Tuesday 20 November 2012

Victim Blame - How much is not too much?

Pondering on a aspects of typical 'road safety' campaigns lately, and of course on the standard pitter patter of stupid comments about cyclists not having lights. And I wonder - how much telling cyclists to take care is okay, and how much is victim blame?

I'm prompted by two stories - one showing yet more back-pedalling from the 'Stupid Twats', the other about an event that appears to be a classic example of targeting the victims rather than the cause of accidents. This also came about as the result of a discussion with some Cycling Twitterati, who chose to use the (very emotive) example of victim blame in rape to highlight why concentrating on perceived mistakes of cyclists rather than the cause of the overwhelming majority of injuries (motorists!) is offencive.

We're treading on emotional ground here. Let me begin by saying that I'm not interested in belittling anyone who has suffered from rape, sexual abuse or assault. I do not blame the victims for what happened,  'she/he was asking for it' or any bullshit variant thereof can not reasonably be used to excuse or mitigate such acts, either wholly or in part. Similarly, I don't seek to offend through comparisons with cyclists being injured on the roads - nor do I wish to cause offence to cyclists who believe that the endemic victim blame we see in the analysis of cyclist injury can be reasonably compared to how sexual assault was/is thus treated...

Oh for fecks sake. I don't want to offend you, okay? But I'm not going to beat myself up if I do. So there! Gordons alive, must be something wrong with how a subject is handled if even I'm worried about upsetting...

Right, thats out of the way.

The question here is not whether 'victim blame' is okay. Of course it bloody isn't. And where you encounter it you should remorselessly squash it. Victim blamers deserve a good verbal slapping.

The question is how much focus there can be on victims if we're trying to reduce the incidence of whatever kind of incidents we're talking about, and whether a similar or greater focus on the gross causes of such incidents is needed to put this in a credible context.

So back to the old 'she was asking for it' defence. Clearly thats bullshit. I acknowledge that. Still, were I to be asked whether a young girl should walk around city centre bars in a swimsuit, I'd say probably not - its not 'asking for it', but one might argue that such could increase the likelihood of getting into a bad situation. Wouldn't be her fault if that happened, but it would be stupid to ignore risk factors.

But thats as far as we can go. Should someone say to me 'there's too much rape going on, we're going to get the police to stand outside and talk to girls telling them to dress more appropriately', I'd be taken aback. Surely, I'd respond, thats missing the point entirely; yeah, maybe girls in min-skirts ARE more often in that situation, but oughtn't we be dealing with the rapists rather than the victims? I mean, are we not taking a small statistical factor and blowing it up out of all proportion, ending up in a rather twisted victim-blaming scenario? Its quite gratifying that while there are still a few dinosaurs who continue with their outright nasty blame of women for rape, most of them have been required to shut the fuck up by a society that has begun, in recent years, to come to its senses.

Lets get back to cycling; we know that not having bike lights IS linked to some incidents. Various reports put it at about 2% of KSI (killed and seriously injured) cyclists. We also know that motorists are to blame for 70% or more of cyclist injuries; it appears to me that we ought to expect that if police and assorted local and national bodies with an interest in road safety want to reduce the number of cyclist injuries they'll concentrate on the big causes; motorist inattention, dangerous driving.

So one wold assume that the main focus for cyclist safety IS those drivers who risk our lives? One would assume wrong. In fact you struggle to find any campaigning aimed at motorists, who are after all causing the bulk of cyclist injuries - its all about blaming the cyclists. ALL we do is blame the cyclists. We don't have concerted campaigns aimed at motorists, we don't have the Police stopping drivers passing cyclists too close; we've got Police stopping cyclists to talk about lights, even (in the example in Portsmouth) where those cyclists already have lights. This is an astonishing level of victim blame.

Now I don't mind if someone gives the simple, fair advice that cyclists should have lights at night - that is after all the law, so long as its within a context where the overwhelming risk factor (bad motorists) is acknowledged. But thats ALL we get. There is no emphasis on the 70%+ of cyclist injury caused entirely by motorists. This isn't like suggesting to girls that wearing revealing clothes in rough bars is maybe not the best plan, this is essentially putting ALL of the blame on cyclists for something that SOME do wrong, which is causing 2% of injuries, while COMPLETELY ignoring factors that cause the enormous bulk of problems. 

Please excuse me for extending what I myself find to be a distasteful analogy; this is ignoring the rapist and blaming the victims. This is ALL that our Police, local authorities and most media do. Through their incessant focus on trivial contributory factors leading to actually quite rare cyclist injury, the very small number we're responsible for, they demonstrate that they blame us for the crimes of others against us. Whether this is through simple ignorance or prejudice against cyclists really doesn't matter (I tend towards it being ignorance); it is fair and reasonable that cyclists should be angry about this. Few enough resources are spent on our safety such that we can be justifiably angry when they're mis-used in such a way as to reinforce negative portrayals of us through this incessant victim blame.

So next time you encounter someone making one of these common 'victim blame' mistakes, please don't carelessly compare this with blaming a rape victim - yes, its similar, but you're into an emotive-subject-labyrinth and you don't want to end up doing intellectual back flips to avoid causing offence. But please do deal with this persons misguided attempt to 'help' in the way it deserves - harshly.

Edit: Oh, the cascade of victim blame keeps on rolling in. Motorists; are you blind? Then support our campaign to give out free hi-viz to cyclist so you can see them better!


  1. I think there's been great progress in the past week in getting people to understand the unthinking prejudice that cyclists face. Having the President of the AA liken some motorists attitudes to racism, and the obvious rape / 'victim blaming' connotations in other stories is hugely powerful and important.

    I don't think it's something that we should be banging on about at every opportunity (indeed many people will be uncomfortable with the implied links), but it really does force people to face up to unpleasant attitudes.

    1. I agree we shouldn't bang on about this the whole time, but I think we SHOULD respond scathingly when we encounter outright prejudice.

      Chap at the AA talks a good game with regard to cycling - ask him if he'll up the stakes by revoking AA membership for motorists convicted of aggressive or dangerous driving towards cyclists and he's rather less convincing. Small steps in the right direction - but I'll treat the AA as allies when they put their money where their mouths are.