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Victim-blaming and Guilty Victims

By D'Arcy Blaxell
23 Sep 2022
photograph of two hands pointing fingers at one another

Since the heinous attack on The Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie, there has been a lively debate in The Prindle Post about free speech, victim blaming, and self-censorship. Giles Howdle argued that authors have no obligation to censor themselves, even if they are aware that publishing certain material might incite violence against themselves or others. Benjamin Rossi replied that although Rushdie might be blameless for the retribution leveled against him, we need a stronger principle to determine the cases in which victims might be, at least partially, responsible for their own misfortune.

Rossi’s argument hinges on a fascinating comparison between the actions of Salman Rushdie and those of Terry Jones, an America pastor who organized  Quran burnings in an ironic protest against the intolerance supposedly inherent in Islam. Both men’s actions led to violent reprisals and widespread, deadly protests. Whereas we are inclined to excuse Rushdie for the furor his publication caused, we are less sympathetic to Jones, who was widely condemned, and even arrested, for his actions.

I agree with both Howdle and Rossi on important points. Like Howdle, I think that Rushdie should not be blamed for the response to The Satanic Verses, and certainly not for his own stabbing. Like Rossi, I don’t think that all victims are blameless, or that it is always wrong to blame the victim.

But there are a couple of important clarifications which I think ought to be made in the debate.

The first clarification is to do with the idea of victimhood. If we are focusing on ‘victim-blaming’, we ought to have a firm idea of what constitutes a victim. The second clarification centers on intent, which I think can be a useful measure in deciding when and where to apportion blame.


‘Victim-blaming’ itself is a charged term. In the media, it most often crops up in misogynistic backlash to the stories of victims of sexual assault. “She was asking for it,” “she shouldn’t have worn that dress,” “she led him on”: these are paradigm examples of victim-blaming that claim women are responsible for the crimes men commit against them. These statements indicate that victims should be held at fault for the reprehensible actions of others.

Victim-blaming in sexual assault might be a form of the just-world delusion, where people think that because the world is inherently fair, people must deserve the things that happen to them. Or it might be a result or reflection of  patriarchal rape culture. The important thing, for now, is that in these cases, the victims are genuinely, completely, utterly innocent. No fashion decisions or quirks of personality can make you culpable for your own sexual assault because there is nothing morally wrong in dressing or acting the way you like. But if these victims are innocent, it raises the question: can victims ever be guilty?

Guilty Victims

Imagine your friend goes out for the night and comes home bloody and bruised, the victim of an assault. How terrible(!), you might think. As you tease the story out of your friend, however, something becomes clear: they had been roaming the streets, intentionally offending everybody in sight, until somebody reacted violently. Now your sympathy might start to subside – you might even think that on some level, your friend got what they deserved.

In this case, you might want to dismiss your friend’s victimhood entirely: you might think that because they wanted to offend people, they’re not really a victim at all. But this doesn’t quite capture the reality of the situation. Sure, your friend was being insufferable. But they probably didn’t deserve the beating they received. In that sense, they are still a victim.

A better approach is to say that although your friend is a victim, they are not an innocent victim: they are culpable in their own misfortune. They set out to cause offense and ended up the victim of physical harm. In a sense, they reaped what they sowed. They are a guilty victim and because they are guilty, they are worthy of blame. True, they might not have deserved the level of retribution they received. But that does not make them innocent. In the same way, we might feel sorry for somebody who receives an excessively harsh prison sentence for a relatively minor crime. Although we ought to have sympathy for their plight, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves into thinking that they are entirely innocent.

So as well as innocent victims, we can have guilty victims: those who, in doing something morally wrong, set in motion a chain of events in which they themselves are harmed. The next question is: how do we tell the difference between innocent and guilty victims?

Careless Victims

You might think that guilty victims are just those who play a causal role in their own misfortune. But this approach would cast too wide a net. Consider somebody walking down the footpath, daydreaming, who suddenly gets hit by a drunk driver mounting the curb. Their carelessness is a factor in the misery that befalls them: had they been paying attention to the road instead of singing along to Harry Styles, they would have been able to jump out of the way and escape unharmed. Although this victim is careless, it would be a stretch to say that they are guilty. After all, they haven’t done anything morally wrong. So careless victims are probably best considered a special type of innocent victim.

Intent and Guilt

A more promising method of determining whether a victim is innocent or guilty is to consider their intent in authoring the action that leads to their misfortune. If you intend to cause harm to others but are unlucky enough that the harm boomerangs around to hit you, you are probably a guilty victim.

If you make an offhanded, inoffensive comment to somebody who promptly wallops you, you can’t – or shouldn’t – be blamed. You are an innocent victim. But if your intent is to offend somebody, and you goad them into throwing a punch, then you can be held morally accountable for your actions.

Your accountability doesn’t absolve the puncher of theirs – but neither does their action absolve you of the role you played.

If your intent is to offend everybody, and you walk around hurling insults until a fight breaks out, then once again, you are morally responsible. Although your intent isn’t to personally cause physical harm, you are not only indifferent about the potential for physical harm to occur, but also perpetrating the exact morally dubious actions that make that harm more likely. For this, you ought to be held morally accountable.

So the basic rule is this: innocent victims are never worthy of blame, but guilty victims can be. Guilty victims are those who intend to cause harm (or offense), and, in doing so, set in motion a chain of events resulting in harm to themselves.

Rushdie and Jones

Finally, we can apply our notion of guilty victimhood to the cases of Salman Rushdie and Terry Jones. Both were victims of retribution for their non-violent expression. To decide whether they are blameworthy, we ought to consider whether they are innocent or guilty victims. To do that, we must consider the intent behind their inflammatory actions.

If Jones’s intent was to inflame and cause offense, then he is worthy of criticism, and we might be inclined to say that he is not just causally, but also morally, responsible for the backlash to his actions. He is a guilty victim. On the other hand, if Rushdie’s goal was to entertain and engage, and inflammation and insult were mere by-products of that intention, then we ought to be more forgiving. He is an innocent victim (or, at worst, a careless one). He remains causally responsible – as does Jones – but is less morally culpable for the ultimate outcomes of the chain of events in which he was only one link. Both actors played a role in a causal chain which led to violence and death. But to be equally morally responsible, they would have to have had the same (or similar) intentions.

Now this is not a defense of violence as a response to being offended.

No matter the intent behind Jones’s Quran burning, he doesn’t deserve violent retribution. Nor does his intent to offend excuse the actions of those who would seek to harm him.

But I think that the difference between guilty and innocent victims can help explain our different reactions to the Jones and Rushdie cases.

I suggest that it is not just that Rushdie seems to otherwise be a more sympathetic character than Jones. The difference is that Rushdie’s intent in writing and publishing The Satanic Verses might have been fundamentally different to Jones’s intent in burning Qurans. Of course, intent is incredibly hard to judge, and we may never be certain of the intent of either man. And there is certainly the counter that I might only think Rushdie’s intent was better because I am already more positively inclined towards him. But it might equally be the case that I am more positively inclined towards Rushdie because I think his intent was purer. So, we can call this a wash.

Nonetheless, intent ought to make a difference in assessing the morality of actions. If Rushdie was an innocent victim, and Jones a guilty one, then it makes sense that we are more sympathetic to Rushdie. This sympathy has nothing to do with the value of Rushdie’s work (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t read it!), and everything to do with the intention behind it. Rossi is right to say that there is no ‘consistent commitment’ in terms of apportioning blame to people whose non-violent acts contribute to violence. But my point is: there shouldn’t be a consistent commitment. We should praise or condemn actions not just on whether they contribute to a causal chain leading to violence, but on the intentions behind those actions. Not all victims are created equal.

D’Arcy Blaxell is completing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. His work focuses on the philosophy of perception and perceptual experience, and he also writes on ethical and political philosophy.
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