genocide. This discomfort reached its apex after Rwanda’s intervention in Congo; following the flight of many genocide perpetrators into Congo and the resulting instability on their western border, Rwanda took action, invading Congo, forcibly closing the refugee camps along the border, and tracking many militia-members deep in Congo. The killings that followed, primarily of fighting-age Hutu men, likely constitute crimes of war. But unable to shake off the lens that framed the 1994 genocide and its analysis, the “cycles of violence” scholars and activists looked to the Rwandan military’s actions in Congo and cried “genocide perpetrated by victims!”

They were unable to look beyond the victim label that has been assigned Rwanda’s surviving Tutsi community. Therefore, the Rwandan Patriotic Army’s incursion into Congo was not analyzed by “cycles of violence” scholars as an act of invasion by one sovereign power into another independent state. Instead it was oversimplified as vengeance-taking by a victim group blinded by trauma and their own victimization.

What is more, the focus on victims becoming perpetrators ignores the real problem—that unless something substantive is done to address the violence against the victims, the harms resulting from it, as well as the attitudes and power of the perpetrator group, will further marginalize and disenfranchise the victim group. Weakened socially, economically, politically and culturally through acts of mass violence, expropriation of property, rape, and other atrocities, the victim group is vulnerable and liable to future victimization. All the while, the perpetrator group, emboldened by impunity and strengthened by the gains made through genocide, is in a position of strength and more likely to commit mass violence.

Ultimately, scholars imposing the “cycles of violence” model favor simplification through labeling instead of in-depth analysis that recognizes the intricacies of mass violence. Genocide prevention and intervention depends on a more nuanced framework. Effective mechanisms for genocide prevention and intervention require understanding the complex causes of mass violence, while efforts based on simplifications have the potential to foster not only ineffective, but potentially harmful, intervention and prevention efforts.

This article appeared in The Armenian Weekly April 2013 Magazine.

Sara E. Brown is a doctoral student at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. Her current research examines female agency during the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi.

Henry C. Theriault earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Massachusetts. He is currently professor in the philosophy department at Worcester State University. Since 2007, he has served as co-editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed journal “Genocide Studies and Prevention.”

Sara E. Brown

Sara E. Brown

Sara E. Brown is the Executive Director of Chhange, the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education. Brown holds the first Ph.D. in comparative genocide studies from Clark University's Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. She is the author of Gender and the Genocide in Rwanda: Women as Perpetrators and Rescuers, now an Open Access text, and the co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook on Religion and Genocide.

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