The “Either-or” Fallacy of the Blame Game: Criticizing Someone’s Wisdom is Not the Same as Victim-Blaming

Recently, ESPN sports commentator Stephen A. Smith was suspended by ESPN for his comments regarding the Ray Rice domestic violence case.  Rice, a runningback for the Baltimore Ravens, only received a two-game suspension after plea-bargaining and agreeing to go to anger management classes.  Here is what Smith says:

What I’ve tried to employ the female members of my family — some of who you all met and talked to and what have you — is that … let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions, because if I come — or somebody else come, whether it’s law enforcement officials, your brother or the fellas that you know — if we come after somebody has put their hands on you, it doesn’t negate the fact that they already put their hands on you.

Many in media exploded in anger over his comments, accusing Smith of blaming victims for being beaten.  Goldie Taylor, for example, of MSNBC tweeted a series of emotional descriptions of her own experience of domestic abuse where she received amazingly little support from her family, who instead chose to blame her.  It is indeed a sad story of how victims of abuse can feel trapped.

However, I cannot believe I’m going to defend Stephen A. Smith here, who, along with Skip Bayless, is one of the silliest, loudest, and most irrational national sports broadcasters out there: While he could have used more nuance (some insane guys can be set off by any little thing, so it’s unreasonable to tell women with those men to not “do anything” to provoke them), what he says has some general wisdom to it.  People can indeed provoke wrong actions, and sometimes the provoking itself is not justified or wise.  This isn’t actually hard to understand (we teach this to children all the time), and blowing his comments out of proportion isn’t going to change the logic of it.

Is this the same thing as telling women (or anyone) that it’s their fault for getting beaten?  Of course not, though this is the kind of emotional accusation these people turn to.  If a women gets beaten up by a man simply because he got angry, he needs to be punished.  That does not mean that, if she indeed acted unwisely herself, we cannot point out those foolish decisions on her part.

Think of it this way: Let’s say I walk down a dark alley late at night flashing a bunch of expensive bling, and while doing so, someone mugs me and takes all of my stuff.  If this person is caught, who gets blamed and charged for assault and burglary?  He does, not me.  It would be positively absurd to put me on trial for that.  However, does this mean that I acted wisely and that nobody can tell me that what I did was foolish?  Not at all.  It would be nice if we lived in the type of world where nobody would jump me regardless of what I did because everyone would just know that it’s wrong to beat up someone and steal their stuff and would apply that principle to their lives.  Guess what: We do not live in such a world, and with that in mind, my actions would not be wise in this scenario.  Again, full blame goes to the person who mugged me and he would be the one to go to jail, but I sure didn’t help myself.

I’ve heard of stories where a girl gets drunk, flirts continuously with a strange guy, goes to the guy’s hotel room, and then gets raped by him.  Who should get charged and go to jail for that?  The guy should, obviously.  Heck, if that happened to my daughter (or any of the college girls I teach), I’d have an enormous temptation to beat him up, shoot him, and then beat up his corpse.  I have tremendous contempt for men who do such things.  That said, the girl was unquestionably unwise and put herself in a bad situation.  I’ve often seen that when people point this out, others freak out and accuse them of “blaming the victim,” “defending sexual assault,” or even harboring dark desires of sexually abusing others themselves.  I understand this is an emotional issue, but that doesn’t excuse bad logic, and such arguments are nothing more than silly and unjustified straw man attacks.

I’ve also heard of men beating their girlfriends or wives upon learning that the woman had been cheating on the guy or retaliating when the woman resorts to violence first.  Does the fact that the girl was cheating on him or hit him first absolve the guy of the fact that he physically beat her and sent her to the hospital?  Absolutely not, and you wouldn’t find too many people arguing that.  If he got prosecuted and put in jail for years, that would be justice.  That doesn’t excuse the girl’s actions one bit or shield her from criticism.  She did something wrong and provoked the guy, and while it would be nice to think that every guy can control his anger such that he wouldn’t use his physical advantage to beat her, again, we don’t live in that world.  This is not telling her, “It’s your fault you got beat up and you deserved to sent to the hospital.”  It’s telling her, “You did something morally wrong and provoked anger in him, and while that’s no excuse for him to use his physical advantage to hurt you, there is also no excuse for what you did either.”  Again, we use similar logic with children: If one kid is taunting another and then that one slugs him, we scold the one who hit him for resorting to unnecessary violence, but we also tell the kid who taunted the other that what he did was wrong as well.  This logic of, “If you identify mistakes by the victim of a crime, you are therefore blaming the victim for EVERYTHING!” is astonishingly poor.  In Goldie Taylor’s case, she was clearly with a guy who was crazy and could be set off by anything, but she should not universalize her experience and assume that every case is like hers, as if it is utterly impossible that a woman can make a bad decision and put herself in a precarious position.

I don’t know much about the Ray Rice case, and short of self-defense (like if she was coming after him with a knife), he should not use his enormous physical advantage to hurt her if indeed that is what happened.  Period.  Regardless, the general principle that Stephen A. Smith gave–that women, or anyone, should avoid provoking anger if they can help it–is simply wise advice.  Additionally, this should make women especially careful about how they choose the guys they date and eventually marry.  Smith is right in this: Even if I bring a bunch of friends and beat the snot out of a guy who, say, hurts my sister, that doesn’t change the fact that he already hurt my sister.  It’s simply far more preferable to avoid such problems altogether with wise decision-making, and there’s nothing about that that is somehow anti-women.

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One thought on “The “Either-or” Fallacy of the Blame Game: Criticizing Someone’s Wisdom is Not the Same as Victim-Blaming

  1. Pingback: Hey Guys: Punching Out A Girl After She Slaps You Isn’t Self-Defense | leesomniac

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