Sunday, May 6, 2012

People really do blame the victim

Comic strip in four panels. In the first panel, a fluttering pigeon with the head of a man says, "I find it difficult to feel sorry for you as so many students like you have never really made an attempt to be part of the student body." Listening to him, a human-looking cat thinks, "Wow ..." In the second panel, the pigeon says, "You simply stand to the side and criticize what you didn't understand and never tried to correct." The cat thinks, "Verbal put-downs ..." In the third panel, the pigeon says, "This article ... will reach a lot of alumni and only make it more difficult for you to return for any of our All-Class Reunions." The cat thinks, "And threats of social exclusion!" In the fourth panel, the pigeon says, "The word will get out ..." The cat thinks, "Where'd he learn to bully so well?"
Original cartoon, generated online using
At the invitation of a friend of mine, Anat, I read a post by guest blogger Angie Tupelo, “Allies and Pseudo Allies,” on “Your Passport to Complaining (is your willingness to do something about it)” by Paxus.

From Angie’s thought-provoking reflection upon the positions of privilege from which people can unthinkingly operate, I followed a link back to the post she was responding to, “Victim Blaming 101,” because it is an area in which I have direct experience.

I recently began speaking out publicly as a survivor of childhood peer abuse at Calistoga Joint Unified School District schools and have been the target of a vicious backlash.

A person with whom I never went to school (he graduated from Calistoga Junior/Senior High School 20 years before I did) denied that bullying ever happened at my school and that what happened to me was my fault because “students like me” like to stand on the sidelines and criticize instead of getting involved. He knew nothing of me but felt entitled and knowledgeable to make these sweeping claims.

I’ve observed other victims of bullying speak out about what goes on today at their schools and similarly become targeted with backlash.

In 2009, a Clear Lake High School student submitted a guest commentary to the Lake County Record-Bee, saying that bullying had to stop. The volley of objections that were raised to his column confirmed me in my belief that bullying is too often trivialized when it is not actively denied.

At an online forum, people fixated upon rallies at which upperclassmen would boo the freshmen, taking a “who cares,” “it's tradition” attitude and not devoting nearly enough attention to the writer’s account of having objects thrown at him and being the recipient of threats — except to elucidate the ways in which he somehow provoked the abuse.

I have a lot of respect for that teen, who embodied the tenets of Challenge Day: To “Notice” what needs to change in the community, “Choose” what they can do and then personally commit to “Act.”

I believe this teen’s brave actions and those of a parent, June Wilson, in mobilizing support are directly responsible for Challenge Day taking place at Clear Lake High School: this year for the second time.

The work doesn’t end with Challenge Day, of course: a lifetime of feeling alone and ostracized won’t automatically come to an end after seven hours of shared experiences.

The real work begins after the presentation: through “Be the Change” clubs, through follow-up “Next Step” workshops and a commitment to zero tolerance.

And as long as people dismiss bullying as “kids will be kids” and act like it’s no big deal — as long as people hold the victim responsible for causing the abuse to take place — zero tolerance will be difficult to achieve.

I thank Paxus for beginning this dialogue about putting the victim to blame — in the case of his blog post, victims of rape. My intention with this post is to corroborate that victim blaming happens. It happens with rape and it happens with bullying — and the viciousness with which a victim can be attacked rivals the original abuse.


  1. Dearest Cynthia:

    As i wrote on my blog comments, Bullying is outside my experience as an issue to work on (i did have some awareness of it many years ago when i was in school). So your post is a wake up call for me and i am happy to add it to the things i cover in the blog.

    What i am excited about, because of my thoughts that they might be transferable, is the idea of "Challenge day" and "Next Step" workshops, if you have any links to descriptions of these, or are willing to write up what you believe about them or have experienced, that would be fabulous.

    Recognizing these oppressions is critical and oft missed (victim blaming, sexual assault, bullying, racist acts) but as progressives/radicals we need to be advancing tools as well as individuals consciousness raising to change things.

    THanks for being so oopen about your personal experience.

    Paxus in Death City
    6 Nuclear Free Japan 2012

  2. Challenge Day presenters Jyoti Subramanian and Jake Cahill facilitated Challenge Day activities in September 2010 at both Lower Lake and Clear Lake high schools. Here is what I remember from serving as an adult volunteer Sept. 22, 2010 at Lower Lake High School:

    IThe following is excerpted from a newspaper column that appeared Sept. 28, 2010 in the Lake County Record-Bee:

    “I was among the adult volunteers Wednesday during Challenge Day at Lower Lake High School. Our first instructions as Challenge Day volunteers were to forget everything we knew about Challenge Day.

    “Cahill told us that every Challenge Day is organic; that what the students want to talk about will shape each Challenge Day.

    “Each of us was encouraged to step outside our comfort zone and, for me, this included sensory challenges: bright fluorescent lights, many people in close proximity, loud music and people’s shrieks.

    “The experience of Challenge Day was very rewarding for me. ‘Crossing the line’ illustrated the similarities among people who may have appeared to be in very different circumstances.

    “Subramanian recited various experiences and then invited people to cross the line if this applied to them. Adult volunteers and students alike took part in this and all activities. No one is an observer at Challenge Day.

    “Challenge Day uses an ‘iceberg’ metaphor, where only 10 percent of what a person is, is visible on the surface. ‘Crossing the line’ helps illustrate some of what lies beneath a person’s surface. The ‘Challenge Day norms’ encourage people to ‘Drop the waterline and get real.’”

    I can send the complete column if you like. Let me know how best to make it available.

    I do not have firsthand experience beyond serving as an adult volunteer; the best source for further information, including “Next Step” workshops and “Be the Change” clubs, is the Challenge Day website at

  3. A keyword search on the phrase “zero tolerance,” performed July 22, 2016, returned 14 usages in reference to bullying among writings on my blog, in which I expressed thoughts and concerns as a survivor of childhood bullying. But “zero tolerance” is imbued with specific meaning in the education community and, as a result, I need to clarify my past usage of this term:


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