Monday, October 12, 2009

Blaming the Victim

It brought me wry amusement to discover the following stanza in Dante’s Paradiso last night. It comes from Canto XVII in which Dante encounters one of his forebears, Cacciaguida, who predicts Dante future for him. Dante, of course, wrote these lines after he already knew that future, having lived it. He was banished from Florence and condemned to death in one of the endless and often violent political conflicts of his day. Cacciaguida is the voice behind the lines, and, commenting on Dante's fate, he says:

The injured side will bear the common blame
As ever; but the day of reckoning,
By truth appointed, shall the truth proclaim.

Two different translations (the above is Dorothy Sayers’) are these: Charles Eliot Norton: “The blame will follow the injured party, in outcry, as is wont; but the vengeance will be testimony to the truth which dispenses it.” The Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed translation: “The blame shall cleave unto the injured side in fame, as is the wont; but vengeance shall bear witness to the truth which doth dispense it.”

Now considering the fact that Dante began to write the Divine Comedy in 1308 and probably wrote these lines toward the end of his life (he died in 1321)—and given the phrasing of the leading sentiment (“as ever,” “as is the wont”)—we must conclude that blaming the victim, known as old news in the fourteenth century, is certainly a well-entrenched habit of humanity. What is our contribution to this stellar side of human behavior? We've managed to shorten the phrasing down to three words in English. As I remember from studying linguistics a good ways back, as languages persist, they grow ever more brisk, succinct. Long words get chopped, and long concepts too. Thou shalt blame the victim must surely belong among the first five commandments of Satan’s ten.

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