“They should accept that their actions have consequences”.
That’s something you hear a lot in the punishers’ mouths. By “they”, they mean the people who did something wrong – who broke the law, who abused or caused otherwise harm – and are now subject to punishment. And by “consequences”, they mean “whatever happens to them”. And that’s what I would like to unpack.
But first, I have to say… I’m not at all against actions having consequences. It sounds silly to even say it. Who would be? Actions have consequences. It’s a truism. And that’s the whole point.
You know what a thought-terminating cliché is? Here, I’ll let Wikipedia explain:
Thought-terminating clichés, also known as thought-stoppers or semantic stopsigns, are words or phrases that discourage critical thought and meaningful discussion about a given topic. They are typically short, generic truisms that offer seemingly simple answers to complex questions or that distract attention away from other lines of thought. They are often sayings that have been embedded in a culture’s folk wisdom and are tempting to say because they sound true or good or like the right thing to say.
Ok, so, here we are. “They should accept that their actions have consequences” is a thought-terminating cliché.
This often taps into, and reinforces, previously established negative narratives about their moral inferiority. For example, this cliché in often used to defend, in leftist spaces, the ostracism of abusers or otherwise “bad persons”. Here, it taps into the stereotypical association made between committing abuse and being morally flawed, and, specifically, being excessively entitled and not respecting the agency of others.
But it is not specific to the leftist ostracizer’s discourse. The same cliché is infamously used by White supremacists and other conservatives in the U.S. to justify how migrant children are stolen from their families and put into camps. “The parents crossed the border illegally. They should not complain about the consequences.” It is the same logic, except that, in this case, it taps into racists stereotypes on migrants, also framed (but for very different reasons) as morally inferior, excessively entitled, and lacking respect for the country they immigrate to.
This does not mean, however, that people using this cliché are consciously and deliberately manipulative (or conscious to be supremacists). The success of thought-terminating clichés comes from the fact that they appear sound or wise, while still protecting from critical analysis a behavior or an idea we would rather leave unexamined, or protecting us from a line of thought we’d prefer not to explore. Here is Wikipedia again:
The term was popularized by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. Lifton wrote, “The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis”. Sometimes they are used in a deliberate attempt to shut down debate, manipulate others to think a certain way, or dismiss dissent. However, some people repeat them, even to themselves, out of habit or conditioning, or as a defense mechanism to reaffirm a confirmation bias.
Thought-stoppers depolitize issues. A political issue, at its core, is a conflict between several respectable and legitimate interests. The fight between Good and Evil is not political, it’s moral. We’re starting to do politics when we recognize that the different and conflicting interests at stake in a situation are all legitimate. In case of abuse, we’re starting to do politics when we recognize that both the safety and healing of the victim and the integrity and agency of the perpetrator are important and should be cared for. Otherwise, we’re just doing moral crusades. When you call a response to a behavior “consequences”, you shield it from criticism while saying that “accepting it” is the only moral thing to do. It strips both the punisher and the punished of their political agency.
We can find variations of this cliché in a lot of contexts, mainly in the conservative discourse. Homeless people shouldn’t complain, because they should accept the consequences for not having worked enough; single mothers, pregnant teens and HIV-positives should accept the consequences of their sexual irresponsibility; victims of police brutality should accept the consequences for having failed to respect the orders they were given, yada yada yada. Each time we try to put the blame of a suffering on the person who suffers, this cliché is around the corner.
In the social justice discourse, most uses of this cliché are understood as victim-blaming: the art of putting the blame of someone’s victimization on themselves. You know, the “you cannot walk alone at night in such clothes and expect this not to happen”. But here’s the catch: by definition, victim-blaming is something done to a victim, and abusers are not victims. They are, very literally, the contrary of victims.
That’s a problem with the word “victim-blaming”: it can be, at times, misleading. Because using this word presupposes that there is a clearly identified victim on which someone tries to put the blame. But, in almost every case, the “victim-blamers” do not see the situation that way. It would be more encompassing to say that they are actually attempting to deny someone victimhood status. Cynics excepted, everyone knows that victims shouldn’t be blamed (it’s actually baked in the very notion of victimhood). What “victim-blamers” do is disagreeing about the “victim” being one in the first place. Sometimes by denying the suffering itself, but most of the time by insisting that the person claiming victimhood actually could have prevented what happened to them, which implies that their suffering can be seen as a form of punishment for having failed to prevent the harm done to them.
On other words, in our culture, a victim is not understood as someone who merely stands on the receiving end of violence. It should, in my opinion, but it does not. Victims are understood as those who have no agency over their suffering, and so are not responsible for it. As scholar Martha Mahoney says in Victimization of Oppression?:
In our society, agency and victimization are each known by the absence of the other: you are an agent if you are not a victim, and you are not a victim if you are in anyway an agent… This all-agent or all-victim conceptual dichotomy will not be easy to escape or transform.
So someone who says “if you hadn’t accepted this third drink, nothing would have happened” is implicitly saying “you could have prevented what was done to you, therefore you’re not really a victim, you are just punished for having be careless and have no right to complain”.
Such a nuance (between “blaming the victim” and “denying someone victimhood status”) may be overlooked when we’re talking about sexual and domestic violence. There is then a strong enough agreement about what constitutes victimization for “victim-blaming” to feel like an objective characterization of what’s happening. In those cases, the denial of victimhood is too at odds with dominant representations to be maintained by those who engage in it if they are seriously challenged. In a paradoxical way, one’s victimhood status needs to go without saying for them to be fully understood as “victim-blamed”. This might be why the word victim-blaming, which comes originally from anti-racism and anti-fascism, evokes today mainly sexual and conjugal violence against women, since they are more easily understood as victims under the dominant assumptions (both in patriarcal and feminist discourse).
But, when we enter muddier waters, this discrepancy renders “victim-blaming” a word too impractical to think with. We might think conservatives “blame the victims” of police brutality, but, with some rare exceptions, they simply don’t think of them as victims. They think of them as perpetrators being punished. And, at times, perpetrators they undoubtly are.
Why is that important? For two reasons. First, because we need to understand what “blaming the victim” looks like from the inside if we want to identify the moments when we are engaging ourselves in this type of behavior. And, from the inside, it looks like explaining why someone suffering is actually not a victim, but someone who did something wrong and is punished for it. Not surprisingly, leftist ostracizers have the rhetoric of cop bootlickers: the punished person is bad, therefore is not a victim, therefore what is happening to them is not institutional violence and collective abuse. It is merely a consequence of their bad behavior they shouldn’t have had in the first place. They should stop “victimize themselves” and start accepting that their actions have consequences.
But there’s a second reason: all punished people do not want to identify as victims. One of the bleak consequences of the way our society defines victimhood is that, in order to gain support and care, in order for your suffering to be heard and not considered to be “your fault”, you have to claim an absence of both agency and responsibility. I do believe that it is something bad, at times, for the people identifying as victims. But that’s not my point here. My point is that there are people who want either their agency or their responsibility to be recognized in the harmful situation they are in, and they might, for this reason, reject the term of “victims”. But they are still victimized, in the sense that they are still on the receiving end of violence or abuse.
My experience of abuse is a good illustration of what I’m claiming here, so I would like to conclude on a personal note. As a former victim of domestic abuse, I recognize in the “accepting consequences” cliché the same rhetoric that allowed my abusive parent to justify their violence towards me when I was a child. I was not a victim of their violence, I was someone who did bad things and they were punishing me. And, if I want to be fair, sometimes I really did bad things. How they chose to punish me, though, was abusive. As was blaming me for their violence. As was blaming me for the consequences this violence had for them.
But as an ostracized abuser, I won’t say those putting on me the blame for how I was mistreated are victim-blaming me. Sure, I was victimized by the community I belonged to. Several of its members, my former friends, comrades and lovers, some of whom were in position of power over me, both before the abuse and because of it, were themselves abusive towards me in response. And, like my parent did when I was a child, they said it was my fault and I had no right to complain because those were the consequences for the bad things I had done. There is a difference, though: in this case, I don’t want to identify as a victim. I’m not a child anymore, and I want to acknowledge my responsibility in the harm I’ve done. So I don’t want to call myself “a victim” in this whole mess. For this reason, I am not “victim-blamed”. But for this reason alone.
As an child, I had noone to tell me that my parent’s behavior was wrong, and that it was not my fault. Thankfully, I also had parents who weren’t abusive, so I could compare the different ways I was treated, loved and cared for. They didn’t intervene to stop the abuse, nor did they name it for me, but they gave me the resources needed to teach myself that I was not responsible for the wrong done to me. I had to learn by myself that it wasn’t right and it wasn’t my fault, and that where most of my anger comes from when I think of those times. And I believe that’s one of the things that made the core of who I am today.
In my personal narrative, that’s the reason why I was able to teach myself the same things a second time, when I became “an abuser” in the eyes of my friends. It was harder, because the level of guilt, of shame, of pain for the pain I caused was way higher. It was easier to believe that I was bad and I deserved to be mistreated, because I was obviously not a victim. It was also harder because I participated in such ostracisms in the past – because how I was treated was consistent with how I thought was right to treat other people (and oh god, the shame). It was harder, finally, because I trusted my community and the people in it incomparably more than I ever trusted this parent I had. Those were the people who made my moral and political education. I owe them my anarchism, my feminism, my queerness even. I was looking up to most of them and trusted their moral compass more than mine. It was easier to believe, as they said, that I deserved the abuse. That the way they treated me was my fault.
But I am now confident to say: it wasn’t.