I have a theory about how normal people deal with other people’s tragedies. I’m not a psychologist, but here it is:
Step 1: You hear that a horrible tragedy has befallen someone you don’t know.
Step 2: You feel a sense of shock and horror.
Step 3: You look for a reason that this tragedy happened to the other person that explains why the same tragedy can not happen to you.
Step three sounds horrible, but I think it’s a necessary step to move on to step 4. If every time that something horrible happened to someone else you were overcome with fear and sadness not only for that person, but for yourself, you would become stuck in Step 2. Think about it, every child who dies, every person hit by a car, every suicide, every rape, every murder, you know it could happen to you and yours. You would be paralyzed with grief and fear all the time.
So instead, you do a little victim blaming, a little rationalization, a little magical thinking. “My daughter could never be kidnapped because I would never let her walk that far alone.” “My son wouldn’t die that way, I’d have called 911 immediately.” “I’ll never be raped because I never drink with people I don’t know really well.” “It’s horrible but if she’d kept a better eye on her kids, this wouldn’t have happened.” “That wouldn’t happen to me, I’d never be in that kind of bar.” “Well, that neighborhood is dangerous, not like mine.”
You give yourself an out, you let yourself fee secure so that you can move on to Step 4.
Step 4: You feel empathy for the people affected by the tragedy. If possible, you offer help of some sort, if not you offer support and continue to feel a manageable sort of grief.
But as anyone who has seen the Internet the past few weeks knows, a lot of people have become stuck in Step 3.
I don’t believe parent shaming and victim blaming are new. I read an article recently where someone talked about the Baby Jessica story (1987 toddler fell in a well). The writer claimed that no one accused her parents of not watching her, instead the whole nation joined together to pray and watch her heroic rescue.
I call Bullshit.
I guarantee you that there were plenty of people across the country wondering how an 18 month old baby wanders in to a well without anyone noticing. I guarantee you that any one with a well in their backyard and a small child began looking for the reason their well was safe, while the McClures’ well was not. I remember conversations about how young Baby Jessica’s parents were, and how that was probably part of the problem.
But for the most part, people kept those thoughts to themselves, or whispered them in small groups. You know why? Because Facebook wasn’t in their face asking them what they were thinking about. In 1987 we all pretty much understood that no one really wants to hear your every thought about every event. We had a 24 hour news cycle in 1987, but it wasn’t a personal 24 hour news cycle.
Parent shaming and blaming aren’t new. The mother in the Cincinnati Zoo isn’t the first woman to be told she’s doing a horrible job and that others are suffering for it. We have always judged mothers harshly. The medically accepted explanation for autism used to be “refrigerator mothers.”
Ask any mother who worked “by choice” in the 1970s and earlier whether or not others judged her and blamed and shamed her. Ask any divorced mother in the 1970s and earlier how people judged her.
The difference is that in the 1970s and 1980s the number of people we had available to blame and shame was limited to people we actually knew. Today we have a whole planet full of people to judge.
Today, we’re conditioned to share our thoughts and emotions and judgements on everything from celebrity deaths to horrible accidents to politics. We not only live in a 24 hour news cycle, we are part of that cycle, we are asked to share our thoughts before those thoughts are fully formed.
So, you hear about a horrible event, a child falls in to a gorilla pen at the zoo, the gorilla is killed. You think, “Oh, that’s horrible. I go to the zoo all the time, could that happen to me? Probably not, I mean I watch my kids carefully.”
Then, you put that on Facebook and one friend, who is also in Step 3 of the process says “YES! I was just thinking the same thing.” You feel vindicated, “Hmm, that must be the right response, she agrees with me.” A few more people also agree, you start to feel like that’s really the right response. Then, someone else says “How dare you, that’s a horrible thing to say.” Now, you feel attacked and one of the most common and normal approaches to being attacked is that you defend yourself.
The more you defend yourself, the stronger you believe that you are right.
So, you never get past Step 3. You never go from telling yourself what you need to in order to feel safe to helping the actual victim. Instead, you begin to think that you and your way of thinking are the real victims.
Victim blaming isn’t the problem, victim blaming is normal and healthy, it’s getting stuck in the blame phase that’s the problem.
So, maybe next time instead of floating your every thought out to hundreds of people at a time, only float the thoughts that you’ve really truly had time to consider and carefully craft out there.
To use another phrase from the 1980s, when Facebook asks, “What’s on your mind?” just say no.