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A Just World

I am having deja vu. Before last term, we had not had a student death related to a car accident in over 10 years. Yet once again, another student died in a car accident earlier this week. Like the student last term, this student was very involved and visible in the community, was known for helping others, and was on the verge of graduating with a bright future ahead of her.

We tell students that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. But some coping mechanisms are more hurtful than others. She was probably driving too fast. People shouldn’t drink and drive. Stupid people die. 

When I was a graduate student, one of my favorite theories was the Just World Hypothesis. Because we want to believe in a just world, when something bad happens we assume that the person must have done something to deserve it.

I often hear just world explanations after a sexual assault. She was making out with him on the dance floor. She went back to his room. She didn’t fight it so she must have wanted it.  

The Just World Hypothesis is closely related to the problems with free will and blame. In order to preserve the belief that we control our destiny, we are willing to take responsibility for things that we don’t actually have control over.  

I can understand the need to believe that if you make the right choices you will be safe from harm. I want to believe this, too. Usually my attempts at control manifest themselves in perfectionism and excessive guilt.

I don’t know how much blame a person should be held responsible for. I don’t know how to make sense of all of the suffering in the world. But I know that the more I blame someone, the less compassion I have for them.

So I try to approach suffering in the same way I try to accept my feelings: it doesn’t have to make sense. I don’t have to know the reason why for suffering to exist. And I try to have faith that when something bad happens, I will be strong enough to handle it.

About Christy Barongan

I didn't know it at the time, but I wanted to be a psychologist so that I could figure out how to be normal. I think many people come to counseling for the same reason. What I've come to learn is that feeling good about myself is not about trying to be normal. It's about trying to be me. But it's a constant struggle for me, just like it is for everyone else. So I thought I would approach this task with openness and honesty and use myself as an example for how to practice self-acceptance.

3 responses »

  1. Christy, you made a very good point with “But I know that the more I blame someone, the less compassion I have for them.” Blaming someone creates a “them,” which allows the “us” when you/I/anyone blames “them.” Consequently, the “us vs. them” syndrome sets in and anytime we begin to think of “them” as the other, rather than just like us, we begin the process of dehumanizing them. It then becomes easier to set compassion aside for them because they are dehumanized. This is how a lot of the world's mass violence has been perpetrated – through dehumanizing groups and then setting aside compassion.

    Whew, I wrote a lot of words and used a lot of quotation marks (probably too many, I really try not to overuse them!) and didn't answer anything about the accidents or whether I believe in a just world. But, I think maybe some of the ideas about dehumanizing and compassion tie into what you wrote (and especially the parts about sexual assaults and tragic accidents, both of which are violent in their own ways). I suppose I would say that the world can be just so long as we are mindful and don't allow ourselves as individuals, or our societies, to create groups of dehumanized “others” that are then blamed without compassion (e.g., group X deserves to be attacked). In conclusion, if we see the universal in each other rather than minor differences, and act as a human family instead of disparate groups, then the world can be just. At least we can hope.

    Thanks for a very thought provoking post.


  2. Thanks Dave. I'd like to think we're all capable of compassion. And I think you used just the right amount of quotation marks!


  3. Pingback: I Just Don’t Get It | Normal in Training

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