Fatal Hypothesis: How Belief in a Just World is Killing Us

(A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Georges-Pierre Seurat 1884)

(A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Georges-Pierre Seurat 1884)

If prejudice is a structure, as it has now become popular to say, what are its girders made of? What holds it up and what makes it endure? Certainly a great many scholars have ventured indispensable answers to these questions, but in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder and the ongoing tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, I think there is one thing we can pull out of these rich analyses for further examination: the just-world hypothesis.

In defiance of all sense, I often do read the comments, largely because even these feculent brain droppings can provide essential insight into the state of our society. Put simply, to understand one of the roots of police brutality, one need only look at what its most ardent defenders are saying.

Racism is a painfully obvious theme, of course, even among self-identified police officers who leave comments on forums and websites. Only those dense enough to bend light around them could deny the role of race in Ferguson or its intimate salience in all other tragic episodes of police brutality. But one thing that makes the poison of racism positively infectious and seductive to the majority of people who want to believe they are fundamentally good is the sense that everything happens for a reason, and that there is a kind of cosmic order and justice. This is how nominally good people end up justifying murder and terror as seemly expressions of a “just world.”

A Culture of Death

In other words, the Just-World Hypothesis. This notion is basically the more appropriate term for what most people unwisely call “karma;” in part, it’s the idea that “what goes around comes around.” According to this cognitive bias, we live in a fundamentally just world where most or all occurrences are just or explicable. It’s not hard to see how this bedevils feminist and anti-racist politics, surely: this is part of what makes victim-blaming in rape culture so durable. It is more comforting to believe that we live in a fundamentally just world where, if only one did not do x, y, or z, she simply would not have been raped. Similarly, the way that so very many (mostly white) people leapt on the invidiously released surveillance video that allegedly showed Michael Brown robbing a liquor store just before his death reveals how hungry such people are for an explanation that exonerates our society of any responsibility (even as the police’s claims are fraying).

It is always worth noting how frighteningly common it is, whether it’s in discussions of overseas wars, of those in solitary confinement, or of those slain in gun violence, that implicit in such justifications is the idea that death is a fitting punishment in this perfect moral universe for, say, stealing cigars.

Remember this? This is the just world hypothesis at work. The subtext of such headlines was always either "She's lying, so all's right with the world" or "it happened but she brought it on herself." Whorephobia, classism, sexism, and racism will take care of the rest.

Remember this? This is the just world hypothesis at work. The subtext of such headlines was always either “She’s lying, so all’s right with the world” or “it happened but she brought it on herself.” Whorephobia, classism, sexism, and racism will take care of the rest.

People are quick to seize on the imperfections of victims because it gives us a sense of justice with none of the hard moral work involved. The just world hypothesis asks nothing of us but the occasional ‘tut tut’ to the less fortunate. After all, if the world is already fundamentally just and morally balanced, why do anything to rock the boat? It makes it easy, then, to see protesters as “rioters” who are sabotaging that careful equilibrium, and to dismiss them as savage dupes who simply fail to understand how good they have it.

When this fantasy of a fundamentally just world mixes with longstanding prejudices, it makes for the deadly cocktail that lulls even the finest of people into doing evil. It is the perfect balance of beliefs that allows one to believe she is a good person while still defending the indefensible.

But it need not be this way.

Our world’s evils remain painful to confront not only for their sheer terror—in some ways, looking that in its lifeless eyes is the easy part—but because it forces us to deal with the fact that “good people” often were responsible for these tragedies. Evil most often arises in its most virulent form when it warps and makes use of the better angels of our nature. Most human beings actually do want to be good—contrary to a litany of nihilistic and cynical fantasies, that desire is both genuine and meaningful. Tragedy, hatred, prejudice, violence, avarice, and all the other human epics of sin come about because that desire is terribly easy to take advantage of. That old saw about the road to Hell and its paving stones exists for a reason, after all.

The Just-World Hypothesis is simply a widespread fallacy that exists at the cognitive level which makes our minds fertile ground for prejudice’s seeds. How many times have we heard, for instance, from people who swear up and down that they are not justifying rape even as they shame victims, or assign hierarchies to different kinds of rape, or trot out tired rape myths? The deeply tragic thing is that their incredulity at being called rape-apologists is sincere: they genuinely believe that they are anti-rape, in other words. And therein lies the rub.

Every apologist for police violence and police racism, similarly, will swear with all sincerity that they are good-hearted, virtuous people without a prejudiced bone in their bodies. The victims of police brutality, or of the similarly militarised mentality that afflicts many white gun owners, simply deserved what they got. Or, if such a claim is flat out impossible to sustain, they will individualise the crime and say it was a “mistake”—followed by the usual clichés about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or how it could have happened to anyone. Thus is the moral balance of the world restored.

The Just Person Hypothesis

So how do we deal with this?

This vision of a morally balanced world where all good deeds are rewarded and all failings are cosmically punished is a shibboleth many people cling to with bleeding fingernails because they fear any alternative.

For so many ordinary people, who are not inured to the folkways and norms of activism, the idea that the world is fundamentally unjust frightens them. It is a night terror that they violently barricade against in their minds, hoping that if they chant “everything happens for a reason” enough all the clamour outside will go away or at least be silenced into sensible white noise. This leads, also, to clinging to the prejudicial ‘common sense’ that makes such a belief credible, whether it’s believing that the Third World brought poverty upon itself, that the poor only need to “work harder,” that those on food stamps buy too much king crab, that women bring our rapes and sexual assaults upon ourselves, that transgender women’s “deception” of cis men is an invitation to violent reprisal, or that people with various mental health struggles simply need to “try harder” to not “be crazy.” The list could go on.

But such hateful beliefs have been perversely pressed into threads for the security blankets of a great many people—and not just white men, either. That blanket has been passed around in feminism itself, and among a host of marginalised communities, with terrible consequences.

Melvin Lerner and Dale Miller, the psychologists who first identified this cognitive bias and the attribution errors it creates, explained why they believed so many people laboured under this delusion:

“The belief that the world is just enables the individual to confront his physical and social environment as though they were stable and orderly. Without such a belief it would be difficult for the individual to commit himself to the pursuit of long-range goals or even to the socially regulated behavior of day-to-day life.”

This is the security blanket– and if we are to get past this, we’re going to have to find a creditable replacement that allows people to get by in their day to day lives.

First and foremost, it means that we have to summon those better angels of our nature to their true calling—not shivering in a corner, justifying human events as if they were uncontrollable weather, but actively and proactively working to make our morality a real and tangible force in the world. In short, actually doing the work in our communities to punish injustice rather than rationalise it, and to recognise how our best impulses can be distorted and manipulated in service to our worst ones.

This means shifting the focus from just-worlds to just people.

A just world, unfortunately, does not exist. But just people absolutely do; the bright candle of human virtue is what has been sustaining us these long centuries, and it is what endures above all else. It’s the light that links us across generations—those who knew that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice only if we make it bend. And that inspiration can take the place of the false hope that we live in an already just world.

We can replace it with the conviction that our virtues can help us all mend the wounds of this world, and that this power will be what can not only unite us against the demons of our own prejudices and the structures they create, but will also dispel the fear that comes with letting go of the just-world security blanket at long last.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross likes her hypotheses to be testable.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted August 20, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    It’s a complex issue, everything that is wrong with American society, but as starting points for figuring them all out go, I think this is a good one; the “Just World” fallacy. It explains *so* much about *so* many groups.

  2. Posted August 20, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Good article and like everyone I’m guilty of this too.

    I will say though that although clearly there are exceptions – bad things do happen to good people – in general this belief *is* true anecdotally. For the most part things do always work out in the end and good things do happen to good people and vice versa. That’s what makes this so compelling, because all of have evidence to make us think it’s true.

  3. Posted August 27, 2014 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    “Everything happens for a reason” and the concomitant “what goes around comes around” are truly toxic. Ernest Becker’s “Denial of Death” tells us that we spend an awful lot of time and energy with our eyes shut, our fingers in our ears, singing “la la la”. One way to fight this insanity is to never tell anyone “it will be alright”. Because it won’t. We can act justly, we can work toward equity and peace, but first we must see the world as it truly is. Then we can speak to each other honestly, offer real help and empathy and perhaps our lives will improve.

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