Explaining v. justifying rape
There's been some blogospheric discussion lately about the explaining vs. justifying distinction (Brad DeLong, Abiola Lapite, Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings), mostly with respect to whether explanations of terrorism that incorporate American foreign policy as a cause actually justify terrorism. But of course the distinction does not only apply to terrorism. One example that has just occurred to me is the blame-the-victim mentality about rape. A lot of people (usually men) react to rape - especially date rape - by saying things like, "That sucks, but she should have known better than to dress provocatively / drink so much / walk alone in a dark alley."
This attitude has been roundly and rightly criticized by feminists and other right-thinking people. It's part of a larger cultural framework that casts women as either virgins or sluts, that views women as sexual objects, that views sexual exploitation of women as the default state, that holds double standards for women and men ("boys will be boys"), and so on.
But then the blame-the-victim crowd comes out with the protest, "I'm just explaining the rapist's actions, not justifying them... responsibility isn't zero-sum, you can blame the criminal but also assign some responsibility to the victim... don't assume that I hate women, I just want to help prevent future rapes... etc." This usually sounds disingenuous (to me, anyway). I don't want to make a direct analogy to explaining/justifying terrorism, but it does seem like a useful exercise to apply the explain/justify distinction, which I am inclined to accept in the case of terrorism, to a case where I am inclined not to accept it.
It seems clear to me that one can "explain" a rape in a sensitive and non-misogynistic (and non-justifying) way - this kind of explanation motivates authorities to encourage women to watch their drinks in parties, learn self-defense, and not walk alone at night. But then there are "explanations" that do shade into justification, or at least excuse-making: "how else do you expect a hot-blooded young male to react," "she should have seen it coming," etc. (Then there are outright justifications like "Look how she dressed - she was asking for it.") This is similar to the comment Jeff Weintraub made to Brad DeLong: just because some (or most) explanations do not justify doesn't meant there aren't other explanations that do justify (or excuse, whitewash, trivialize, defend, etc.).
This example doesn't prove anything about the application of the explain/justify distinction to terrorism (e.g., "Bush should have expected post-war chaos in Iraq" is not equivalent to "that woman should have expected her date to rape her after she dressed provocatively" -- for one thing, the latter is untrue statistically even if for no other reason). But it does show that, conceptually, one can see that the explain/justify distinction is not always clear-cut, but can be blurred, so let's not be too absolutist about insisting that "to explain is not to justify."