Expectations of the Model Hate Crime Victim
Author: Caroline Erentzen (MA, JD, PhD Candidate/Psychology) is a senior PhD Candidate in Psychology (York University) and holds a JD from Queen’s University. Her primary research focuses on hate crimes, including the role of model victim prototypes and schematic processing in observer reactions to such crimes. Her larger research sits at the intersection of psychology and the law, focusing specifically on hate crimes, wrongful convictions, and racial bias in the criminal justice system.
Victims of hate crime tend to elicit strong feelings of concern, compassion, and sympathy from witnesses and lay observers. A cursory review of media coverage of hate crime shows a common pattern in which victims are described sympathetically, often depicted as innocents who were blindsided by unmitigated aggression. How might our reactions differ if the victim engaged in an argument with their harasser? If they responded to bias with anger or aggression? Do we unknowingly expect hate crime victims to passively accept harassment in order to deserve our compassion? Where victims deviate from a model victim script, might observers engage in victim blaming or be less willing to interpret the offence as hate-motivated?
Recently, my colleagues, Dr. Regina Schuller at York University and Dr. Robert Gardner at Western University, and I sought to explore these questions in a systematic manner. We turned first to the existing social psychological literature on hate crimes and found that the presence of hate motivation does attenuate victim blaming, leading to increased sympathy for hate crime victims. This is particularly true where the hate crime depicts a White male assaulting a passive, racialized minority or openly gay man (e.g., Rayburn et al., 2003; Saucier et al., 2006).
Interestingly, even the academic literature tends to depict victims passively, relying on a form of model victim script. Victims in this research scenario are often depicted as quietly walking home alone, being stalked, blindsided from behind, or having minimal (if any) interaction with the perpetrator. Although this may be true in some real-world cases, the reality is that victims often do engage with their perpetrator. They may speak, they may retaliate against harassment, they may walk away, they may become irritated or aggressive. This is entirely within their rights and is a reasonable response to harassment. What happens to our perception of hate crime victims when they do not simply ignore harassment – when they speak up or even confront their harasser?
A Focus on Islam
Victims of all types of crime may be blamed for their own misfortune, with observers often assigning blame to the person or persons who evoke the most negative emotional reactions (Alicke, 2000). That is, we make spontaneous emotional evaluations of actors based on their intentions and behaviours, but also by extra-legal factors such as their race, gender, or other traits. Extension of this framework to hate crimes suggests that we may be more likely to engage in victim blaming when a hate crime targets a group we dislike.
We explored this possibility with specific attention to anti-Muslim offences. There has been a rapid increase in anti-Muslim offences year over year in Canada (Leber, 2017), the United Kingdom (Hanes & Machin, 2014), and the United States (Disha, Cavendish, & King, 2011). This increase in anti-Muslim hostility and violence has been attributed to the professed association to Islam by the 9/11 terrorist attackers, as well as the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and the January 7, 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo (Byers & Jones, 2007; Nelson et al., 2016). In addition, anti-Muslim violence has been linked to the visibility of Muslim men and women in religious garments, negative stereotypic representations in popular media, and depictions of Muslims as permanent outsiders by the press and some political actors (Chakraborti & Zempi 2012; Perry, 2014). Muslims occupy a unique position in North America due to the present political landscape. We thus measured participants’ self-reported Islamonegative attitudes and included them as predictors of reactions to an anti-Muslim hate crime.
We hypothesized that observers would have expectations for how a proper or “real” hate crime victim should behave, generally expecting them to passively and politely ignore harassment. We believed that this would be particularly true for Muslim victims, who would effectively be expected to earn compassion through ‘good’ behaviour. Participants in our study were presented with a case summary of a hypothetical crime, in which a man was harassed and assaulted in a park. Half of participants read about a crime against a South Asian Muslim man and half read about a crime against a White male (as a baseline comparison). The victim was depicted as holding a demonstration in a public park to raise awareness for issues affecting his community, when he was confronted by a White man using offensive and aggressive language. In response to the harassment, participants were either told that the victim ignored the perpetrator, that he verbally shouted back at him, or that he became verbally and physically confrontational. All cases ended with the victim being physically assaulted and injured. We then asked participants to tell us what they thought of the scenario. Was this a hate crime? What do you think of the victim and the perpetrator? What sentence would you suggest? Who is responsible for this incident?
What we Found:
- Participants were more certain the event was a hate crime if the victim was a South Asian Muslim man;
- The victim’s behaviour mattered, but only for the South Asian Muslim victim. As the South Asian Muslim victim’s behaviour became more aggressive, victim blame increased and perpetrator blame decreased. Blame ratings were unrelated to the White victim’s behaviour;
- Prejudice mattered. Islamonegative attitudes predicted reactions to the offence, but only for the South Asian Muslim victim. Regardless of behaviour, Islamonegative participants showed increased victim blame, lower perpetrator blame, lower guilt ratings and lighter sentences for crimes targeting a Muslim victim. When the victim was described as a White male, Islamonegative attitudes were unrelated to blame attributions.
What might this mean? Implications?
Both the victim’s identity and behaviour influenced reactions to anti-Muslim hate crimes. Although, traditionally, research has suggested that observers display increased compassion and sympathy for victims of hate crime, our results suggest that it may not be quite so simple. Victims of hate are expected to behave themselves, to accept racial or other harassment in stride. This behavioural scrutiny did not exist for the White victim. Indeed, ratings of victim blame and perpetrator blame were essentially unrelated to the White victim’s behaviour. These results also provide insight into the legal treatment and reporting of hate crimes. Internalization of these model victim expectations could potentially lead victims to self-monitor or withhold reporting where they did not conform to such unrealistic standards. Relatedly, witness reporting of hate-based offences may be influenced by perceptions of proper hate crime victimhood. The present data can not confirm how model victim expectations may influence reporting, and further study is warranted. It does appear that South Asian Muslim victims (and likely many other victim groups) are placed into a perplexing position in that they attract both greater and lesser blame because of their identity. What merits sympathy from observers also imposes an unfair expectation of their “good” behaviour.
Our full study can be accessed here:
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