Why Victim Blaming Still Persists: Why we need critical thinking to combat cognitive errors

When we attribute blame to someone, we make some key logical steps in thinking.

We acknowledge the intentionality of the action. We hold someone responsible for this act. We assume that the person freely chose the behavior to result in the outcomes, intended or unintended. Although judicial systems consider circumstances like insanity, overall, we blame those who committed the act.

If victim blaming fails the test of basic logic, why is this cognitive error still so common?

Why is it still pervasive such that social movements have been born to challenge this error and promote justice?

Two such movements are the #MeToo and the SlutWalk, both global, transnational movements to end rape culture, victim blaming and slut shaming of assault victims.

Photo by Red Dot on Unsplash

Their recent Philippine version emerged in #Hija Movement, which connected a Municipal Police Station, a bombastic newscaster, and the daughter of Mega-star Sharon Cuneta and Senator Francis Pangilinan.

It started when a Lucban Municipal Police station posted on Facebook: Mahalin natin ang mga kababaihan at huwag nyo abusuhin ang kanilang kabaitaan. Kayo naman mga ghErlsz, wag kayo magsuot ng pagkaikli-ikling damit at pag naman nabastos ay magsusumbong din sa amin. Isipin ‘nyo rin!” (We should love women and not abuse their kindness. You girls, on the other hand, should not wear excessively short clothes that when harassed, you come to us for help. Think about it too!)

In response, Frankie Pangilinan tweeted in caps: “STOP TEACHING GIRLS HOW TO DRESS?? TEACH PEOPLE NOT TO RAPE.”

Her Tweet compelled Ben Tulfo @bitagbentulfo to reply, “Hija @kakiep83, a rapist or a juvenile sex offender's desire to commit a crime will always be there. All they need is an opportunity, when to commit the crime. Sexy ladies, careful with the way you dress up! You are inviting the beast.

Pangilinan countered in a tweet: “Rape culture is real and a product of this precise line of thinking, where the behavior is normalized, particularly by men. The way anyone dresses should not be deemed as 'opportunity' to sexually assault them ever. Calling me hija will not belittle my point.”

One of Pangilinan’s Twitter follower wrote back to say, “id (sic) like to sign up for the hija label if that is what ben tulfo’s calling girls who fight for their rights as human beings.”

And the #Hija movement was born.

In fluid local colloquialisms, “Hija/Hijo” talk down to young people. Their usage can cause inter-generational tensions, intentional or not.

Nineteen year-old Kakie Pangilinan’s standing up to Tulfo was no small deal. True, her admirable grit, social stature and famous parents were enough to muster enough courage. Tulfo was no small fish either. He and his brother are well-known. Sometimes chastised for their machismo, bombastic journalism and abrasive form of interviewing, Tulfo represents power and public service on air.

Their age difference and celebrity factor drew media watchers. Social media went overdrive, especially among Filipinx millennials. Filipinos are among the heaviest users of Facebook, estimated by exemplary, brave journalist Maria Reza at 71 million.

Thousands of Filipinx turned to Twitter and Facebook, relating stories of harassment and assault unconnected to the clothes they were wearing. Many attested wearing their “school uniform”, “jogging pants,” “long-sleeved uniform with sando and knee-length skirt with stockings and cycling shorts” yet they experienced catcalling, harassment or rape.

The University of the Philippines Babaylan group posted a photo of an art exhibit featuring clothes women wore when they were assaulted – all ordinary outfits framed on glasses between black frames.

Young artists posted artworks decrying victim blaming.  One posted a graphic design saying “Magdamit Maria Clara para hindi mabastos. Spoiler: Na-rape si Maria Clara.” (Dress like Maria Clara to avoid harassment. Spoiler: Maria Clara was raped.)

Maria Clara, the national female symbol based on Jose Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tangere, was idealized Filipina woman: demure, modest in dress, speech, and behavior. Immortalized in movies and folk music such as the kundiman “Ang Dalagang Pilipina,” another referential point for how older generation of Filipinas. These idealized gender identities have become part of dominant cultural expectations. Generations of mothers and grandmothers would pass on gender relevant admonitions to young people.

Photo by BBH Singapore on Unsplash

The #Hija, #MeToo Philippine version, reached a new level when, Kim Cruz, one of the influencers of the Filipino chain store, Cookies by the Bucket weighed in. Cruz revealed male bosses sharing contact numbers and addresses of influencers they “want to bang.”

Both Cruz and Pangilinan then received hate posts, including rape threats. This prompted Senator Pangilinan to challenge sexism.

Cruz said sadly, “And even some women—which made me so sad; I got messages from women saying ‘Maybe it's because of the way you dress.’ For men, [they] even say ‘Oh, she deserves it because she dresses that way.’ And I think that’s the problem here”.

There are three dangerous ways of thinking that in combination leads to victim blaming.

First are “Just World” beliefs.

Victim blaming is strong in individualistic and religious (particularly, Judeo-Christian/Catholic) cultures where “Just World” beliefs are common, particularly in rich countries such as the US and Canada. We say, “people get the life they deserve; people get the government they deserve.” “They must have done something in this life [for Hindus and Buddhists, including previous lives] to cause bad things to happen to them.” The “justified” thinking believe in the binaries of good and evil, weak and strong, just and unjust, deserving and undeserving. People and events belong to either one or the other category.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Second is resigned fatalism related to “Just World” beliefs.

This thinking particularly thrives in societies with persistent poverty and failure to create strong institutions that work. Fatalistic thinking people believe in fate, that “it was bound to happen” “meant to be”, “sometimes bad things happen to good people.”

Photo by Zeyn Afuang on Unsplash

Third is the cautionary “better safe than sorry” attitude.

Since Filipino parents, especially mothers, have accepted or resigned to the fact that Philippine city streets and public places are often unlit and dangerous, poorly policed sites of crime, they tell their daughters, “you better be safe than sorry.”

We admonish them to avoid danger and ask our daughters to anticipate, to foresee uncontrollable threats, to be hyper-vigilant. This way, we feel some control over things we cannot control. And women have control over what they wear. They must dress modestly and are “asking for it” by “flirting” or “teasing” men with their dress. They deserve blame if they are not vigilant, not careful, or did not do enough to avoid the situation in the first place.

Photo by Francisco Suarez on Unsplash

If “Just World” belief serves as a safety valve to assuage our guilt or share of blame when bad things do happen, as a matter of fate, then “better be safe than sorry” attitude gives us some control over deteriorating environments and security that we cannot control

Do not get me wrong. It is good to be careful, to plan and to take precautionary measures.

What I am challenging are how this combined thinking is used to explain, excuse and justify, misogyny.

Thinking that sexual assault or harassment happens because of the way women dress, walk, look, behave remains so pervasive and ingrained that we take for granted its roots. Our persistent beliefs about male and female privilege, male and female sexuality, and gender stereotypes and binaries: “boys will be boys” “girls will be girls.” A Just World ruled by fate and destiny.

Victim blaming rests on cognitive and attribution errors: since perpetrators of violence are not in full control of their actions, victims are or should be in control.

Cognitive errors and attribution problems thrive in cultures that do not promote critical thinking in schools, within our families, workplaces, media, political systems, everywhere.

Education is not entirely at fault. Our belief systems, sexism, misogyny, gender bias, gender discrimination, and stereotyping practices are part of what has been happening to our national political culture and democratic institutions in our modern world.

The misogynist backlash against #Hija revealed a largely urban/peri-urban lowland, Christian culture that resorts to victim blaming. The award winning 2014 documentary film “Walang Rape sa Bontoc (Bontoc Rapeless) reminded us of Philippine Indigenous communities that do not glorify rape and gender violence.

Walang Rape sa Bontoc (There is No Rape in Bontoc)

Given the Philippines’ diverse cultures, the normalization of misogynistic behavior has not been totalizing nor uniform across the country.  However, since President Duterte became Top Executive and Commander-in-Chief in 2016, his misogynist, violent and degrading comments normalized rape culture, gaving men the license to degrade and harass women.

For the President to disregard national laws against rape, sexual arrangement, domestic and other forms of violence against women, that earlier generations of Filipino feminists fought hard to enact, was irresponsible and immoral.

Not surprisingly, some of the Twitter enthusiasts of #Hija are also using #JunkTerrorBill and thus making connections between sexism and authoritarianism. #Hija ties with the Duterte’s blatant and arrogant display of power with impunity. An impunity made possible because he has a receptive national audience immune to the glorification of violence and daily harassment -- from the big screen since the 1970s “bomba movies” to the small screen of TV and Facebook feeds.

It will take a generation of wired, connected, and engaged young feminist men and women to fight victim blaming rooted in misogyny and sexism.

Systems change require critical thinking skills.

We need critical and clear thinking now more than ever to combat victim blaming — from blaming the poor, the homeless, ethnic minorities, Blacks, Transgender people for “their problems”. We need to cultivate this now in our critical historical moment. ***