Why is there an impulse to blame victims in the face of tragedy?

My friend Heather wrote a compelling post earlier today about the overwhelming number of people publicly shaming the grieving families of victims in the recent Colorado shooting.  Not long after the news broke, people were expressing outrage . . . not just at the shooting, but at the fact that people had a six-year-old child at a midnight showing of a PG-13 movie.   You can read Heather’s post for some examples of people who took to twitter to condemn these parents not even 24 hours after the tragic loss of their children.

Now, a small child at a midnight showing might raise an eyebrow. However, I would hope we can agree that immediately after said child’s death is not the time to call into question what would otherwise be a relatively inconsequential parenting decision in the scheme of things. Reading Heather’s post reminded me, though, of how many times I’ve seen this impulse to judge in the face of tragedy.  It reminded me of the Trayvon Martin case, and how many people suggested that perhaps Trayvon could have been spared had he not been dressed like a “thug.”  It reminded me of the time that a well-known blogger discovered that her son had drowned in their family pool, and how quickly people jumped in to make assumptions about her negligent supervision (which was not the case). It also reminded me of my friend Katie, who lost her teenage son to a tragic drug overdose. Katie is a well-known blogger and there is a website that seems to make a sport of speculating on Katie’s son and their relationship. It’s disgusting


That being said, I will admit here that I’m not immune to this impulse. When something horrific happens to another child, I find myself quickly cataloging the details, trying to find something that would make the tragedy exceptional . . . some slip-up that the grieving parent made along the way that would comfort me from a concern that it could happen to me.   I’ve done it when I’ve heard about infant death . . . I’ve scrambled to figure out if the parent was doing something wrong. Was there some rule they failed to follow that would assuage my anxiety about my own child’s mortality? What a disgusting response, but I’ve done it.  I found myself doing this as I watched the Sandusky trial as well — quickly casting aspersions on the judgement of the parents of the victims for their lack of discernment.  I’m not proud of this, but it was my way of rationalizing that with enough supervision, my kids could not be susceptible to that kind of abuse.

I think this is an awful but real human impulse — we want to find a way to exclude the possibility that something bad could befall our families.  We desperately search for a way to blame the parents, because if they aren’t to blame, then we have to grapple with the reality that sometimes, tragedy is senseless. This is an uncomfortable truth: awful things happen to children that parents cannot prevent.  It’s a truth so painful that we would rather throw grieving parents under the bus than face it.

It’s unfortunate that judgement can be a natural impulse in the face of tragedy, but for me, today, I’m going to choose another impulse: empathy. My heart goes out to the families who have lost lives in the horrible shooting.  Let’s focus our energy there.


Kristen also blogs at Rage Against the Minivan.

Find her wasting time on:  Facebook  Twitter  Google Plus  pinterest

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Article Posted 4 years Ago
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