On Neighbor-Blaming (the sneaky new friend of victim-blaming)

You’ve probably never heard of neighbor-blaming before. But maybe victim-blaming has crossed your radar.

Just in case it hasn’t, victim-blaming is a spectacular bit of assholery where people blame the wrong person when bad stuff happens. Example: I am out riding my bicycle, wearing a helmet like I always do. A reckless driver hits me. Rather than blaming the driver for their negligent recklessness, people make sure to tell me that I shouldn’t have been bicycling in the first place. Maybe they think bikes belong on sidewalks (illegal in most places). Maybe they just hate sharing the road. But the why doesn’t matter. I just got hit by a car, and now people are telling me that it’s my fault.

Bicycling isn’t the most common scenario where victim-blaming happens, though. That would be sexual assault and rape. Every time you ask a rape survivor what s/he was wearing, and how much s/he had to drink, you subtly shift blame onto the shoulders of the person who was violated. That is wrong. Period. Full stop. The blame belongs in one place: squarely on the shoulders of the person (usually male) who did the violating. The same is true in the case of every violent crime. Would you blame someone who was robbed at gunpoint because they were walking in a bad area? That, my friends, is victim-blaming. May you never feel its shittiness directed at you, and may you never aim it at your friends and loved ones.

So that’s victim-blaming. But neighbor-blaming?

It’s just as sneaky a pattern, and just as ill-advised. Neighbor-blaming isn’t quite as obvious as victim-blaming, but once you know what to look for you will see it everywhere. Elections are a great example. I witnessed this exact conversation on a friend’s Facebook page last week. Neighbor-blaming is when you blame the loss of an election NOT on the people who voted against your candidate, NOT on all the millions of people who didn’t vote at all, but on the people who voted for a candidate you think is similar to yours. You’re not only shifting blame onto the shoulders of people who voted — you’re blaming the ones who believe things similar to you, who might be on the same “side” as you in later elections.

Another example. Say I’m interviewing for a job. As I head out of the building after the interview, another candidate goes in. I don’t get the job. Do I blame that other person who went in for my failure to land the job? If I do, I’ve just blamed my neighbor.

But let’s step back for a minute. Why do we do this in the first place? Why do we feel this need to assign blame when awful things happen? Why does our blame so often end up getting aimed at the wrong person? And what would be different if we didn’t fall into this pattern?

The reason we assign blame is simple. We want to feel like we are in control. To do that, we need to know why things happen, to assign responsibility in the right places, so we can avoid as many terrible things as we can, and protect ourselves and the people we love. That hope is terribly human — and it’s also terribly flawed.

Accidents happen. Some people are targeted. Others aren’t. Some of us are “lucky.” Some of us live in higher-risk areas because it’s all we can afford. I see blame as a desperate grasping towards order in the Universe. The things that make us blame each other are the ones that disrupt what we want the world to be like. The rapes. The robberies. The murders (often called shootings). The accidents. Violence, random and purposeful. Terrorism. War.

So why do we so often blame the wrong person? What makes it so appealing to tell a victim “you did something wrong and that’s why you’re suffering now”? Why do we tell people who voted for a Green Party or Libertarian candidate that they are evil or stupid, instead of focusing our anger on our flawed political system and the elected representatives who so rarely focus on the things that matter to us? Part of the reason is that we’re not very good at figuring out why things happen. Our world is immensely complicated. Thousands of factors contribute to every event. Even our top economists can’t tell us what the stock market will do. How are we supposed to understand how the world works when we only have a fraction of the relevant information? And if we don’t understand how things work, how can we be safe?

And that’s the core of it. The reason we blame the wrong people, the reason we blame at all. We want the world to be simple, and it isn’t. We want to believe that if we just avoid riding a bicycle, if we just don’t walk alone at night, if we just invest in a few conservative stocks, nothing bad will happen to us. We won’t be hit by a reckless driver, we won’t be raped, we won’t lose the money we’ve saved when the stock market falls. But that isn’t how the world works.

When we point blame at victims and at our neighbors, what we’re really doing is shifting fear off of our own shoulders. We take our fear and we turn it into anger, into blame, and we vent it at the people we’re close to. What that does is make them feel shitty. What that doesn’t do is make the world a better place.

If we stopped victim-blaming today. If we stopped neighbor-blaming too. What would we be capable of? Would we be able to focus on the issues that matter to all of us? Could we figure out how to address the root causes of economic inequality, violence, and terrorism? Would we be able to make the world a little safer — not in our minds, but in reality? Could we take responsibility for the things we’re responsible for, understand more about how the world works, punish people who try to harm us, and comfort each other when accidents happen?

I suppose those questions aren’t the first ones we should be asking. The first question should be how we stop blaming the wrong people. Because it’s terribly appealing to just sit back and blame the victims, and if that doesn’t work, sit back and blame our neighbors. It’s easy. It makes us feel better. We don’t have to do anything except point a finger. And when victims and neighbors are around to be blamed, we can ignore the fact that there are people in the world don’t care what we think. We feel powerful, because we understand Why A Bad Thing Happened. But we can do so much better than that.

This is your wake-up call. I’m not going to say that you’re part of the problem if you’ve been neighbor-blaming or victim-blaming. (Ironically, that would also be neighbor-blaming.) What I’m going to say is that if you really care about other people, heck, if you care about yourself, you can do better. We can all do better. 

The next time you hear about something horrible, STOP. Don’t assign blame just yet. First, ask what you can do to support the victims or the survivors. You might never get past this step, and that’s just fine. But if you do — if you reach a point where you’ve offered supportive words, where you’ve listened or hugged or offered financial support — and you still need to do something, get political. Look into why it happened. Dig deep. Don’t blame a radical or fundamentalist ideology without looking into how that ideology developed. Don’t blame a weapon without understanding how it was acquired. Don’t settle for easy answers, and don’t keep what you uncover to yourself.

When you’ve gotten used to blaming people, it can be hard to change. You might miss that feeling of righteousness, of false invulnerability, you used to feel. But I promise, your friends and family won’t miss the asshole you used to be. And who knows — if enough of us manage to stop blaming the wrong people, maybe we’ll be able to take on the people and the systems who are responsible for doing terrible things to us and our world.