Please Sit and Listen: “Just World” Beliefs Create Injustice

by | Dec 8, 2016

The fear that comes from imagining ourselves as a potential victim or survivor of a heinous crime such as murder or rape, can scare us to the point that we may sometimes become “victim blamers”.  I’d like to focus on one of the numerous factors that lead people to “blame the victim”: *having a “Just World” belief.  You may not be fully aware of your “Just World” beliefs and how often you are “blaming the victim”, but without awareness, it may happen more often than you’d like to admit.   

From a young age and across all societies, we hear a variation of the message “if you do good (or “are good”), good things happen to you” and thus “if you behave badly, you’ll have bad consequences”.  One could argue that this has multiple purposes, one may be to instruct children on “good” vs. “bad” behavior, and to help them feel safe i.e. “nothing bad will happen if you are good”.  On the other hand, one could also make an argument that “Just World” beliefs can also be utilized for social control or to preserve the ‘status quo’ with people in boxes and within labels, ultimately with the potential of deviating guilt from those abusing privilege and power, to the victim. 

“Just World” beliefs have been interwoven into the framework of our society so effectively that even some members of marginalized groups (i.e. impoverished, racial minorities, etc.) who have experienced an “Unjust World” hold this contradictory idea (“Just World”) which may come forth at times of disconcerting news.  In the face of difficult and traumatic events, we turn to our coping skills, and one may be a “Just World” belief which creates a sense of safety, because “if I don’t do X then Y won’t happen”.  The detrimental effects of “Just World” beliefs are not only in how we perceive and treat the victim, but also how the victim may perceive him/herself (“If I hadn’t done X, then Y wouldn’t have happened”).  I’ve observed this in my clinical practice with trauma survivors; as you may suspect these beliefs lead to self-blaming, guilt and shame. 

Many factors maintain this “Just World” phenomenon, for instance, religion has played an important role. Whether you or your family believe in a higher being, Karma, or Law of Attraction, etc. the overarching idea is that if you are a “good person” you’ll get rewarded, or at least not punished or harmed.  Each society has some differences in what “good” or “lawful” means but in general murdering and rape are condemned across all societies. 

Even with my knowledge of the “Just World” phenomenon, clinical education and training, experiences with injustice, and growing self-awareness, I recently caught myself wondering if a murdered teen was gang involved.  One may think that it is a “normal” thought given the factors in the case, but I had to “check myself”, because despite the overwhelming sense of sadness felt for the victim and his family, my mind’s initial reaction was to wonder what role the victim had in his demise. 

And, that, was the beginning of this piece because maintaining “Just World” beliefs creates more injustice. The “Just World” phenomenon can be observed in some comments made on social media following horrendous crimes, such as the murder of the teen I previously mentioned.  Lee Manuel Viloria Paulino, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, was found mutilated and beheaded on Thursday December 1st in Lawrence MA near the Merrimack river by a woman walking her dog.  He had been missing since November 18th.  Mathew Borges, a 15-year-old has been charged with murder, apparently, following his confession to a witness.  Media report that the boys knew each other, attended the same high school, and on the day of Lee Manuel’s disappearance the two had gone out to smoke Marijuana near the river. 

The common theme in the news and social media is the public is horrified, there’s also grief including sadness and anger, but even when we know that Lee Manuel is the victim and Mathew Borges is the murderer, for some (especially those who did not know Lee) there’s an activation of the “Just World” belief.  The activation may be a fleeting thought (like what happened to me) or a more persistent thought that leads to victim blaming and injustice.  Some “Just World” comments made were “gangs and mafia does that” (cutting hands and beheadings), “parents need to know who their children are befriending”, “parents need to spend time with their kids”, “they were smoking marijuana”, “runaway kid”, “wonder if it was gang retaliation”, etc.  On the other hand, per social media posts from people who knew Lee Manuel, he was a “good boy” and was close to his family. 

These “Just World” comments also occur with victims of other crimes, for instance: sexual assault survivors. These can be comments or questions about the actions taken by the victim (whether she/he drank, went out alone, had a drink offered by a stranger, chose certain clothes, etc.)  In this way, we re-victimize by blaming the victim.  People who hold these beliefs are generally not ill-intended.  Usually when “Just World” beliefs are activated it is because one is trying to rationalize a horrendous event: i.e. the person must have done something to put him/her in line of danger- to appease one’s fear that this could have happened to us or to a loved one. 

For the most part, one could say that if you obey the law and engage in socially acceptable behavior you are more likely to be rewarded or at least not punished.  But injustices do happen daily, and the truth is that sometimes “Good things happen to people who do bad things” and “Bad things happen to people who do good things”.  The truth is that there are people who will harm you regardless of whether you were the “best” person to them or didn’t know them at all and that there are people who will harm you for no reason other than the fact that they haven’t overcome their own suffering.  Seems so straightforward, right? Remember, that although we may cognitively understand a reality, psychologically and emotionally we may consider it too dangerous, and thus we maintain some variation of “Just World”.  For individual and societal change to occur, we need to make a commitment to increase self-awareness purposely and make cognitive (thinking) and narrative (story we hold and tell) changes, a process I sometimes call “connecting the dots”.  We will continue to perpetuate injustices if we don’t check ourselves.  So the next time you are wondering what role the victim may have played, please check yourself.


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