Why New Definitions of "Victim Shaming" Are Incorrect

The evolved expression of "victim shaming" needs an Aristotelian analysis.

Posted Aug 07, 2019

The original meaning of the term "victim shaming" centered on the protection of sexual assault victims. The key idea was to protect those who come forward with a true experience of being assaulted. The protection was necessary because some people would state, "Well, what did she do to bring this about?" Thus, victim shaming or blaming was an unjustified attack on the innocent.

KuanShu Designs / IFI, Inc.
Source: KuanShu Designs / IFI, Inc.

Very recently, I have seen new uses of this term "victim shaming." The new uses seem to go well beyond the protection of those who are oppressed or struggling.  Before defining the new meaning of the term, I would like to offer some examples I have encountered recently. Consider four examples of the evolved meaning of "victim shaming" that I have heard or read:

  1. The one who is judged to be victim shaming says this: "People in poverty should be taught to love. This will aid them in their stress." The suggestion is now judged by some to be "victim shaming" because it subtly implies that the impoverished are deficient in their ability to love.  Also, the emphasis on love ignores that poverty is a materialistic reality requiring a materialistic solution (such as fair wages and good housing).  
  2. The one who is judged to be victim shaming says the following: "People who are treated very badly by others need to practice forgiveness. Forgiveness can help people overcome such effects of injustice as depression and rage." The suggestion of forgiveness is now judged by some to be "victim shaming" because it asks an already-hurting person to do the painful work of forgiving, which implies that the victim needs fixing. This is shaming the already-hurting victim. Further, an exclusive focus on forgiveness ignores the quest for a fair solution to injustices from others. "Justice first!" is the solution. 
  3. The one who is judged to be victim shaming thinks this way: "Colonized people need to practice rising-above-the-situation or transcendence so that they are not bothered by the control from others." It is judged by some to be "victim shaming" because the call to transcendence puts the colonized people in their subservient place. It further is shaming because the practice of transcendence is considered by Marx to be "the opiate of the people." Practicing transcendence shames the colonized people into avoiding the materialist revolution, and revolution is an attempt to overthrow an unjust system by materialistic means.
  4. Finally, the one who is judged to be victim shaming thinks this way: "We should ask a person who is not physically fit to have the strong will to start a rigorous exercise program." The call for fitness, or an interior willing or motivation to change life-styles, is to focus on only one aspect of that person—physical endurance and the current lack of that—and so this person has been "victim shamed" precisely because an imperfection in the person is the primary focus. The solution again is materialistic: to reinforce the person for attributes other than a lack of fitness, which should be ignored.

In each of our four examples, the newly evolving concept of victim shaming has the following characteristics:

KuanShu Designs
Source: KuanShu Designs
  1. It assumes that any call for interior transformation of the oppressed or struggling person is itself an added oppression.
  2. In every case, the solution to the person's challenge is external to that person. The solution is exclusively materialistic, existing in the material world and placed into the oppressed or struggling person's immediate environment.
  3. It further implies that the call for interior transformation is extreme and so should be avoided.
  4. The cure for oppression or struggles in one's environment by materialistic techniques is itself extreme, but this is not seen and not acknowledged by those who label something as "victim shaming."

Thus, by definition, victim shaming, in its evolved form, is in the context of many kinds of struggles by many kinds of people, with the exclusive solution of internal transformation while ignoring environmental solutions, thus asking too much of the hurting and the oppressed.

The critique of this evolved meaning is that people who use the term "victim shaming" provide the exclusive solution of external/materialistic transformation and condemn any solution that focuses on the interiority of those people. The new use of the term "victim shaming" is a reductionistic approach to serious and complex problems.  

Enter Aristotle, who was well aware of extremes, whether they are of the exclusive materialistic sort (as in using the term "victim shaming") or of the interior sort (such as only asking the impoverished to love without caring for physical needs).

KuanShu Designs
Source: KuanShu Designs

Aristotle discussed what has come to be called The Doctrine of the Mean. By this, he meant having a sense of balance in understanding subtle ideas. Balance is the condition by which one better understands a concept by knowing what it means to have too little or too much of a given attribute. A clear understanding is in the middle of the two extremes. 

Let me illustrate with an example. Consider the central moral virtue in ancient Greece: Justice. Justice, in modern parlance, is giving people what they deserve. (There was more to it in ancient Greece, especially as described by Plato in The Republic, but we will stay with the modern view for the sake of simplicity). One can understand justice (giving people what they deserve) more clearly when seeing the "too much" of justice-seeking and the "too little" of such justice-seeking with the truth sandwiched in between (at the mean) of our understanding. First, Aristotle would ask us to see the extreme expression of too much of a quest for justice in which the one who dispenses the justice overdoes it and overly controls all other people by giving them, not what they deserve, but what the justice-dispenser wants to give though power over others. Second, Aristotle would ask us to see the extreme expression of too little of a quest for justice in which those who dispense the justice under-do it and let others control them, giving those dispensers of justice too little of what they deserve. Third, between these two extremes is the true sense of justice, giving what is actually fair without dominating or being dominated.

"Victim shaming," in its newer or evolved form, is out of balance, focused on the extreme of materialism as it not only ignores the interiority of the person, but condemns those who call for such an interior transformation. To grow as a person or community or larger society, with the Aristotelian lens, we need a focus on both the material needs and the interior growth of persons.  The Doctrine of the Mean leads to such a conclusion.

Thus, the impoverished need wages/housing and love, not because they are deficient in the latter, but because a deeper sense of love might give them sufficient energy to fight poverty.

Unjustly treated people need to try for fairness as they forgive.

The colonized people need both their freedom of expression regarding fair land use and they may need to practice transcendence to quell their anger when it is intense and long-lasting.

The sedentary need both to be respected as persons regardless of bodily shape and the encouragement to lead a healthy life if they are willing to give it a try.

KuanShu Designs
Source: KuanShu Designs

When we examine personhood with an Aristotelian lens, we see that altered environmental circumstances by themselves can be a passive approach because we ask nothing of the person. We further see that asking exclusively for interior change assumes that all persons are solely responsible for their current conditions. It is an extreme of individualism. If we need both to grow as persons, then we are doing people no favors by emphasizing one or the other and then going to political war against the other side. Both miss The Doctrine of the Mean.

My major concern about this evolved meaning of "victim shaming" is that so many people seem to take this idea for granted, and thus their thinking goes against The Doctrine of the Mean. This is dangerous because materialism by itself, as an extreme, tends to distort subtle and even complex solutions that include external and internal interventions. Without applying sound philosophy to this new meaning of "victim shaming," too many may condemn the voices that could bring this idea into balance. It is the same for those who call for an exclusive solution through interior transformation.

It is time to see that both sides are distorting humanity and thus are not contributing to a deeper and more effective solution when people have serious challenges. Long live Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean.