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Fear of "Blaming Victims" Perpetuates Bullying Epidemic

Why psychology is failing to find the most effective solution to bullying

by Izzy Kalman (December 31, 2013)

Author's Transparency Declaration: I declare that I am part of the anti-bullying industry that I am criticizing. I have a financial interest in a company that offers products and services that may be related to the content of my writings.

"Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself." ― Rumi

You go to your doctor because you have been feeling ill for a long time and nothing you have been doing has helped. He examines you, runs blood tests, and finally informs you that you are suffering from a bacterial infection to which your body currently has no immunity. “What should I do?” you ask the doctor.

“I am referring you to a world-renowned environmental disinfectant company to rid bacteria from your house and to follow you around, protecting you from bacteria wherever you go. It will be very expensive, but they are the gold standard in environmental disinfectance.”

“What are the chances that I will get better with this company’s help?”

“Research shows there is a 12% chance you will get better. “

“You mean I have about a one-in-eight chance of being healed?”

“Yes, isn’t that great?” the doctor says enthusiastically. “I can recommend another few highly regarded environmental disinfectant companies. They use thoroughly researched methods, and the studies show that if you use them you will almost certainly stay sick.”

“So why would I want to use them?”

“Because they are the ones most highly recommended by the experts.”

“But I’ll probably stay sick!”

“But you’ll be in the best of hands. They are all recommended by the American Medical Association as well as all other major medical organizations.”

“Would antibiotics help me?” you ask.

"Yes, I can prescribe penicillin and you will probably stop suffering in a matter of days.”

“Great! Let me have a prescription!”

“No, I will not prescribe penicillin.”

"What the heck! Don't you want me to get better?!"

"Of course I do. But I will not allow anyone to accuse me of blaming you for being sick. The illness is not your fault. You are an innocent victim of the harmful bacteria, and the bacteria came from the environment. It is the environment that needs to change, not you.”

While you would never expect a doctor to take such an approach, this is, amazingly, the very line of thinking guiding the worldwide campaign against bullying. And we wonder why the campaign is failing.

It is self-evident that the best way to stop being bullied is to learn how to get people to stop bullying you. It is essentially effortless, works almost immediately, and doesn’t require other people to constantly protect you. It doesn’t involve a physical medication but a psychological one. The medication is not called penicillin but wisdom. And in contrast to penicillin, which has been used by doctors for almost a hundred years, the cure for bullying has been taught by wise people for thousands of years.

However, the social sciences have decided that the worst thing they can do is “blame a victim,” so they require everyone but the victim to change. We should not be surprised that the popular anti-bullying programs that take this approach are having dismal results. In fact, recent research has shown that students are more likely to be bullied in schools that have anti-bullying programs than in schools that don’t.

What has led to this counterproductive development?

It used to be common for judges to blame rape victims for being raped. Thanks to feminist activism, judges are not supposed to do this anymore. But the psychological sciences have taken the idea that you can’t blame a rape victim to mean that anyone who feels like a victim for any reason has nothing to do with what happens to them. This is not a valid generalization of the idea that you can’t blame a rape victim.

During the past few decades, victim advocacy groups have been lobbying for laws requiring society to protect their members and to punish and/or rehabilitate abusers. Because people, including psychologists, need to avoid getting in trouble with the law, and because psychologists naturally tend to feel compassion for their clients, who virtually all describe themselves as victims (otherwise they wouldn’t come for help), the field of psychology has been steadily adopting a legal paradigm of interpersonal problems. In this model, one side is determined to be the victim who is innocent and not required to change, and the other side is the abuser or bully who is guilty and must do the changing. Because this view sounds so inherently correct, few people dare to challenge whether it is appropriate for the psychological helping professions, and anyone who does challenge it gets attacked by victim advocates, including psychologists.

As a result, psychology has gradually been transformig itself from a branch of science that searches for truth into a branch of law enforcement fighting for the rights of victims against abusers and bullies. One basic tenet of this law enforcement approach is that “one must never blame a victim.”

The difference between blaming and taking responsibility

"Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame." - Erica Jong

The concept of “blame” is fundamental to the criminal justice process, so the guilty party can be identified and be made to pay for their crime. However, “blame” is the worst way to help people solve social and emotional problems. If I wish to solve such problems, I need to take responsibility for them.

There is a fundamental difference between “blaming” and “taking responsibility.” In order for me to solve my social/emotional problem, I need to take responsibility for it. Blaming will not do me any good. If I blame you for my problem, it is not going to solve my problem. I will just be angry with you, and you’ll probably get angry with me in return. And if I get you in trouble with the authorities, your anger will fly through the roof and you'll want revenge.

I can blame myself for the problem, but it still won't solve my problem. I'll just be angry with myself.

In order to solve my problem I need to take responsibility for it. But how can I possibly take responsibility if I have no way of knowing what I am doing wrong? So when I work with people, I show them through role-playing how their current efforts to solve the problem are ineffective or counterproductive, and I teach them how to solve their problem almost effortlessly, without anyone’s help and without getting anyone in trouble. But today, with our legalistic approach to psychology, many people think that since I am teaching victims how to solve their problems by themselves, I am blaming them.

Taking responsibility doesn’t mean the problem is your fault

Taking responsibility for a problem does not necessarily mean that I created the problem. What it does mean is that I am in a position to solve it. If I own a house and it snows, it is my responsibility to shovel the sidewalk; I didn’t make it snow.

Or let's say I was raised by emotionally disturbed parents, and as a result I have developed emotional problems. If I want to become free of my problems, I must take responsibility for them. Blaming my parents or getting them punished is not going to solve my emotional problems. My parents couldn't solve my emotional problems for me even if they wanted to. Society can't solve my emotional problems for me, either. So if I want to solve my problems I need to take responsibility for them. It doesn’t mean I created them in the first place.

The truth is, if people are repeatedly picking on me, the only person who can reliably get them to stop is me. But as long as I rely on others to stop them, I don’t possess a solution. And as long as society continues trying to eradicate bullies rather than teaching people the wisdom to be immune to them, the bullying “epidemic” will continue.

"He who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition will waste his life away in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief he proposes to remove." - Samuel Johnson

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