Belief in a Just World – And What it Means for Resistance

By Salonika

Many people hold a strong belief that justice is an inalienable right of every individual, and that the current social, economic and political systems ensure that justice is delivered. The belief that actions and conditions have predictable and just consequences is termed in psychology as the “just world hypothesis”.

Socialization of this belief in a just world begins during early childhood. A child is rewarded or punished based on whether his/her behavior fulfills the expectations of the elders (i.e. parents or caretakers). This consistent pattern rewards and punishment, which is, in many ways, necessary for a healthy development of the child, also initiates the inculcation of the idea that our behavior always determines our consequences, i.e. a belief in a just world.

Throughout our lives, social institutions like schools, law and religion continue the instillation of the belief.

Such a belief serves different functions. It helps makes the world predictable. It can be used to regulate one’s behavior. And it protects our psychological well-being. By believing in a just world, we reassure ourselves that only good things will happen to us in the future (based on the assumption that we have committed only “good” actions). For example, in the event of domestic violence, empathy towards the victim can cause psychological pain by making us vulnerable to the danger of becoming victim ourselves at some point of time. Instead, by engaging in victim blaming, we are able to psychologically ward off that danger. When we say, “she was abused by her husband because she is weak” what we really mean is that “I will not be abused by my husband because I am not weak.”

Another critical function of this belief is the suppression of resistance to systems of power. It does so in two ways: by denying that unjust systems of power exist at all, and by limiting resistance.

Denying systems of power

The belief in a just world justifies the existence of unjust systems of power. It frames systems of privilege and oppression not as injustices, but rather as “the natural order of things”. This legitimizes systemic both privileges and oppression. Both the privileged and the oppressed are believed to be “deserving” of their fate, based on their “superiority” and “inferiority” respectively.

Poverty is blamed on “laziness” of the poor. Rapes are blamed on lack of modesty of women. Colonization was necessary due to the “savage” nature of indigenous cultures. Ecocide is called “development”, and believed to be necessary for “progress”. In reality, these forms of injustices are necessary for the continuity of a capitalist, patriarchal, imperialist culture. But the critical role of the culture in producing the injustices go unnoticed.

Social institutions are designed to make these unfair systems of power invisible. For example, in many parts of South Asia, the caste system prevails. It is a hierarchical system that has historically oppressed (economically, politically and socially) certain groups of people by other groups of people. The karma system (the system believed to deliver justice) asserts that the birth of people into a particular caste is a direct consequence of their actions of previous incarnations. Thus, the domination of given caste groups becomes natural and fair.

Unfortunately, these values can be so deeply ingrained in members of a society that, in many cases, people of both groups, the oppressors and the oppressed, both are blind to the unjust systems of power. Oppressors feel entitled to the privileges they receive, and will go to lengths to preserve those privileges. On the other hand, the oppressed develop a feeling of inferiority, which suppresses their capacity to build a resistance movement.

Limitations to resistance

More significantly, the belief in a just world suppresses a radical resistance. It deters a radical understanding of the power differential in the culture. Incidences of injustice becomes a loophole in the system rather than the nature of the system Child abuse, domestic violence, sexual harassment, worker exploitation are interpreted as isolated events, rather than as part of a larger phenomena.

Isolated interpretations propose isolated solutions. After a workplace accident in a sweatshop in Bangladesh, the contractors are replaced, but the high pressure to lower cost and increase outputs remain. As a result, repeated accidents occur. These isolated solutions are only effective in rectifying individual events of injustice. They do not deal with the root cause of injustice: this culture.

Unless the problems are acknowledged as resulting due to a dysfunctional system, the proposed solutions would only be superficial. “Green capitalism” emerged as a response to the current ecological crisis, despite the fact that it is no better than “traditional” capitalism in destroying the planet. A radical analysis of the inherent ecocidal nature of capitalism is required to propose a radical solution to deal with the ongoing ecocide.

Overcoming the belief in just world

Although it serves some useful social and psychological functions, it is necessary to understand the shortcomings of our belief in a just world to build an effective resistance. It can be done through some of the following steps.

First and foremost, it is necessary to acknowledge the multiple systems of power in this culture. We may occupy different positions in these different systems of power, privileging by some, while being oppressed by others. Recognition of these privileges and oppression that we face may make us vulnerable to feelings of guilt and despair. But it is a fundamental step. In order to fight justice, it is necessary to understand the injustice first.

Next, it is important to understand that these inherently oppressive systems were created by a group of people in a particular time and culture. The industrial civilization is a few hundred years old. Civilization began some thousand years ago. But, human beings have existed for two million years. As much as civilization (particularly industrial civilization) seems like an absolute part of humanity, for majority of their existence, humans have lived in just and sustainable societies. As much as the oppressors would like to have us believe that civilization is infallible, it can be dismantled, and replaced with just and sustainable societies again.

Contrary to the just world belief, justice is not an inalienable right that is guaranteed to all on the virtue of their existence. The current structures of power make sure that the access to justice is distributed unevenly among different groups. It is only after we fully internalize these facts, that we could take effective actions to make this world more just. Organized resistance to oppressive systems of civilization, industrialization, capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, racism, and casteism is required to dismantle them. Until then, justice will remain a scarce resource accessible only to the oppressors.

Salonika is a volunteer with Deep Green Resistance. She believes that the current culture is damaging to all, particularly to the oppressed, and that it is imperative for to dismantle the oppressive systems. Currently she is working with survivors of sex-trafficking, sexual abuse and gender-based violence.