Ferguson’s police department released some video stills that appear to show Michael Brown stealing something from a convenience store. A number of commenters have pointed out that this shouldn’t have anything to do with whether shooting Brown was an appropriate thing to do, especially since the officer had no knowledge of the theft.
Yet, these sort of details do seem to matter to most people. A number of the same people who discount the theft had previously pointed out that Brown was going to college the next year. That also was irrelevant, but reported forcefully nevertheless. If one fact matters, so does the other.
The perceived goodness or badness of the victim matters in how the crime itself is viewed. If Elizabeth Smart had been a 40-year-old overweight hooker with a barbiturate problem when she was abducted, we wouldn’t have paid as much attention. Instead, a great wrong befell her when she was too young to have done anything wrong herself. There was no way to bend the story to be indirectly her fault through some failing of hers.
The perfect victim plays by all the rules, and is victimized anyway. The imperfect victim has some defect that can be used as justification by those who are predisposed to discount the crime by any means available. This is simply a fact of psychology.
Civil-Rights-Era activists understood that it was not enough for black protesters to sit at lunch counters that refused them service. They had to sit patiently and passively at lunch counters wearing their Sunday finest. This is not to say that an indifferently dressed black man shouldn’t be served lunch. It is that any flaw in the individual, will quickly be used to dismiss the individual and harm the greater cause. The Civil Rights Movement might have turned out differently had it not been for attention to these superficial details important to public opinion.
For similar reasons, Ted Olson chose perfect victims when choosing which gay couples to represent when challenging California’s Proposition 8 Gay Marriage Ban. In a story I can no longer find, NPR reported the arduous process he went through screening potential defendants to ensure he selected those who would generate the maximum sympathy and lacked any background dirt in their personal histories. He wanted the Elizabeth Smart of gay couples.
This is not because gays who own payday lending companies shouldn’t be able to get married. Neither is it because gays who take their marriages about as seriously as Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich take theirs shouldn’t be able to get married. It’s because to win in the public eye as a minority, you need to play the role of the perfect victim. If you have flaws in your background, that will detract from the message.
Practically speaking, people won’t be so quick to defend your rights when they are violated, even if your flaws aren’t relevant to your rights. This is why the rape victim needs to have been a virgin wearing shapeless clothing on her way home from church, and it is why Brown needed to have been going to college.
There are those who won’t play this game. I was impressed by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s refusal in his portrayal of Clyde Ross in The Case for Reparations. Coates paints a Ross who is not blameless in his misfortunes. Coates perhaps knew that if his readers could be trusted to read 16,000 words, they could also be trusted with a depiction of a full human and would not dismiss grievous wrongs simply because the victim had some contributing flaws.
And yet, most of us can’t help but get caught up in the meta-debate about the character of those who have been wronged. We debate whether Renisha McBride was best described as drunk or unarmed when both were true, but neither mattered. If something were to happen to one of us though, would we want our access to justice to rest on how faultless and sympathetic a victim we were able to present ourselves as being?