December 18, 2008

Blaming the victim and taking responsibility

Last week, Cara at Feministe wrote a post criticising this Rolling Stone article on Proposition 8. Cara's criticism, in brief, was that Tim Dickinson was blaming the victim when he wrote things like these:

Don't blame Mormons or black voters - the California activists who tried to stop Prop 8 ran a lousy campaign

Prop 8 should have been defeated — two months before the election, it was down 17 points in the polls — but the gay-rights groups that tried to stop it ran a lousy campaign. According to veteran political observers, the No on Prop 8 effort was slow to raise money, ran weak and confusing ads, and failed to put together a grass-roots operation to get out the vote.

That is, Dickinson was arguing -- at least -- that gay activists could have done more or better to stop 8. Cara objects to the corollary -- actual or merely implied -- that gay activists are responsible for the passage of 8. Let's call the first one `Dickinson's thesis', and the second one `the corollary'. (Due to context and some specific sentences, Dickinson may actually be arguing for or believe the corollary as well. Let's ignore this for the purpose of this post.)

Now, in the comment thread, Cara seems to clarify that it really just is the corollary that she has a problem with, and not Dickinson's thesis. And I'm inclined to agree -- Dickinson's thesis is true, but the corollary is objectionable victim-blaming. The problem is a belief about responsibility that I suspect is widespread. As a first pass, the belief is that, if X could have done something that prevented a bad thing Y, and X did not, then X is responsible for Y. If we accept something like this -- and the qualifications we include don't rule out this particular case -- then we have an inference directly from Dickinson's thesis to the corollary.

The problem is more general for any leftist or progressive. We certainly want to claim that groups of oppressed people and their allies can and should do more to end their oppression, and we want to talk about successful and unsuccessful strategies for doing so. But we don't want to imply that oppressed people and their allies are responsible or blameworthy for their continuing oppression just because they haven't successfully ended it yet. To say that anti-poverty groups could do more to prevent poverty, that feminist groups could do more to prevent sexual assault, that anti-racist groups could do more to prevent the use of stereotypes in the mainstream media, or that worker's groups could do more to promote strong and active unions is not to say that anti-poverty groups are thereby responsible for continuing poverty, that feminist groups are thereby responsible for continuing sexual assault, that anti-racit groups are thereby responsible for the continuing use of stereotypes, or that worker's groups are thereby responsible for the degradation of union power.

One way to deal with the problem is to throw in such qualifications to the belief about responsibility as to block the inference -- it only applies to acting and not refraining, there's a distinction between practical and ethical responsibility, we need a clause about X's intentions, or whatever. However, as a pragmatist who denies the acting-refraining distinction, I don't like any of these qualifications, and I can't think of anything more promising.

Another way is to look more carefully at the other assumptions we are making about responsibility and blame in the corollary and the consequent of the belief about responsibility. If you read Cara's post and the ensuing comments carefully, you'll notice that I've slightly misrepresented the objectionable corollary. The problem isn't so much the responsibility or blameworthiness of opponents of 8. Cara's problem is the way Dickinson seems to deny proponents of 8 any responsibility or blameworthiness. That is, the objectionable corollary is really that conservatives are not responsible for the passage of 8. (Go back and read that first quoted sentence from Dickinson again.)

The solution to this problem is straightforward. The inference from the corollary about the opponents of 8 to that about the proponents of 8 assumes that responsibility is exclusive, ie, if agent X has responsibility for outcome Y, then any other agent Z does not have responsibility for outcome Y. And that's clearly a silly view.

Still, this doesn't seem to get at the heart of problem. Even if we admit that oppressors are responsible for continuing oppression, there's something uncomfortable about saying that the oppressed are responsible for continuing oppression. While part of the problem with victim-blaming is the way it is often used to exculpate the oppressor, this is not the whole problem. Especially when the oppressed are trying (albeit failing) to end their oppression, it seems odd to say that they are responsible for continuing it.

In one of her last papers, Iris Marion Young developed a notion of `political responsibility' that she finds in Hannah Arendt. (`Responsibility and global labor justice', J Poli Phil, 12:4 (2004), pp 365-88) This notion of responsibility is meant to contrast with `responsibility as liability'. Briefly, while responsibility as liability is focussed on positive actions in the past by identifiable agents (individual or institutional) that lead (causally) to the current state of things, political responsibility is focussed on not-yet-realised courses of action that could bring about dramatic changes in the future.

Large parts of this notion seem to depend on a distinction between acting and refraining, so I can't take it up completely without serious modification. What I can do here is take up one central feature:

Political responsibility seeks not to reckon debts, but aims rather to bring about results, and thus depends on the actions of everyone who is in a position to contribute to the results. Taking political responsibility in respect to social structures emphasizes the future more than the past. Because the particular causal relationship of the actions of particular individuals or even organizations to the structural outcomes is often not possible to trace, there may be little point in trying to blame and exact compensation or redress only from a few who have caused the outcome. The point is not to blame people participating in the institutions and structures and produce injustice, because in many cases avoiding such participation is dif´Čücult or impossible. Having understood that structural processes cause some injustices, those participating in the production and reproduction of the structures should recognize that their actions contribute along with those of others to this injustice, and take responsibility for altering the processes to avoid or reduce injustice. (379)

Young says that political responsibility is `forward-looking', as opposed to the `backward-looking' responsibility as liability. It thereby disconnects responsibility from blame. This allows us to say that the oppressed have a responsibility to end their oppression, without inferring that they are blameworthy for not yet ending it.

An important corollary of this feature of political responsibility is that many of those properly thought to be victims of harm or injustice may nevertheless have political responsibility in relation to it. In a fault model of responsibility, blaming those who claim to be victims of injustice functions to absolve others of responsibility for their plight. In a conception of political responsibility, however, those who can properly be argued as victims of structural injustice can be called to a responsibility they share with others in the structures to engage in actions directed at transforming the structures. In the case of labor exploitation, the workers themselves ought to resist if they can by means of their own collective organization. Without the support of others taking responsibility for working conditions in ways that support them, however, they are less likely to succeed. (387)


There's one remaining problem, however. Either political responsibility replaces responsibility as liability, or the two complement each other (say, responsibility as liability looking at how we got to where we are, and political responsibility looking at where we go from here). Neither is satisfying here. If political responsibility replaces responsibility as liability, then we cannot infer from the responsibility proponents of 8 have for its passage to their blameworthiness for its passage. That is, we cannot say that conservative religious groups are to blame for the passage of 8. Or, more generally, we cannot say that oppressors are responsible for continuing oppression. We've removed the link between responsibility and blame that allowed us to make those inferences in the context of responsibility as liability. On the other hand, if the two notions of responsibility complement each other, then we have not actually blocked the inference from the responsibility (as liability) opponents of 8 have for its passage to their blameworthiness. They're still liable for its passage, and hence still blameworthy. It doesn't seem enough to say that, in asking what to do now, blaming them isn't all that important or useful.

At root, I suspect the problem is that -- at least once we have removed the distinction between action and refraining, and partially discounted intentions -- the two notions of responsibility are symmetric, in that neither distinguishes between the responsibility of opponents of 8 and proponents of 8. Meanwhile, the `intuitions' that motivate the criticisms are built on an asymmetry between oppressed and oppressor. If this is right, then we cannot fix the notions of responsibility by reinstating the distinction between action and refraining, or looking only at intentions, since neither of these tracks the distinction between oppressed and oppressor. What we need is an account of responsibility that is sensitive to this last distinction. And that's something I'll need to think about more.

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