Why We Blame The Victim

The Guardian recently ran a fascinating column explaining the evolutionary purpose of that all-too-human tendency to blame the victim.

Rape and sexual assault survivors are asked about what they wore and how they fought back. Poor people who work three jobs and still can’t support a family are blamed for “laziness” and failure, despite facing an economy that is stacked against them.

Recent research suggests that this tendency is actually a somewhat weird side effect of our human desire for fairness–a hard-wired “just world” bias.

The “just-world bias” happens because our brains crave predictability, and as such, we tend to blame victims of unfairness rather than reject the comforting worldview suggesting that good will be rewarded and evil punished.

“There’s just this really powerful urge for people to want to think good things to happen to good people and where the misperception comes in is that there’s this implied opposite: if something bad has happened to you, you must have done something bad to deserve that bad thing,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at Sewanee University.

It isn’t only human victims who are blamed for their own misfortune.

Case in point: In Indiana, local school districts rely upon state and federal tax dollars to operate. Since 2011, state per-pupil funding has been dramatically reduced. Those reductions initially cost Indianapolis Public Schools $9.4 million annually; the last three years, however, the annual loss has been $15.5 million. Federal funding has dropped by $14.2 million annually since 2010, and Indiana’s insane tax caps have cost the district an average of $16.8 million every year since 2011.

Meanwhile, expenses—especially teacher compensation and benefits, which represent the majority of the budget—have continued to rise.

So far, the district has met these punishing shortfalls without altering the academic programs that have led to recent, much-needed educational improvements. It has closed schools in order to save the expenses of operating underused facilities and it has sold off unused buildings and other properties. Where possible, it has leased facilities to third parties, to generate rental income. It has reduced its central office operations by $5.3 million annually. It has deferred maintenance on its remaining properties in order to protect instructional programs and refinanced debt when favorable interest rates made that feasible.

As I write in an upcoming column in the local business journal,

There’s nothing left to sell. At some point, deferring maintenance is no longer possible. Meanwhile, teachers need to be paid and provided with health-care benefits; and special education students must have their costly needs met.

The district is currently proposing to raise just over 65 million dollars a year for 8 years. Of that amount, 74% would go for compensation, 12% would go for supplies and services, 11% would go for transportation, and 3% for building maintenance. If the Referendum fails, teacher pay will be frozen, some transportation services eliminated, and educational programs cut back.

Predictably, opponents blame the district for poor management. But all school districts in Indiana—including IPS–are the victims of decisions made in the Indiana Statehouse, and to a lesser extent, in Congress. Among other indignities, Mike Pence and the legislature successfully diverted tax dollars from public schools to parochial ones. Indiana has the country’s largest voucher program, and Ball State researchers report that 98% of Hoosier children using vouchers attend religious schools. Taxpayers sent $146.1 million dollars to voucher schools last year; since 2011, the number is $520 million dollars.

None of those decisions were made by local school districts.

Blaming the numerous public school districts in Indiana that have been forced to propose Referenda is like accusing the victim of a robbery of being imprudent with the stolen money.


[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on March 2, 2018]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..


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