Friday, 21 October 2016

Brisbane Writers Festival - Part 2: Victims

As I said in Part 1 of this two-part series, there was a theme underlying all of the panels and presentations that I witnessed during my day at the Brisbane Writers Festival, and that theme was definitely Victims.
In particular, the idea of "guilt, innocence and victims", Who are our victims? Who are victims of true crime? Which victims do we focus on? How do we perceive victims?

To begin with, one of the talks I went to that day spoke about how schools have this habit of victimizing children for their grades. School has become so competitive that children feel overwhelming pressure to achieve and be the very best, and when they are anything but perfect, we blame them, and this leads to mental illness, poor education and, in some cases, suicide. In fact, in some of the highest achieving schools in the world, they have what is known as "suicide clusters" where multiple people commit suicide within a small place and time, often with the first suicide triggering the depression and suicide of the rest. And it has been concluded that the cause of the distress and anxiety in these children which leads to their suicide is the pressure to excel.
We force these children to succeed, blame them for their failures, pressure them to be the best, and as a result of the stress from this institutionalized bullying, they become suicidal.

But this discussion isn't about education, it's about victimization. We are making people into victims, in more ways than one.

For me, the Writers Festival began with a discussion of "pretty, dead girls", because when we discuss both true and fictional crime, there is a desire of the media to focus on blameless victims. The virginal, innocent girl; the underaged, innocent child; the weak, elderly citizen. There is this disturbing need to have our victims be innocent.
Don't get me wrong, if someone starts a fight and as a result gets seriously injured, we can all agree that part of that is their own fault. However, we take this to a ridiculous degree.
If a victim has a mental illness, if they were drunk, if they are known for being sexually promiscuous, if they are a man or if they are non-white; we do not empathize with the victim as much. We're less interested. Heck, there are some victims that we don't sympathize with, because they were outside.
This isn't something I am making up, it's evidenced by capitalism in action - one of the speakers was a journalist as well as a writer, and she said that when the victim is a white, young, pretty girl they sell more newspapers (or, in this day and age, they "get more clicks"), and when black or male or mentally ill, they don't. And don't even ask about transgender victims, let alone non-white ones.

The strangest element is, there's no such thing as a "blameless" victim. Because the archetypical victim is someone that is kind and caring, 20-years old, white, female, virginal, sober, mentally healthy, open-minded, often Christian and conventionally attractive. Mental illness alone guarantees that this person doesn't exist. But a virgin and they don't drink?
In fact, sometimes, to sell further papers journalists have been known to obscure details about a victim's mental illness or race to get more readers. It's not a fabrication, but it is a lie of omission; as a culture, we invent our own victims, we desire a kind of person to be killed, raped or assaulted, and that is what we get.

Now, I understand that most newspapers don't report the sexual activity of a victim of murder, but there is evidence that people are more likely to blame a victim of rape than they are to blame a victim of rape whom is also murdered.

Heck, even kids, we know that children can be horrendous in their own way. I'm not saying that we should blame kids for being hurt, but the fact that I even have to say that is part of the problem. I don't think we should blame anyone, but the stereotypical "blameless" victim? Well, there's a reason we show pictures of children smiling, and parents talk about how sweet they are and not the other elements that make them a rounded human being.
Everyone is stupid in their own way, everyone is wrong, everyone is guilty of something.
The fact is that the "blameless victim" is a fiction, a media construction. Because all victims should be without blame for the hurt inflicted upon them. Two wrongs don't make a right, but there is a bias of people to feel as though life is "just", that there is karmic balance, but this leads to people assuming that all actions, no matter how evil, are justified unless it is too difficult to place guilt on the victim.

The second panel I saw was about psychopaths, and we covered how people care less about non-white victims, and just as insidiously, there is a precedent for child-murderers to receive less harsher penalties if they are female. Mothers or fathers, even if they commit the same crime, are judged differently.
But, more than anything else, that second panel flipped the script from real crime to fiction. When we write stories, we use the same sensibilities as when we read the news or read true crime. We are still more drawn to the "blameless victim" and in instances when the victim is not a white, young, healthy, virginal girl - that lack of "blamelessness" is often the focus of the story.
But, as real life and research into the facts shows us, everyone can be the victim of crime.

It's as though, when we see victims, we attempt to empathize with the criminal, and think "well, it would be difficult for me to hurt this victim, because I would easily overpower them; so I feel bad for them",
Now, whilst empathy is what makes us moral people, it is this very function that lets us down, because if we look at a victim and think "Yeah, I could hit them" or "yeah, I understand why they were raped" and blame the victim, then we don't empathize with them at all.
And when you consider this from the perspective of writing fiction, it means we are essentially empathizing with the villain. whilst I question the concept of "evil" since I feel as though the term itself carries too much weight; we're talking about criminals; rapists, murderers, thieves, stalkers and psychopaths.
This is why I titled the first part as I did, when we are writers, we are the perpetrators of the narrative, we perpetuate this social narrative that victims are innocent. Because when someone dies, we consider it a pointless waste of life; but when we blame the victim, empathize with the criminal & dehumanize the ugly, the mentally ill, the ethnically diverse or the transgender; you are essentially saying that it's not a waste of life, it's just disposing of the trash.
At least two of the panels I went to discussed how we empathize with the villain, with the criminal; and I am not saying we should never see stories from the villain's perspective, but I truly appreciated the last panel where several writers discussed blurring the lines between innocent and guilty, the yin and yang of morality, giving the hero a dark spot, and the villain a light quality.

I think this is the way to stop victim blaming; to expose the diversity in not just morality, but also perceived innocence. And also, to challenge the media construct of the pretty, dead girl. Men are victims of crime; people if diverse ethnicities are victims of crime; homosexuals, transgendereds and non-heteronormative people are victims of crime; drunk and mentally ill people are victims of crime & yes, so too are the young, white and female. And until we have the capacity empathize with them all, we're going to be another part of the problem.

In conclusion, yes, I understand that it may seem hypocritical for me to write a post about people whom I think deserve to die, only to follow that up blaming people for

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