An exchange regarding a post on this site the other day brought up the too often reaction of victim-blaming. A person claiming to have been working as a social worker for the past 20 years blamed the poor for “their station in life” attributing their circumstances to poor decisions, “morally and fiscally.” This response, especially on this site, troubled me deeply. It also brought to mind a conversation I previously had with a friend of mine regarding the movie Precious. My friend’s reaction to this film was for the girl to “just keep her legs crossed.”
The movie chronicles the life of a 16 year old, illiterate girl growing up in a dysfunctional, physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive home in a poverty ridden New York ghetto. The girl, suffering sexual abuse by her father from the age of three, ends up HIV positive, with two children. Can anyone ever really believe keeping her legs closed was a viable option for this girl given her life circumstances?
A 2005 article by Levin, Palmor, Branch, & Harris, in the Encyclopedia of Ageism, 52-53 provides a wonderful definition for understanding victim blaming. “Victim blaming is the tendency to attribute a problem to the characteristics of the people who are its victims. An important function of victim blaming is that it allows those in the advantaged segment of society to avoid blaming themselves for the problems experienced by a subordinate group. From this viewpoint, little reason exists for the members of a majority group to address issues of inequity, discrimination, or bigotry.” Victim blaming alleviates the burden of guilt for doing nothing.
Those growing up in homes where drug or alcohol use is the norm, and where this is often compounded by emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, enter society with a different worldview than those who grow up in more stable, nurturing, supportive homes. Adding to these deficits, too often, there is no expectation of success and no idea of what respect means either to an individual or to a social structure (i.e.: school) or of the self. These differing world views impact how a person navigates life.
A positive world view allows for positive choices. A negative world view lead to negative choices. People with skewed negative world views often do not see what others see as possible choices because of the nature of how the human brain works. Our brains work on schemas which allow us to easily navigate our world without having to relearn everything we encounter providing us with the ability to build on a knowledge base. Information is stored in our brain based on experiences. Choices are made based on that information.
People actively seek support for previously learned associations confirming their world view and ignore, generally not on a conscious level, information that differs with previous information. Changing maladaptive schema wired in early childhood is no easy thing. Yet all too often society expects a person to just make better or different choices. To see the world through a victim blaming mindset a person either doesn’t understand the way the human brain operates, or justifies a skewed opinion based on their own self-supportive schema. In this, knowledge truly is power.
To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, a mind stretched can never resume its previous form, and that is our goal as clinical social workers, to stretch minds; to allow maladaptive schemata to mutate by generating new ideas and experiences in a way that helps a person overwrite previously stored information, building bridges to new ways of thinking, seeing, and experiencing the world. In this manner, we are agents of change.
In the end, the most we as social workers can do is provide a set of tools to help people help themselves. But, as any good craftsman knows, you must use the correct tools to do the job. You cannot build a bridge with a glue gun or a stapler and expect it to handle the weight of cars, nor can you suture a deep cut with duct tape and expect it to heal without scars. Are we working with our clients using the right tools? Or are we justifying our own failure to adequately address unacceptable societal circumstances?
Written by, Michelle Sicignano, LMSW, SJS Staff Writter