To the victor goes the spoils: why perpetrators are treated with sympathy

In the aftermath of public cases of violence, rape, and abuse, the conversations and reactions tend to be polarised between hatred, fascination, and sympathy. Some perpetrators such as those who’ve asexually abused young children are dehumanised and reviled. Some such as serial killers are the subject of intense curiosity and speculation. Many are instead regarded in a sympathetic light that can have brutal consequences for victims.

People are not split into single categories such as victim and perpetrator. We may wear many hats and fit many labels in different contexts and across various relationships. It’s not inappropriate to consider the history and context of perpetrators and their actions. However, how we experience sympathy has a profound impact on social justice. We have a range of bias that favour perpetrators at the expense of victims, and if we are unaware of these we are easily recruited to behave in ways that protect perpetrators and further harm victims. Understanding these bias can help explain horrifying social, political, and organisational responses to violence and abuse. We can maintain compassion and curiosity without becoming part of systemic abuses by understanding how sympathy is elicited and countering the bias.

It is critically important to understand how sympathy is formed because when we sympathise with someone we are more likely to perceive them as credible, and less likely to see them as responsible for the circumstances. As strange as it may sound, there are many factors that stack the deck strongly in favour of sympathy with perpetrators. Here are two excellent articles exploring sympathy for perpetrators in more detail:

Sympathy follows specific trends that can be researched and understood. For example, we find it easier to sympathise with someone when we know more about them, when we share characteristics in common with them, and when sympathy with them doesn’t contradict our need to believe in a just world. To put that another way, we are more likely to sympathise with people when we feel they are like us and when it doesn’t cost us anything to do so.

The just world belief refers to the underlying hope that if we do the right things and are good people, bad things won’t happen to us. It draws on ideas of social justice and fairness and yet leads us to behave in ways that violate them. It’s a key aspect of victim blaming and part of our cultural demands for ‘model victims’. Our fear of being victimised ourselves influences how we respond to the harm experienced by others. This is a good article with more details:

Many of the characteristics of model victims – such as sharing a lot of personal information, making the listener feel comfortable, having strong but not intense, appropriate emotional responses that are clearly visible to the observer while discussing the events – are specifically inhibited by trauma responses. Numbness, rage, confusion, and reduced emotional range are extremely common responses to trauma and these directly inhibit the development of sympathy in others. Judith Herman explores these ideas in more detail in her excellent book Trauma and Recovery. Memory loss is an incredibly common symptom of trauma and yet it often severely damages the credibility of a victim because our expectations of their capacity to recall and communicate the experience are completely at odds with the reality of how the brain functions in those kinds of circumstances.

The standards to which we hold victims are impossible for anyone traumatised to attain. They are also astonishingly high. Victims of rape or sexual abuse must defend their sexual history, clothing choices, and personal virtue. A less than perfect victim is accorded less sympathy. In contrast the standards perpetrators are held to to garner sympathy are astonishingly low. Flagrant, sadistic, violent, or cunningly concealed abuses may be rendered less horrifying by any small presence of a humanising factor.

It’s particularly interesting to note that the same mitigating factors when present for either the victim or perpetrator tends to favour the perpetrator. If the perpetrator was drinking, suffering from mental illness or cognitive impairment, or experiencing life stress they are seen as less culpable. If the victim was experiencing any of those things they are seen as more culpable and less innocent.

Those same circumstances that can make us feel sympathy for the perpetrator as less culpible, can also make us dismiss a victim as less socially valuable. In the same way that less outrage is raised for missing black children than white children, harmed disabled people, less attractive women, queer people, poor people, and marginalised people of all kinds are already perceived as damaged or at higher risk, and at times we are less confronted by and concerned by their abuse and less sympathetic towards them when they’re harmed.

Perpetrators ask very little of us, they want to continue the status quo, stop having the uncomfortable discussions, and keep the focus away from the victim.  Their desire to minimise, deny, downplay, forget, move on, and avoid change are all socially and politically comfortable.  Victims on the other hand need us to recognise the scope of their losses and suffering, to respond to their pain and rage, to address their vulnerability or accept the inevitability of harm to some.  The absolutely fair and reasonable needs of victims are considerably more difficult to respond to than those of perpetrators.

Strangely enough, in many circumstannces, the more clearly innocent the victim is, the more likely they are to be blamed. By using a combination of sympathy bids and DARVO, perpetrators persuade organisations and cultures to allocate sympathy in ways that betray victims. DARVO stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender, a common set of perpetrator behaviours that flips responsibility for abuse onto victims.

This betrayal trauma sets victims up to blame themselves, and makes them more likely to suffer long term mental health impacts, and be victimised again in the future. It represents an abuse of our privilege and social power to respond in this way.

So the next time you find yourself trying to process your feelings about abuse or assault, be aware that we are easily hijacked for many reasons to sympathise with the perpetrator over the victim. Shame in perpetrators predicts high levels of re-offending – I’m not advocating for hate. But participating in the betrayal of victims as a community harms the victim and makes re-offending more likely by the perpetrator. It is essential to hold perpetrators to account and maintain a deliberate focus on the losses suffered by the victim, not those suffered by the perpetrator. Justice and compassion are not served well when perpetrators are able to keep us focused on their humanity and their losses, generating sympathy and reducing responsibility while distracting us from the humanity and suffering of those they’ve harmed. Be careful where your sympathies are drawn.

4 thoughts on “To the victor goes the spoils: why perpetrators are treated with sympathy

  1. I m still chewing on your implied question – am I too ignoring the victims – my best answer is, for now, – they are always in my heart, only I am not always there…

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  2. must digest this soon Sarah; tonight I am on the finishing line of submitting a big bundle to the Court of Appeal – against the UK Govt no less, for failing to protect me from breaches of the law after Whistleblowing…

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