February 17, 2013

We might so want to live in a just world, a world in which bad things never happen to good people, that we try to blame those good people (even when it's ourselves) for the bad things that happen to them.

This idea, called the just-world hypothesis, has stuck with me, perhaps because I’ve heard it from two quite different places in the past 24 hours. I first heard it from comedienne Maria Bamford in an interview with Jesse Thorn on Bullseye (about 20:50 in), speaking of her friends’ reactions when one of them got cancer:

I had a friend who died of cervical cancer and everyone was like “oh, uh, did she know…?”, trying to figure out the map of, like, how can I not have that happen to me? How can I blame that person so it won’t happen to me?

And then again from Caleb Crain in a review in The Nation of James Lasdun’s memoir Give Me Everything You Have. Crain begins with a story of walking home from a bar when he was accosted by a drunk man from whom he was forced to physically defend himself.

Over the next few days, I told the story to anyone who would listen. I expected sympathy, which many offered. But to my chagrin, quite a few listeners suggested that I must have done something to provoke the assault. Had I challenged the man? Maybe I had made a pass at him?

…As it turns out, many people wish so strongly to believe in the safety of their environment that they prefer not to acknowledge that a bad thing can happen to someone who has done nothing to deserve it.

Crain goes deeper into Lasdun’s memoir about six years of being stalked and harassed by an unbalanced former student. The just-world bias is so strong that Lasdun found himself wondering whether he in fact did anything to deserve these six years of persecution.

It’s a cold irony that the deeply-felt desire for a humane world can lead us to withold sympathy from those who deserve it most.