Victim-blaming under the guise of "personal responsibility" aka, That's not how cause and effect works


In the world of victim-blaming, one of the oft-used arguments people trot out is that people should exercise more "personal accountability". That they should be more "responsible" and "conscious that their actions have consequences". The reason I'm using quotes around those statements, is that those are all-too-often used against victims and not perpetrators.

I have zero issue with people accepting personal responsibility for not assaulting or harassing or abusing or bullying anyone else. I advocate that everyone should accept these as personal responsibilities, that they are personally accountable for the damage they wreak upon others when they engage in abusive behaviours, and that their actions have consequences, which should vary on the severity of what they've done. Raped someone? Go to jail. Called your little sister a caca doodie head and threw her Barbie in the neighbour's yard? You have to apologize, no desserts tonight, and no tv or internet for a couple days.

For example, I am personally responsible for many things.
  • I am personally responsible for getting to work on time.
  • I am personally responsible for ensuring my clothing is work and weather appropriate.
  • I am personally responsible for not sexually harassing or bullying anyone at work.
  • I am responsible for making sure I wear my steel-toed shoes and safety goggles when walking through the warehouse.
  • I am personally responsible for treating my coworkers with respect and, if I don't happen to respect them, to deal with my personality conflict with them in a mature and reasonable manner.
Now, there are things I am not responsible for:
  • I am not responsible for the cars I pass on my way to work and ensuring they stay on the road and don't run me over. I will stay on the sidewalk, keep my head up and stay alert and be on guard for traffic, but the rest is up to them.
  • I am not responsible for avoiding getting hit by lightning on my way to work, regardless of how well or poorly I dressed for rain.
  • I am not responsible for my coworkers sexually harassing me at work, regardless of my attire. Perhaps my boss can send me home to change if my outfit doesn't meet the standards I signed in acknowledgment when I started, but I'm still not responsible for the words and actions of my coworkers who are also fully-functional adults who are in charge of their own actions and reactions.
  • I am not responsible for accidentally slipping and falling if the floor is wet and not labelled to alert me to the danger. If I notice it without the signs, I'm responsible for making my way around or through, in whatever way I feel is safe and reasonable.
  • I am not responsible for avoiding hazards I am entirely unaware of, haven't been trained to deal with, and would have to be psychic to know about or avoid. I am responsible for doing whatever it is in my power, as an adult who has survived into the second decade of my 20's, to keep safe and sound, but in the end my power is limited to keep the rest of the world at bay.
Even when I accept responsibility for my actions and how I interact with the world, there are reasonable limits to what cause and effect should be.

I start my walk to work and haven't tied my shoes.
  • Reasonable cause & effect:
    • I trip and skin my knee and, if I'm really off-balance, maybe even fall into the path of traffic.
  • Unreasonable cause & effect:
    • another pedestrian notices my untied laces and pushes me into traffic, or a driver notices and barrells off the road to hit me
Let's say that it's chilly but I decided not to bundle up for my walk.
  • Reasonable cause & effect:
    • I am cold, maybe get a cold or flu or pneumonia
    • If it's really cold I get frostbite and and/or hypothermia
  • Unreasonable cause & effect:
    • another pedestrian notices my predicament and pushes me into a snowbank or a puddle, or a snowplow veers off the road to play a game of tag with me.
If I survive the trek to work, let's say I use company time and materials to make a lot of assinine comments in an online forum
  • Reasonable cause & effect:
    • People call me out on them, including and up to reporting my comments to the moderator if they violate the terms of service, or reporting them to higher authorities if they contain a threat or pose a concern of illegal activities.
    • At work, I might get disciplined for contravening the companies IT policies. If this is a recurring issue, I might even lose my job. 
  • Not a reasonable cause & effect:
    • My name and home address, telephone number, Social Insurance Number, credit card info, etc, are posted publicly with a call out to others to cause me physical, financial, and emotional harm
Now let's say I'm unemployed and decide to drown my sorrows at the local pub.
  • Reasonable cause & effect:
    • I drink too much and puke, make an ass of myself when I fall over into a table, get cut off and bounced from the club
    • If I drink too much, I could wind up with alcohol poisoning and if I try to drive myself home I could get arrested for drunk driving or wind up in an accident
    • If I assault someone while I'm drinking (or I'm still sober and they're drinking), I am blamed for it, and I am held accountable (legally, morally, socially, etc) for my actions against them. No matter how much I've drank, no matter how much they've drank, no matter what signals I assume or later say they were sending - I am still 100% responsible for my actions.
  • Unreasonable cause & effect:
    • Someone notices how intoxicated I am and decides to rob me or sexually assault me
    • I'm blamed for actions others took against me while I was intoxicated, forgetting that I didn't assault myself - someone else did that and is responsible for what they did.
After my misadventures at the pub, I may go home and blog about my worries, and potentially post a Youtube video describing my melancholy.
  • Reasonable cause & effect:
    • My friends see my post and either lament with me, or remind me that I lost my job because I was being an irresponsible jerk
    • My mom calls me and asks me why I'm being all emo on the internet and that my aunt saw my post and told her because she was worried about me
    • Strangers on the internet might comment on my video rudely (assuming my settings allow public comments) and I may not like all of what they have to say. Some of their comments might hit too close to home, might make me have to think about my part in what's happened to me, might shine some uncomfortable lights on the issue, or they might just be way off base and stupid.
  • Unreasonable cause & effect:
    • I get spammed with violent, misogynistic, and hateful posts that far exceed what is reasonable in response to my original post
    • Posters start following and harassing me, my friends, my family, with an unrelenting tidal wave of threats, calls for me to end my own life, violently graphic passages and images
    • Pornographic images of me are either uncovered or created using Photoshop and are sent to me, my family, my friends, my employer, etc.
    • Upon reaching out for help against this wave of abuse, I'm blamed for having had the audacity to post anything in public.
    • After being bullied, harassed, assaulted, stalked, and emotionally beaten down for a couple years with no legal recourse and my harassers receiving no consequences for their actions, I commit suicide, and am then blamed for that, too 
The main thread through all of this is that I am only responsible for the consequences of my own actions and my own words. It's because I am an adult. It's because I understand cause and effect and the Just World Hypothesis and because other people have the exact same responsibilites I do.

Thanks for reading. Here's some MST3K and lolcats.


  1. Great post, victim blaming was related to cause and effect so well. I've been looking for an article that helps people clearly see the difference between consequences of their own decisions and consequences of the decisions other people made. Thank-you.

  2. Super post. Too often victim-blamers treat the "effect" as some thing that just happens to the victim, omitting the fact that a moral agent - another human being - has *chosen* to victimise the victim. I recall an angry response I once heard to those typical newspaper reports of rape in the passive voice - "It's as if the women are walking around 'getting raped' by themselves." The examples you've given do a great job at explaining the difference.

  3. It is odd (and often evil) how people mistake forces beyond one's control with other people acting in negative ways. Hitting a patch of black ice when you're driving a little too fast is different from someone groping you when you're drinking a little too much. The black ice isn't jumping into your path, and you will probably hit it no matter how fast you're driving. The groper has a choice whether or not to assault you, and there's nothing you can do that will possibly justify being assaulted.

    I guess it is "Just World" fallacy: bad things happen to people because they do the wrong thing, not because other people do those things to them. If you're a good person, bad things can't happen to you and you're magically shielded from the negative actions of others.

  4. Great post — well conceived and beautifully written! This leaves no doubt as to how things really work re choice and responsibility.

    This is the first essay of yours that I've had the pleasure to read. I'm going to now go and read some of the newer ones.

  5. Finally, someone who gets this! I had a professor who held the belief that "Everyone is completely responsible for their own behavior and choices NO MATTER WHAT" which I disagreed with, but all was fine until she insulted me and then said it was MY fault she did it! If everyone is responsible for their own behavior, how was I responsible for what came flying out of her mouth. It's one thing to believe in personal responsibility, it's another to use it to victim blame people you hurt.


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