The world isn’t fair. It isn’t nice. It isn’t particularly Just.
I want to believe that it is, or that it could be, because a Just world makes so much more sense. A Just World gives us (humans) some control. We can enter into a transactional sphere where our actions have real and understandable consequences, good and bad, and those consequences make sense. Hard work = good job / successful life, etc. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.
The Just World Theory (also called the Just World Fallacy) operates on the principle that people, in general, get what they deserve. This means that when someone gets a big promotion at work they are the most qualified candidate, they’ve worked the hardest, and are generally good people outside work, and all those things together make them “worthy” of that promotion.
I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where you just knew that the above scenario wasn’t true.
Maybe it wasn’t you who was the most qualified / ready for that promotion, but it sure as shit wasn’t the person who got it.
The Just World Theory would says that Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet are some of the best people in the world, and that is why they have managed to accumulate the vast wealth they each possess.
It would say the same thing about the Saudi Royal Family.
Or the Waltons. (the family behind Wal-Mart)
Or Donald Trump.
The Just World Theory is behind a lot of pick yourself up from your bootstraps thinking, as well as the idea that everyone in the United States has the same opportunities and chances to succeed. This is because, in a Just World, hard work would of course be rewarded with success and comfort. Sounds pretty good, right? Of course it does. That is, in fact, the Ideal world that the United States has tried to be. It is the cornerstone of the American Project, this idea that, at some point, hard work and good ethics would become the single most important factor over resources, luck, or any other factor.
Well, the problem is that we do not live in a Just World. Not in the United States or anywhere else. Justice is an ideal we can espouse, and one we can hold ourselves to, under the understanding that at some point and in some way we will inevitably fail. We will fail as individuals. We will fail as communities. We will fail as societies. We will fail as institutions. Hard work does not always translate to success. Work hard to be successful, but it’s not a guarantee that it will happen.
That’s the thing about Ideals, they are almost always out of reach. We will, in all likelihood, always be working toward that reality.
I get it. I want to believe that I will be rewarded for my efforts. I want to believe that the magic formula for happiness and health and good relationships and success exists. It’s comforting to think that the secret recipe is out there, even if I don’t know what it is.
The Just World Theory allows us to enjoy our successes while taking total credit for them, ignoring factors that are out of our control like luck, bias, and institutional advantage.
Believing in a Just World necessitates believing that men and woman have equal opportunity. It often means ‘not seeing’ race, or at the very least believing that race is not a factor in success – and attributing statistics that say otherwise to some other immoral factor that makes POC less successful while denying that institutional biases play a role.
Take a look at this report from the National Bureau of Economic Research for an example of how race can impact employment opportunity. (Turns out the name at the top of your application matters as much as the content of your resume.)
The reality is that there are a whole host of factors impacting POC that are largely out of the control of the individual.
Everyone is impacted by institutional and systemic bias. For some it is background noise, not particularly important, and for others it is ever-present, defining a large percentage of their interactions and opportunities.
But wait… Isn’t the United States founded on the idea that all people deserve equal opportunity to pursue happiness?
Well, I’d say that that is the ideal truth, but that the execution is rather drastically off the mark.
And yet, Just World ideology usually gets in the way of making a truly just world. How? Just World Ideology doesn’t have good answers for things like chronic illness and disability. It also assumes that things like car accidents, floods, and tornadoes happen to people who deserve it. Same for burglary, murder, and sexual assault.
In a Just World bad things only happen to people who deserve them.
But what happens if you know that you yourself are a good person (which most everyone thinks), and yet something bad happens. You’re laid off, in a car accident, can’t get a job in your chosen field etc. How would that happen in a Just World?
This is where the Just World Theory can become incredibly problematic. This is because the easiest answer, the answer we reach for in our social lives, that many of our politicians point to, that just seems like a good and logical story is this: Someone took advantage of the system and stole the opportunities that should have been yours.
Teachers’ Pet. Welfare Queen. Attention Seeker. Whiner.
All these are words we sometimes use to describe people we see as manipulating the Just World system. The mythical Welfare Queen, for instance, takes advantage of existing welfare programs and laws to live without working, presumably while still able to work. They are (supposedly) lazy good-for-nothings lacking the general ambition or good character required to bootstrap themselves into successful living. And, because it’s your tax dollars paying that welfare check, they are stopping you from living your best life too.
What about Whiner or Attention Seeker? Both of these stereotypes are negative because, within the Just World framework, these are people who are seeking to change their situation by complaining about it rather than just doing the work to change it.
Isn’t that so nice and clear – just do the work and life will get better!
I’m going to show my nerd card a little here… but it’s like Picard said, “It is possible to commit no mistakes, and still lose.” (Star Trek, The Next Generation, Season 2 Ep 21). There isn’t room for that messaging in the Just World Theory. There isn’t room for bad things to happen to good people, or for deserving people to never receive their rewards. Because there is no space for those facts of life the assumption must be that something has gone wrong, and gone wrong because of the actions of another immoral being, to explain why the world isn’t consistently and predictably fair.
In other words, it is possible to work hard your whole life and still be on square one.
It’s no one’s fault when that happens.
People don’t have bad things happen to them because they are bad people. AIDS is not a punishment for being gay, sexual assault is not a punishment for being promiscuous, or for wearing certain clothing, or for going certain places. Theft certainly isn’t a punishment for greed.
At the crux this is the biggest problem I have with the Just World Theory, believing that the world is a good and fair place is not, by itself, an issue. The problem is that any time that belief intersects with the cruelty of the world it blames the people who are suffering.
“Why were you in that part of town in the first place?”
“Just send out more applications. You’re not trying hard enough.”
“Well why did you stay with them if they treat you that way?”
“What did you do to make them angry?”
“If she’d just shown the officer some respect she wouldn’t be dead.”
Sometimes it’s subtle, like asking chronically ill people if they’ve tried yoga. (Friendly tip. Don’t ask chronically ill people if they’ve tried yoga. Bad juju.)
If it were always subtle little things that would be wearying enough, but it doesn’t stop there. The Just World Theory also feeds almost all the big isms:
Racism: “It’s Black people’s own fault they don’t prioritize education and family values and hard work enough to get good jobs. Look at insert successful Black person here. If they can do it, anyone can.”
Sexism: “She shouldn’t have worn those shorts. She was really asking for it.” “He just needs to man up and work a little harder. He’s a good guy, just kinda lazy. If he puts in a little more effort someone will give him an opportunity.”
And so on.
One of the problems with tackling this concept is that it’s two pronged. Sure, you might not think that your aunt with breast cancer deserved to get sick. But maybe you do believe that your good health choices are the only reason you’re healthy, and maybe she wouldn’t have gotten sick if she didn’t eat so many processed foods.
You see how that works? Without feeling like you’re blaming your family member, it is possible to tell yourself you have control over your health outcomes (regardless of genetic pre-disposition, work conditions, and accidental injury). Part of that sense of control in your own life comes from identifying a choice the other person made that might, plausibly, just maybe have contributed to their current problem.
You are protected from the bad thing that might happen, because you are a good person and make good choices, and your aunt is protected from your opinion and blame by the relationship the two of you share.
But, what about the obese Walmart shopper with an entire cart full of processed foods? Do you extend them the same courtesy as your aunt who just likes pizza a little too much? Probably not.
Because in a Just World, people would not be obese without some personal fault making them fat. (check out this study looking at genetic weight factors to see some of why that is a faulty assumption. Fair warning, it’s pretty technical.)
In a Just World everyone would know how to cook and have time to do so.
In a Just World everyone would be able to afford the cost of fresh produce and know how to make tasty food from fresh ingredients.
In a Just World no one would have to intentionally buy high-calorie but cheap food in order to ensure their families didn’t go to bed hungry between checks.
In a Just World anyone who chose to eat so-called un-healthy food all the time would deserve the consequences.
It isn’t only that the Just World Theory gives you the right to condemn and blame other people for their situation, it’s also that it gives you control over your own situation, and the right to pat yourself on the back for being a good person in contrast to everyone else. It gives you the right to righteous fury when the world is not fair, when your good deeds go unnoticed, or when you get sick or hurt despite all the precautions you too.
The Just World Theory isn’t about Justice, it’s about Pride and Blame.
This post is part one of a larger roadmap of how the Just World Theory operates in American politics and every day interactions. I’ll be examining topics like food stamps and WIC, Trump’s border wall, and disability and how those topics interact with the Just World Theory as well as how the idea of a Just World informs our policy and political opinions.
If you want to read more about the Just World Theory I would recommend this short article by Nicholas Hune-Brown about the origins of the idea and how it has been tested in psychology. Or this slightly longer Atlantic article by Jonah Lehrer. Both look at a study which was done in the darker days of psychology studies, but, like many such studies, illuminates one of the darker facets of the human psyche.
Lastly I want to make a note. As both of the above articles mention, it is totally normal to believe that the world is just and fair. It’s almost universal, which we can see looking at how many religions, creeds, and inspirational posters come back to the idea of getting what you put out into the world.
It’s okay if you want to continue to believe that the world is a just and fair place.
This post is not meant to change that. Emotionally I still want to believe that the world is a fair place, and tend to act as though it were. However, I also know that it is a place full of injustice and random chance.
I’m writing this because I believe that it is important to grapple with the unconscious or unthinking reactions which can arise from thinking that the world is fair and that bad things happen for a reason. Bad things happen. I strive not to make those things worse by blaming the people they happen to.
Let me know what you think, or if you have any topics you’d like me to cover in this kind of post.
And as always, I hope you are well.