SYG6 - Blaming the Victim WILLIAM RYAN This piece is an...

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Blaming the Victim W ILLIAM R YAN This piece is an excerpt from William Ryan’s classic book Blaming the Victim . In it, he explains why so many people find it to hold victims of social problems responsible for their plight. Ryan’s goal is to lay bare the workings of the victim- blame approach to social problems. Get ready: As you read, you might make the uncomfortable discovery that you, too, have used this approach to explain social problems like pover- ty and unemployment. I Twenty years ago, Zero Mostel used to do a sketch in which he imper- sonated a Dixiecrat Senator conducting an investigation of the origins of World War II. At the climax of the sketch, the Senator boomed out, in an excruciating mixture of triumph and suspicion, “What was Pearl Harbor doing in the Pacific?” This is an extreme example of Blaming the Victim. Twenty years ago, we could laugh at Zero Mostel’s caricature. In recent years, however, the same process has been going on every day in the arena of social problems, public health, anti-poverty programs, and social welfare. A philosopher might analyze this process and prove that, technically, it is comic. But it is hardly ever funny. Consider some victims. One is the miseducated child in the slum school. He is blamed for his own miseducation. He is said to contain within himself the causes of his inability to read and write well. The shorthand phrase is “cultural deprivation,” which, to those in the “Blame the Victim,” by William Ryan, reprinted from Blaming the Victim , 1976, pp. 3-30. Copyright 1976 by Vintage Books. 261
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know, conveys what they allege to be inside information: that the poor child carries a scanty pack of intellectual baggage as he enters school. He doesn’t know about books and magazines and newspa- pers, they say. (No books in the home: the mother fails to subscribe to Reader’s Digest .) They say that if he talks at all—an unlikely event since slum parents don’t talk to their children—he certainly doesn’t talk correctly. (Lowerclass dialect spoken here). If you can manage to get him to sit in a chair, they say, he squirms and looks out the win- dow. (Impulsive-ridden, these kids, motoric rather than verbal.) In a word he is “disadvantaged” and “socially deprived,” they say, and this, of course, accounts for his failure ( his failure, they say) to learn much in school. Note the similarity to the logic of Zero Mostel’s Dixiecrat Senator. What is the culturally deprived child doing in the school? What is wrong with the victim? In pursuing this logic, no one remembers to ask questions about the collapsing buildings and torn textbooks; the frightened, insensitive teachers; the six additional desks in the room; the blustering, frightened principals; the relentless segregation; the callous administrator; the irrelevant curriculum; the bigoted or cow- ardly members of the school board; the insulting history book; the stingy taxpayers; the fairy-tale readers; or the self-serving faculty of the local teachers’ college. We are encouraged to confine our attention to the child and to dwell on all his alleged defects. Cultural depriva-
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