Eager to escape the congestion that’s too common in northwest Harris County and relax by spending time outdoors, my friend and I regularly drop by a local park just a few miles from my apartment. It’s a simple, yet perfect, suburban refuge conveniently tucked behind a housing development just off of a major thoroughfare. While there, we’re able to get some exercise and look for turtles soaking up the sun along the bank of a sizable lake and nearby shallow canal.
As you would expect, there are a handful of signs posted. One warns visitors about the possible presence of snakes and alligators, and that makes sense given the wildlife you find in eastern Texas. However, another sign states the following: “Please do not encourage criminals by leaving valuables in your vehicles.” When I read it, the language made me feel uncomfortable. To me, it implies that you’re partly to blame if someone steals your belongings from your car. What if I accidentally leave my smartphone on my passenger seat? Does my forgetfulness “encourage” someone to take advantage of the fact that I left it behind, or is the person who chooses to steal it from me solely responsible for his or her actions?
Sociologists offer different explanations why people violate norms, or in this case break the laws that governments enact. Two that immediately come to mind are strain theory and differential association theory (click here for a video). Strain theory claims that some people who find themselves in a disadvantaged position in society resort to unlawful activity (e.g. stealing) to achieve material success, i.e. to possess certain materials goods. Differential association theory contends that deviant behavior, i.e. criminal activity, is learned from others through interpersonal relationships. Neither suggests that the individual who is preyed upon is somehow culpable.
Now, I believe that we each have a responsibility to protect ourselves from criminals, but I don’t think that anyone is to blame when they’re victimized by someone else. I’ve been the victim of debit card fraud once and credit card fraud twice. Am I to blame for using my cards at the store or gas station or wherever? No. The people who illegally obtained my account numbers and purchased furniture and groceries with those numbers did so on their own accord. Turning to a more serious offense, is a twenty-one year old female college student who’s the victim of violent sexual assault to blame when she’s attacked at an off-campus party? No, the moral and legal responsibility belongs to the perpetrator. It doesn’t matter how the young woman is dressed or how much alcohol she had to drink. What if university officials circulated an email notice that read: “Please do not encourage sexual predators by over-indulging with alcohol at parties or bars”? People would be outraged.
Since Texas has a political culture that champions the individual, I’m surprised that public officials would shift some of the responsibility to the person who has been the target of a theft. This strikes me as rather contradictory. While the language on the sign at the park might be subtle, the message is quite clear. Personally, I think it’s time we stop blaming victims and realize that it could be any one of us who finds ourselves in that position.