The poor, the sick, the sad, and the lonely: Blaming the victims

Most people will want to skip this post, but it’s something I need to get off my chest. One unfortunately aspect of the internet is that it lifts off the lid, and exposes all the dark sides of human nature. One of those dark aspects is the urge to blame the victim.

1.  The sick

If you follow sports, you will eventually come across a case like Derrick Rose, or Kawhi Leonard. These are players that suffered severe injuries, and had trouble getting healthy again. At some point medical science is no longer able to identify the problem. They look healed but they still felt pain, which got worse when they played. When that happens, sports reporters start whispering that it’s a mental thing, that these players are weak. This despite the fact that when healthy, these men were among the toughest in the league, willing to mix it up with much bigger players under the rim. We get frustrated that they aren’t healed yet—and that the problem cannot be identified—so it’s their fault. (This year it’s Markelle Fultz who is being picked on.)

Medical science may be impressive, but there is still a great deal that it doesn’t understand. If you go to the doctor and complain about chronic intestinal pain, there’s a good chance that he or she won’t be able to pinpoint the problem. Indeed there are lots of things that cannot be identified in X-rays or blood tests, including severe back pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine headaches, and dozens of other illnesses. We get frustrated with people who have these hard to pinpoint problems, and label them “hypochondriacs.” Or we say they have a low threshold for pain—as if anyone knows the pain felt by another person. Yes, it’s true that the pain is “all in their head”, but that’s equally true of someone suffering pain from a “phantom limb”, and someone who has their hand on a hot stove. Where else would the pain be?

2.  The sad

It’s even worse with mental illnesses. People suffering from depression are told to just “snap out of it”, or think positive thoughts. They are viewed as losers.

3.  The lonely

There has been recent discussion of “incels”, people who are celibate but who would prefer to be in a romantic relationship. The non-lonely often tell them to just “lower their standards”, as if they had never thought of that. Or join a church. Please, just stop. Even worse, one prominent pundit implied that tech firms might want to get rid of these awful people. After all, one incel in Canada murdered some people.

4.  The poor

Like you and I, indeed like almost everyone, poor people often make bad choices. But the last thing they want to hear is someone telling them what they did wrong. Consider a young woman at the bottom of society (in terms of looks and education). Her life is pretty bleak, with only a few men to choose from. Having a child would provide some meaning to her life. She finds the best man she can, but in the end he walks out on her, leaving her a poor single mother. Or maybe he beat her and she walks out on him.  Sure, she might have been able to stay slightly above the poverty line by becoming a low wage, childless, “incel” worker with nothing in life to look forward to; but not everyone can live that way. Yes, poverty is bad, but being physically ill, mentally ill, or lonely might well be worse.

I understand that there are people out there who are deserving of blame. Think of the famous case of the worker who is on disability for a bad back, but is discovered out skiing. (Or Trump with his “bad feet“.)  These people exit. But unless you have clear evidence pointing in this direction, do not blame victims for their plight. Just don’t do it.

If I were to generalize, I’d say that the biggest mistake made by conservatives is to view the unfortunate as “losers” who are to blame for their plight. In the case of incels, both the left and the right piles on.

On the liberal side, the biggest mistake pundits make is to rank people by how much sympathy each victim deserves. Don’t tell people that their suffering is less bad than someone else’s. YOU DON’T HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE IN THEIR SHOES. For all we know, the most miserable person in America might well be a billionaire. These pundits base their opinions on social science, whereas they ought to spend more time reading great literature.  There’s more to life than money.

HT:  Scott Aaronson, who has a much better post.



26 Responses to “The poor, the sick, the sad, and the lonely: Blaming the victims”

  1. Gravatar of H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover) H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover)
    20. May 2018 at 12:20

    (memorial comment)

  2. Gravatar of David R Henderson David R Henderson
    20. May 2018 at 13:41

    Thanks, Scott. My brother committed suicide when he was 22 and I was 19. I wish I (or even better, my parents) had had your wisdom a few years before then. Your post is a very compassionate one.

  3. Gravatar of El roam El roam
    20. May 2018 at 14:40

    Important post . But one could expect , when dealing with victims and victimization , that the respectable author of the post , would clearly suggest , who are the aggressors . One could expect clear linkage , clear causation , between the condition of the victim , and the wrongdoing of the aggressor. Even that woman , beaten by her sick husband , has been mentioned as being from lower social class or alike ( the look , and the education ).

    So , maybe the author of the post , meant , and justifiably , that we need to show , more compassion , more mercy , for every person who suffers , and less important , whether he is a victim of direct wrongdoing , or : simply had bad luck or bad karma or whatever .

    If so indeed , I do certainly agree !!


  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. May 2018 at 14:45

    David, Thanks for the comment, and very sorry to hear about what happened to your brother.

    El roam, Thanks for the comment.

  5. Gravatar of Chris H Chris H
    20. May 2018 at 18:08

    The response to blame the victim seems to me to be a kind of Procrustean Bed problem (link for those unfamiliar with the myth: People who for whatever reason don’t really fit with the world they find themselves in, and the answer given is to either chop off some height or stretch them on the rack until they exactly fit their bed. Of course when you mention something along these lines, a response comes that we can’t just change the world for everyone who has a problem. And fixing a problem for some people causes new problems for others. Which is true! We likely can’t reshape the world to meet literally every possible person’s needs.

    But that doesn’t mean it’s the victims fault or that they don’t deserve sympathy. Ten centuries ago you couldn’t have a society with a (relatively) high density population and simultaneously one where 90% of the population didn’t live on the edge of starvation. That doesn’t mean the peasants should be blamed for their problems, or that working for a society that was less shit to them wasn’t worthwhile.

    Out current society is great in a lot of ways, but it also doesn’t fully solve the problems of sickness, depression, loneliness, or poverty. And solicited personal advice can be helpful (I’m rather skeptical when someone gives advice that wasn’t asked for). But sympathy for those with problems is something that is cheap for the fortunate to give and at minimum prevents from piling on to a person when they’re down. And yeah sometimes we should be thinking about changing how our society works to help fewer people fall down. So I’m with you on this Scott. Life’s hard enough without getting self-righteous towards people who don’t fit their Procrustean Bed.

  6. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    20. May 2018 at 19:07

    Or, we could dispense with the virtue signalling and ask ourselves some hard questions. Such as, since we began to decry ‘blaming the victims’ for their aberrant, self-destructive behavior, have we ended up with fewer, or more ‘victims’?

    To make the obvious point, a few weeks ago a young teen shot up his school and killed a number of his classmates. He was supposedly a member of a victim class–the school drop out to prison group. The school districts leadership were something of paragons of the don’t blame the victim movement. Weren’t they?

    Not to mention that telling people they are victims, and can’t help the positions they are in might just be encouraging them to persevere in those self-destructive behaviors. What was the old joke…something about even the worst example of loserdome having value, if as nothing else a useful bad example?

  7. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    20. May 2018 at 20:05

    I didn’t see much to like about Scott Aaronson’s post. For one thing: although he included some positive remarks, overall his treatment of Robin Hanson was ‘way too negative.

  8. Gravatar of Massimo Heitor Massimo Heitor
    20. May 2018 at 22:02

    I expected Sumner to link Scott Alexander’s post from 2014 making the same point:

    The “join a church” advice seems like a genuinely sympathetic and productive suggestion. It probably will work for many lonely young men. Taking group classes is the other alternative.

    Do conservatives blame the unfortunate? If you support or endorse any status/success hierarchy you must fault the people at the bottom for their misfortune. The left has its own status hierarchies. Higher education has strict status hierarchies, that clearly involve faulting the bottom performers for their low status positions.

  9. Gravatar of Robert Simmons Robert Simmons
    21. May 2018 at 05:57

    “Yes, it’s true that the pain is “all in their head”, but that’s equally true of someone suffering pain from a “phantom limb”, and someone who has their hand on a hot stove. Where else would the pain be?”
    Strong post in general, but on this quote, no. If my hand is on a hot stove, the pain is both in my head and my hand.

  10. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    21. May 2018 at 06:19

    Migraines also wouldn’t be so bad it they were just limited to the head. Many other temporary health issues often trigger a migraine, at which point the seemingly unrelated problems just bounce off each other. Plus, stomach/digestive issues are common with migraines and may include not being able to eat for 24 hours or more. Sometimes a good part of that time may mean not being able keep water down,as well.

  11. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    21. May 2018 at 07:08

    1. As a conservative, I blame the government and liberal policies for the plight of many if not most of the unfortunate… and

    2. I would characterize most liberals as ignorant misanthropes who don’t care about the plight of those who are really unfortunate.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. May 2018 at 07:47

    Patrick, Not sure what your comment has to do with my post. Who said anything about telling people they can’t change?

    Massimo, You said:

    “If you support or endorse any status/success hierarchy”

    Then don’t do that!

    Robert, Sorry, but you are wrong. Your hand does not feel pain–it’s all in your head.

    Becky, You said:

    “Plus, stomach/digestive issues are common”

    Yes, but there’s a huge difference between occasional complaints and chronic problems that don’t go away.

  13. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    21. May 2018 at 09:13

    I’m glad you posted this Scott. Perhaps related to your thoughts on reading literature, I understand that Cal Tech physicist Sean M. Carroll touts something he calls “poetic naturalism” in his latest book for the layman “The Big Picture.” I haven’t read the book, but I’ve heard him make a few comments about this concept in public talks.

  14. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    21. May 2018 at 10:17

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear in that not everyone suffers from stomach and digestive issues, but they’ve been a constant with my migraines for the last 20 plus years.

  15. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    21. May 2018 at 14:06

    Very thoughtful post scott.

  16. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    21. May 2018 at 16:22

    My brother fairly recently died from alcoholism.

    To be sure, despite what I had been told, I didn’t understand the scope of the problem. From the outside, it seems so easy, if your problem is drinking, then stop drinking. My brother was a very smart guy, who did some very stupid things.

    While we can say, “he had a disease.” Nonetheless, so much of the pain he went through was self-inflicted. This was not a problem than anyone else in his family could fix for him. In fact, any attempts ultimately seemed to make things worse.

    It might be appropriate to blame the victim. But also keep in mind, that the problems are more more difficult than they might appear on the surface. At the very least, we should not be enabling the victims.

  17. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    21. May 2018 at 19:21

    Conservatives tend to blame the victim in the assumption that most responsibility for outcomes lies with the individual. The left tends to blame society in the assumption that most responsibility for outcomes lies with society and government. So the underlying philosophy here dictates the interpretation.

    But besides this “shifting the blame” thing, both sides are high on assigning blame. And I question whether anyone needs to assign blame to begin with. It’s not necessarily anybody’s “fault”. As Scott pointed out many times before, some poor choices are made consciously to avoid even poorer (from the point of view of the “victim”) tradeoffs. Or they were risks taken that were justifiable at the time, but the outcome went wrong. Or events were not really under anyone’s control, due to a combination of an individual’s personal disposition and the environment’s {impersonal} makeup and nature.

    But in the common Western court room drama framing, a crime must be found, someone must be guilty of it, and a punishment must be meted out. What I see is, most people try their best, they just often don’t achieve their desired outcomes. Life is complex and it’s not possible to find a small number of root causes for these outcomes. And the outcomes aren’t really punishments either, since there is no intentionality. The word “misfortune” expresses this fact quite handily.

  18. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. May 2018 at 20:43

    Thanks everyone, Good comments.

  19. Gravatar of gmm gmm
    21. May 2018 at 22:40

    I agree with all of your examples. Thanks for broaching the topic.
    Where I have been struggling is how to react to the blatantly anti-social, or even violent.
    A friend recently got mugged and told me that the muggers probably needed the stolen property more.
    Any thoughts, or good reading recommendations on the most constructive reaction to such behavior?

  20. Gravatar of Massimo Heitor Massimo Heitor
    22. May 2018 at 06:21


    “Then don’t do that!”

    You are a professor representing the university system, which is the most powerful and rigid status + success hierarchy in the US. The university system is quite close to a caste system. How can you argue against status hierarchy?

  21. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    22. May 2018 at 14:18

    The sick, the sad, the lonely, and the poor.

    What about the stupid?

    Your post sounds lovely in theory but when it comes down to reality many of those characteristics go hand in hand quite often. People are sick, and sad, and lonely, and poor, and nasty, and stupid.

    And what about Trump? Why don’t you apply your wisdom to Trump?

    If you go to the doctor and complain about chronic intestinal pain, there’s a good chance that he or she won’t be able to pinpoint the problem. 

    That was before psychosomatic medicine. When all (purely) physical explanations fail psychosomatic medicine deals surprisingly well with those kind of problems.

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. May 2018 at 13:24

    Massimo, No, I’m not a professor representing a university system. Nice try.

    Christian, I’m afraid you are not well informed on medicine. But nice try.

  23. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. May 2018 at 13:44

    gmm, It seems like your friend is confusing victims and villains. The main reason crime is bad is not because it’s redistributive, it’s bad because it’s destructive.

  24. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    26. May 2018 at 16:29

    The advice being scoffed at here sounds sensible to me. As does the minimizing of conditions in people’s heads: when disability rolls grow even as workplaces (and their society more generally) get safer, and when mental disorders seem to pop up in other cultures only after western notions of mental health do, it makes me think our current society is iatrogenic. Feeling bad for others is no good if it produces more of that bad.

  25. Gravatar of More Examples More Examples
    28. May 2018 at 05:52

    […] another example of this type of thing, consider a recent post by Scott Aaronson (HT2 Sumner). In this post, Aaronson is defending Robin Hanson from the recent 2-minute hate due to the incel […]

  26. Gravatar of Robert Simmons Robert Simmons
    29. May 2018 at 10:20

    Since I know you’re intelligent, and so you know what people mean by “all in their head” and what I meant by “the pain is both in my head and my hand”, do you have a better way to express what we’re trying to express? Note, I don’t think we need a better way, as it’s crystal clear and correct as is, but curious if you have an alternative.

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