The concept of “victim blaming” is not helping

A few days ago, THINK! — a confusingly named education group at the UK Government’s Department for Transport — published this 46-second-long video aimed at cyclists:

Its message is — to quote the caption at the end — “Don’t get caught between a lorry and a left turn”.

To me, this seems like uncontroversial advice. But apparently not. The responses to THINK!’s tweet unveiling this video were mostly hostile. A brief sample from the first few responses:

And this has now blown up into a whole thing.

Which I find completely inexplicable. The video says nothing whatsoever about who is to blame for the cyclist/lorry collision. It’s not interested in that. It’s interested in preventing cyclists from getting run over and killed. Blame doesn’t enter into it. It’s making an important and very simple point, which is: if you are on a cycle and someone else is in a lorry, then you need to avoid getting run over by them, even if it they’re the one driving badly. Epecially if they’re driving badly. Because when you’re recovering in hospital from your collision, it will be cold comfort to know it was the lorry driver’s fault.


The message is: control your vehicle in such a way as to anticipate other people’s bad driving. This is called defensive driving, and is one of the most important principles taught to all new drivers. So describing this kind of video as “victim blaming” is profoundly unhelpful.

It all makes me think of the Witch from Stephen Sondheim’s marvellous musical Into the Woods. Towards the end of the show, she sings:

No, of course what really matters
Is the blame,
Somebody to blame.
Fine, if that’s the thing you enjoy,
Placing the blame:
If that’s the aim,
Give me the blame.

And that seems to be an increasing trend. Apportioning blame is seen as more important, or at least more desirable, than actually solving problems: to the point where videos like THINK!’s, which are making an effort to solve the problem, are actively hated because they don’t emphasise the blame-placing strongly enough.

As the same witch observes elsewhere in the show, “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right.” Isn’t that more important than blame-placing?


19 responses to “The concept of “victim blaming” is not helping

  1. Sort of like giving advice to “lock your car doors if you park in the city.” Am I blaming you for potentially getting burgled, or am I trying to prevent it from happening?

  2. When I worked in a manufacturing plant it was drilled into the workers that when moving through the building NO ONE had the right of way. At every intersection in every path, fork trucks and people walking were required to stop, make eye contact, and then, only then could the person walking proceed. Because if you thought you had the right of way but the fork truck thought that it did, the person walking was dead.

  3. Kurt: precisely!

    Jason: precisely!

  4. Maybe THINK! should make a video to warn the public about the negative consequences of knee-jerk blaming for social cohesion, people’s sense of responsibility, etcetera.

    I wonder if they would reap the same spoiled brat-resentment over that :)

  5. I agree. The problem is that the Internet likes to take unobjectionable, even laudable, ideas to the point of absurdity, especially if doing so can fuel outrage. There is a big difference between saying that you are somehow morally culpable for something bad someone did to you, that you deserved it, and saying that you should be prudent because bad things happen even to people who don’t deserve them, and not having been in any way deserving of them is cold comfort when they happen to you.

    The concept of victim blaming stems from cases of rape, and I’m not going to wade into that mire, but- I grew up in pretty poor and sometimes fairly violent areas of the US. I was a bit of a wild kid, and not always very prudent. By the time I was in my early twenties I had been bottled twice, shot at, suffered two superficial stab wounds, and undergone major surgery (I limp a bit to this day) as a result of imprudence, and nothing more. I am, I suppose, a slow learner. I habitually put myself in dangerous situations as a teenager.

    The thing is that I was basically a sweet kid- I wasn’t starting these altercations, and I don’t think I was morally culpable for any of them, nor do I think I deserved the consequences (though I did do a bit of bodily harm to other people in self-defense, and though it was self-defense I still feel a bit bad about it.) I suffered the consequences nonetheless.

    There is a difference between what should be and what is, and people who don’t recognize that are likely people who do not often have to deal with what is.

  6. David Starner

    This is not about defensive driving; this is about the fact that a specific set of drivers commit a specific set of driving violations, and instead of reacting to them, telling other people to watch out for them. Lorries could work on removing blind spots by having a second driver, or installing video equipment. Instead, the concern is being pushed on people besides the lorry operators.

    Jason’s story doesn’t make your point; it’s a story about demanding that trucks recognize and acknowledge the other members on the road.

    More generally, “victim blaming” is often about cases that don’t solve the problem. A lot of rape advice to women is totally worthless, whereas messages to men telling them that yes, that is rape, has been successful. Victim blaming is setting up rules about what women can wear lest they be judged guilty of crimes committed against them, when such rules don’t have much or any effect on what happens to them.

    People have to worry about what will happen to them. But when that means we turn a blind eye to criminal acts, when we ignore even the idea of a solution that will reduce the chance of this being a problem, that’s a problem.

  7. My issue here is with your phrase “instead of”: you say “this is about the fact that a specific set of drivers commit a specific set of driving violations, and instead of reacting to them, telling other people to watch out for them”. You seem to be assuming that only one of those thing can be true: but clearly it’s possible — and desirable — to both educate lorry drivers about cyclists in their blind spots and educate cyclists about avoiding those blind spots.

    And in fact, the great majority of THINK!’s videos are aimed at drivers of motor vehicles: for example this one about watching for cyclists, and these about drink-driving, horses, mobile phones and motorbikes.

    You say “People have to worry about what will happen to them. But when that means we turn a blind eye to criminal acts …” — but who on earth has suggested we should do that?

  8. David Starner

    You quoted a post titled “Desperately misguided campaign that tries to make […] vulnerable road user responsible for vehicle not fit for road” and dismissed it as “victim blaming” instead of examining the argument that these lorries shouldn’t be on the road. You say “educate lorry drivers about cyclists in their blind spots” and ignore the fact that I was talking about actual changes. It’s possible to do more than educate.

    Driving is in fact a great history of where education was used instead of actual changes; auto companies talked about those danged teenage drivers a lot and dumped money into educational films, but death rates on roads started dropping only when cars started having seatbelts and otherwise became physically safer.

    There’s certainly space for educational videos. But when you dismiss the concept of “victim blaming”, you’re dismissing the very idea that there’s a point where we shouldn’t produce more videos telling the innocent what to do instead of doing something about the problems the innocent are having.

  9. Well, again, David, you can make a case that the lorries shouldn’t be on the road at all. I don’t know the pros and cons enough to have a position on it myself, but maybe it would be a net win to get rid of them completely. But that doesn’t in any way change the fact that they are on the roads today, and a prudent cyclist will take account of that fact. You can demand your right not to have to pay attention to lorries all you want; your friends may listen, and I may listen, but the laws of physics won’t listen.

  10. David Starner

    That doesn’t change in any way the fact that a governmental organization spent money telling cyclists to avoid lorries instead of doing anything about the problems. There’s limited resources, so every thing like this is instead of something else.

    The laws of physics are about as relevant as when you’re talking about avoiding a stabbing; in both cases, the problem is that someone didn’t do what they should have, involved you getting hurt. Talking about physics avoids responsibility.

    And you’re complaining about the concept of victim blaming as whole. And part of the idea there is that sometimes there is a lot of time, money and energy spent in telling cyclists or women what to do instead of trying to protect them, even when trying to stop the problem by dealing with the people to blame would be more effective, even when part of the problem is when the people to blame don’t see themselves to blame because cyclists or women were told not to do that.

  11. Millenium Potato

    I can’t speak as to the situation in the UK, but as a cyclist in the US my reaction to this negative because we all know that we need to avoid the truck, even when we have right of way. I can’t tell you how many times a driver has screamed at me for ‘cutting him off’ when I had a green bicycle light and he had a red turn arrow.

    Telling cyclists to be aware isn’t that useful when I’m already trying my best to be aware and avoid the potential accident caused by a passenger opening their door into me, a pedestrian crossing in front of me, another cyclist going the wrong way and hitting me, or a car swerving into my lane (whether or not it’s going to turn).

    So instead of seeing money wasted on this video, I’d prefer to see something that actually made a difference. Prosecuting people who murder cyclists (especially when there’s clear video of it happening!) would be a nice step to show that anyone actually gave a shit, and enforcement of traffic laws meant to protect cyclists might convince folks to actually follow them, but most of all I’d like to see some attention to better road design, since that would save lives regardless of whether the cops felt like caring that day.

  12. David,

    There you go again with your “instead of”. You seem to have got it into your head that education and other measures are mutually exclusive. It doesn’t take much research to see that this is not the case: for example, the government is actively looking to shift more freight to rail instead of road.

    Your stabbing example is a fine one. If I, a Liverpool supporter, go into Manchester the night after Liverpool have beaten Man. United and start singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, it is possible that I will be stabbed — much more possible than if I do not do that. Now if I get stabbed, the moral responsibility for that event will lie squarely with my stabber. However, rather than sit back in hospital feeling righteousness about it, I prefer to avoid being stabbed in the first place, by singing You’ll Never Walk Alone somewhere else. Is this victim-blaming? No. It’s common-sense.

    Millennium Potato: it’s great that you are “already trying my best to be aware and avoid the potential accident”. I believe the purpose of the THINK! video was to promote other, less aware, cyclists into the same category.

    Prosecuting people who murder cyclists (especially when there’s clear video of it happening!): I am sure I need hardly say that I am entirely in favour of this — as I am of prosecuting all murders.

  13. May I suggest a middle ground . . .? I think the important point of David Starner’s comments isn’t the idea of trade-offs and limited resources, it’s the point he made in his first comment — “victim blaming” can be bad for one of two reasons (1) simple rudeness and (2) because it can normalize bad behavior.

    The second of these is more important, in the grand scheme of things. So the question to ask, in the back of your head is, “does our current culture normalize bad behavior by drivers?” I think the answer to that question is, “yes” and that explains why people get annoyed at a video which could be seen as participating in that normalization.

    That said, I think there’s a significant element of people just using the video as an opportunity to make a point. I agree that, taken by itself, it’s a little annoying to me as a cyclist, but not a big deal.

  14. 1. That is a great photo in the rocks. Is it yours? I like to imagine that seam in the stone is a cozy shelter from the wind.

    2. It’s important to remember here that a “left turn” here is just what we in the less sinister countries call a right turn.

    3. THINK! should produce a video discouraging girls from going out at night in skirts above the knee. Sure, it’s lazy and unjust to promote a world where rape is tolerated, but complaining that it’s unjust won’t protect girls from the laws of physics.

  15. David Starner

    “Instead of” is always true; life is in part a resource management game, and every cent you spend on the film is a cent you could have spent elsewhere.

    Your example, unlike the example case, is an example of provocation, not you going out doing your everyday life. (I think, not being up on UK sports.) And it’s also an example of normalization; if fans of Team Valor sometimes stabbed fans of Team Instinct, Pokemon would quickly be banned from schools and pressure would be put on shops to stop selling Pokemon merchandise. But when we’re talking about football, well, it’s common sense that such things happen, and you’re more worried about not getting stabbed than dealing with the fact that football fans stab people.

    And your thesis statement is “The concept of “victim blaming” is not helping”. I’m lukewarm on this example, but there are certainly examples where they spend a huge amount of time railing on victims, offering often ineffective suggestions, instead of dealing with the core problem.

  16. David: It might be possible to minimize the core problem, but it will never entirely go away. There will always be violent people, and there will always be careless drivers.

    I’ve been stabbed and I have come close to being flattened riding a bike in traffic. I’m not sure how you could allocate resources so as to remove the possibility of either. I do know that if I had a son and were giving him advice I would tell him: 1) stay away from people who might stab you, and 2) be very careful when riding a bicycle in traffic. And 3) Never leave comments on websites- no good can possibly come of that.

    I can tell you that when you get stabbed, even superficially, your first impulse is more likely to be wishing that you hadn’t been stabbed than thinking “well, that was clearly unjustified.” I imagine that the last thing that goes through your head before the lorry does is similar.

  17. David Starner

    And there will always be careless cyclists, so why is starting on that side of the problem more appropriate? “There will always be” is a bad argument; no regulation or action can stop somebody stubborn enough from doing anything, so why bother?

    In the case of football fans stabbing people, there’s an easy extreme solution; banning football. Again, Pokemon fans couldn’t get away with the stuff that football fans do, and if society called football fans on it, they would stop doing it. If people stopped acting like it was “common sense” that a football fan would stab you, and reacted like it was appalling and how dare anyone sell clothing that identifies the wearer as one of these violent hooligans, then football fans would be forced to reel in their behavior.

  18. In the case of football fans stabbing people, there’s an easy extreme solution; banning football.

    I wonder how much this comes down to idealism versus realism.

    Realistically, football isn’t going to be banned, and neither are lorries.

    And realistically, human nature being what it is in this fallen world, there are always going to be thieves and murderers and rapists. No amount of wailing that it shouldn’t be so, and it shouldn’t, is going to make it that way.

    So perhaps this is a disagreement between people who think people are basically good but socialised into being bad, and who therefore would return to being god if only society could be fixed, and those who realise that people are basically bad and society, imperfect as it is, is the thin skein that stands between us and chaos.

    I am sure I read recently someone suggesting that the whole of politics is basically a big discussion of who was right, Hobbes or Rousseau.

    (Spoiler: it was Hobbes)

  19. David: I know I come back to this conversation well after it has cooled down and that you might never see my response. Sorry- there were circumstances. Nevertheless…

    You ask “And there will always be careless cyclists, so why is starting on that side of the problem more appropriate?” My answer is: If I am the cyclist I can (at least try to) avoid being careless, but I cannot make drivers less careless.

    I care, a _lot_, about my personal safety when biking in traffic. The average driver is unaware of bicyclists, and probably can’t be made much more aware of bicyclists, no matter how much is spent on education campaigns (if you can help in this regard I’ll be eternally grateful.)

    Thus, as unfair as it seems, the bicyclist must assume that any given driver will kill them, given the opportunity. That is how the bicyclist who bikes in traffic every day stays alive.

    Look, I used to bike a commute where there was a wide bike lane to the right (this in the US, remember) of fast traffic, and parking to the right of that. The planners meant to make a safe lane for cyclists, but in fact they made a death zone (and at least a couple of cyclists have died there.)

    One of the things I fear most as a bicyclist is getting “doored.” I can be riding safely along in my wide bicycle lane, with parked cars on my right and traffic to my left (US, again) and suddenly the driver’s side door of a car to my right and just ahead of me opens. I hit it, and get thrown into traffic. RIP me. Bike lanes scare me, because they give people a false sense of security.

    I learned that when I was riding in that “safe” bike lane I _had_ to watch for parked cars ahead of me that had people in them. People stop looking in their mirrors once they turn the car off, they will door you, and you can die if they do.

    I have no control over drivers, and their incentive to be careful is not nearly as strong as mine. I stay alive by being more careful than they are. Telling me to be more careful might be more effective than telling them to be a bit careful, and if that is (potential) victim blaming it might be victim blaming that results in less deaths.

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