Definition of a liberal: A conservative who has just discovered that bad things really do happen to good people. – Jenny Islander

I cannot say it enough times. The idea that bad things must happen for a reason is false. It is patently contradicted by millions of people’s experiences every day. The worst extreme of the Just World fallacy is Objectivism and its near cousin, LaVeyan Satanism. But there’s another, less extreme but more corrosive, version that I’d like to mention as well.

(Trigger warning: violence and sexual violence.) Someone I used to be close to exemplified this when he said that he was utterly repulsed by the idea of “depending on the kindness of strangers.” His personal concern was self-defense: people who are unprepared to defend themselves, who aren’t alert and aware of their surroundings at all times, and constantly assessing the potential dangers of others, people, in other words, like most of us, were in his mind, “depending on the kindness of strangers” to avoid being robbed, beaten, raped, or murdered. He wasn’t disdainful, or generally victim-blaming, any more than most of our culture is. He took pride, in fact, in providing protection to others, especially people he cared about. But this deep, deep need to be totally independent and self-reliant was haunted by the equally deep fear that he wouldn’t always be perfect in his independence and self-protection.

That fear is more than just a concern: it’s a reality. We are all, to a certain extent, dependent on the kindness of strangers. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” wrote MLK. No one gets through life entirely on her own. We were all children, dependent on adults, and at the other end of life, more and more of us are experiencing a period of senescence when we are increasingly or even totally dependent on others. And not all of us are in perfect physical condition at all times: we get tired, we have the flu, we are disabled, and sometimes, even in spite of our best self-reliance and heroic preparedness, bad things happen, because bad things really do happen to good people.

The idea that one should never depend on the kindness of strangers, the myth that this ultimate independence is even possible, is harmful to people who hold it. It drives a kind of self-judgment by an impossible standard that causes people to live in fear, and when they, inevitably, fail to live up to their self-imposed  standards, it causes them to live in self-hate. Using one’s level of self-reliance to justify thinking that one is a good person is a shortsighted substitution that is doomed to fail.

Even worse, when applied to others, these standards are the antithesis of social justice. They create a kind of society-wide self-hate best exemplified by Faux News’ specialized brand of froth and furor. Accepting the Just World fallacy and letting it shape social policy institutionalizes the fear of failing at perfect self-reliance, and that fear manifests itself as a defensive, unrelenting anger at those who have “failed,” even among people who know that they are only one accident or forty years of life away from being in the same situation. The essentially Calvinist substitution of hard work, self-reliance, or other external measures for deep reflection, true ethical striving, and the compassion for others which naturally results is contrary to all experience and evidence, and it is time for this clumsy sleight-of-hand to stop driving our politics.

3 thoughts on “Just World fallacy

  1. Thank you for this post. You’re articulating so much that I’ve felt but couldn’t put my finger on as well as you did.

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