From the time we’re born, we love hearing stories. In the world of fiction, authors have the ability to arrange events and character arcs so that everything generally works together thematically and makes sense in terms of some greater meaning. Things have reason for happening, and usually things will end up in a way that seems satisfying, even if there is some tragedy.
We start with fairytales, which are so blatant about this type of world building that they usually not only have events and characters that are molded by themes, but also by morals. There are lessons that emerge, and a sense of justice applied to all events.
A good example of this is the story of the little red hen. The hen plants seeds, takes care of them, cuts the wheat when it grows, takes it to the mill, brings back flour, makes the dough, and bakes the bread. Through every step, she asks all her friends for help, but the dog, cat, and duck (described with clear negative adjectives like lazy, sleepy, and noisy) refuse to help, letting her do the work all herself. At the end, when there is delicious, warm bread, everyone asks to ‘help’ eat some, and the chicken replies that she’ll eat it all by herself.
In this story, it’s satisfying, because we know that the chicken deserves to eat all the bread. This is considered fair. It would not be the same story if all the animals helped during every step and the chicken still ate all the bread herself. It also would be very different if the dog went through all the work of making it and the chicken decided to take it for herself. These stories wouldn’t be considered fair, and would likely leave us feeling uncomfortable, or even angry.
Not every story is as clear cut as “The Little Red Hen.” A similar story, “The Ant and the Grasshopper” repeats the situation where one character gathers food and another character does not, leaving the unhelpful character hungry in the end. However, in this story there are a few essential differences.
First, the grasshopper wasn’t gathering food because (depending on the version) he was singing, dancing, or playing the fiddle. This immediately casts undertones that feel uncomfortable to any artist, implying that creation of art isn’t actually contributing to the world, and it was foolish and morally wrong to create it when you should be doing real work.
Second, the story implies that the grasshopper and ant act differently because it is their nature to act differently, which brings in a whole element of determinism and might make readers feel unsettled depending on whether or not they feel people should be helped or punished for differences that cause some degree of societal harm. In the story, if the grasshopper truly didn’t know any better, or didn’t know how to store food for the winter, is it entirely his fault for not helping gather food? Should he have been punished, or taught how for the following year?
Third, the consequence for playing music all summer in the warm weather was being locked out in the cold and starving to death. This is a much more extreme punishment than the animals in the little red hen story faced. While it generally feels satisfying to think of unhelpful people not getting to enjoy fresh bread, and the person who worked hard on it getting rewarded— it feels pretty unsettling to think of a fiddle player starving to death in the winter.
Why does it make us so uncomfortable when stories don’t adhere to the kind of justice that we expect? When a fictional character dies in a grand sacrifice, letting their name go down in history, and changing the world for the better, we’re sad, but it feels satisfying and right, somehow. But when a beloved character dies due to a wrongful execution, or an infection that’s never treated, or a stray bullet fired by a soldier who never knew them, we are outraged.
We react very strongly to our idea of a just world being stripped from us. Even those of us who do like our stories to be a little unjust, using descriptors like “dark” or “gritty,” will be horrified or angry every time a terrible immoral character is praised and rewarded and our beloved protagonists are insulted, stripped, tortured, killed, and forgotten.
We don’t like thinking of the world as unjust, and even when it has no real-world consequences, like in a fictional narrative, we almost always prefer the lie.
Buffy: Does it ever get easy?
Giles: You mean life?
Buffy: Yeah, does it get easy?
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and… everyone lives happily ever after.
-Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lie to Me
The problem is, we also prefer the lie in real life.
We prefer to think that there is some sort of moral balancing act in the universe. We tell ourselves things like “If you just work hard and are a good person, good things will come your way.” “You’ve got good karma.” “What goes around comes around.” “He’ll get his.” “Everything will be okay in the end, if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
We love thinking this way, for obvious reasons. It’s reassuring, and gives us motivation and hope that we need to accomplish anything, and to be good people. How cold-hearted it would be if a friend came to us, upset and lonely, and we said, “There’s no actual guarantee anything will get better.” It’s cruel to say, and hard to believe, so instead we tell them, “Things will get better soon. No one deserves it more than you.”
At first, clinging to the idea of a ‘just world’ seems beneficial. It’s a motivational tool, it gives us meaning, and it helps us comfort each other.
Only, it doesn’t. It also turns into a terrible force against empathy whenever real tragedy meets anyone. Believing that the world is just is irreconcilable with the belief that morally good, kindhearted people can suffer horribly or die lonely. But they do. And we prefer the lie of the just world so much, that sometimes instead of letting go of that comforting idea, we try to find some way that the people who suffered were wrong.
If it’s a just world, only bad people suffer. So if that person is homeless and hungry, maybe it was his own fault for not saving his money, like that grasshopper in the story. If someone was killed, maybe it was because they were acting threatening. If someone was raped, maybe they dressed wrong, or drank too much, or went a place they shouldn’t have. If someone dies of a heart attack, we’ll talk about how they should have eaten better or taken better care of themselves. We’ll look through a victim’s history, picking their life apart for irrelevant details— they stole something once, they had lots of partners, they did drugs, they ate unhealthily and didn’t exercise, they made stupid choices. Anything we can find that we can define as ‘immoral’ we bring up so that it makes more sense why something bad happened.
This is called ‘victim blaming’ and is incredibly harmful. It strips empathy from us. Normally caring people, who would never picture themselves hurting someone when they’re down, do just that. Instead of saying, “I’m so sorry, how can I help?” they say, “You deserved it. That would never happen to me.”
This is terrible. It’s wrong, and it’s never, ever okay. In a just world, victim blaming would never happen. But this isn’t a just world, and it happens all the time.
Even those of us who know and acknowledge that the world isn’t fair still sometimes fall into this harmful fallacy. Embracing that the universe does not reward ‘goodness’ or punish ‘evil’ is scary. It is terrifying to believe that bad things could happen to you for no reason. You could get sick and never get better, someone you love might never love you back, your house could burn down, some kids could steal your cat and torture it for fun, and you could die in a car crash tomorrow on your way to work.
Who wants to acknowledge those possibilities? How could you ever sleep at night? It’s really scary, and I don’t blame anyone for using the just world fallacy to get through their day to day life. Sometimes it is kind to believe in. Sometimes it really is helpful to lie to ourselves.
But when bad things happen, we can’t start assigning blame. We must break down the fallacy, let our guard down, and embrace that reality that terrible things can happen to anyone for no reason. Tragedy isn’t contagious and we’re not helping ourselves by shutting the world’s hurt away in quarantine.
So when you hear of something terrible happening to someone, please let yourself be scared. Let yourself feel what means that something bad could happen to you, not because you deserve it, but because “deserving it” has no meaning to the universe. Then, try to stop thinking about that fear in terms of yourself, and just think about who has actually suffered. Try to help them, or those who love them. Try to help our culture rid itself of the “just world” shield when it needs to so that we can collectively experience empathy and show compassion.
This world is not just, but we can be.