Victim-blaming, system justification and the ‘just world’ fallacy.

From a work in progress: ‘The Authority of the Boot-maker’ by Mal Content.

“…whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

– Galatians 6:7

There’s a pretty dodgy bit of logic, but it illustrates certain cognitive biases to which humans may be subject, these tend to intersect and reinforce one another, and lend themselves to ruling or oppressing elites for the purpose of strengthening their ideological hegemony.

Obviously, it’s a false analogy, just because a rule is true of agriculture doesn’t guarantee it will apply in other spheres of life. It also overlooks the possibility that a third party may have soweth something else when our man wasn’t looking. Variants of this phrase are most often used in expression of the ‘just-world fallacy’, the idea that people somehow get what they deserve, as per the colloquial use of the word ‘karma’: “What did I do to deserve this?” is a common complaint of the blameless. Postulating reincarnation or an afterlife seems like a pretty extreme response to the realisation that we do not start with a level playing field, and all our best efforts in life can be thwarted by anyone in a position to exert power over us.

Victim-blaming manifests itself in response to abuses of power, most significantly:

  • Poverty and unemployment: “They can’t be bothered to improve themselves.”
  • Sexual and domestic violence: “S/he was asking for it.”
  • Racism and xenophobia: “They’re all… etc, etc.”
  • State brutality: “They must have done something wrong.”
  • Miscarriages of justice: “There’s no smoke without fire.”

Victim-blaming makes us feel better all round: first of all we have to believe it won’t happen to us, or we wouldn’t sleep well; secondly if we sense injustice we either have to do something about it or live with our feelings of impotence; lastly we can congratulate ourselves that we’re morally superior to those who apparently deserve such punishment. As a bonus it justifies the popular vice of ‘Schadenfreude’*.

* Schadenfreude (‘∫aːdənfrɔydə) delight in another’s misfortune German: from Schaden harm + Freude joy.

– Collins English Dictionary online.

In the early 1960’s, partly inspired by the trial of the war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Stanley Milgram explored the limits of obedience by conducting experiments in which subjects were asked to administer electric shocks at increasing voltages, up to a potentially lethal 450V, to actors they believed were volunteers. Twenty-six out of forty participants administered the full range of shocks. It appeared that they were easily able to abdicate responsibility for the outcome of their actions to someone who bore the trappings of authority.

Melvin J. Lerner followed his work by examining the role played by the concept of justice in these circumstances, studying the reactions of more or less passive observers to the process of torture – in his own words:

“M. J. Lerner (1971) and M. J. Lerner and Simmons (1966) confronted their participants with the vividly moving experience of watching someone who had been essentially trapped into receiving a series of unavoidable electric shocks as part of her participation in a psychological experiment. Of course, when given the opportunity, these observers elected to rescue and compensate the victim, but when unable to do that, many of them tended to derogate the victim’s character. However, why would observers attempt to compensate an innocent victim, whereas similar others, unable to do that, denigrate her personal worth? One possible answer pointed to a motivational component: The observers cared so much about believing that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get, that if they cannot restore justice by their actions, they will try to do so by other means, such as persuading themselves that the victim actually deserved to suffer, or would be compensated later, possibly in the next life.

Another possibility is that the cues in the situation, particularly the vivid signs of the victim’s suffering, elicited a heuristic-based automatic response, “bad things happen to bad people,” that led to the victim derogation.”

– Melvin J. Lerner: ‘The Justice Motive: Where Social Psychologists Found It, How they Lost It, and Why They May Not Find It Again.’

Another little quirk that skews our judgement of our fellow beings is ‘fundamental attribution error’ (sometimes known as correspondence bias) the tendency to ascribe the behaviour of others to their character or personality rather than the circumstances in which it occurs, this is good for reinforcing prejudices and strays into the metaphysical at times: “typical Capricorn”. Finally, ‘system justification theory’ contends that people take comfort from defending the status quo, even when they may perceive it to be unfair and not in their material best interests. “Better the devil you know” is perhaps the most familiar expression of this bias.

“That the mass bleeds, that it is being robbed and exploited, I know as well as our vote-baiters. But I insist that not the handful of parasites, but the mass itself is responsible for this horrible state of affairs. It clings to its masters, loves the whip, and is the first to cry Crucify! The moment a protesting voice is raised against the sacredness of capitalistic authority or any other decayed institution. Yet how long would authority and private property exist, if not for the willingness of the mass to become soldiers, policemen, jailers, and hangmen? The Socialist demagogues know that as well as I, but they maintain the myth of the virtues of the majority, because their very scheme of life means the perpetuation of power. And how could the latter be acquired without numbers? Yes, authority, coercion, and dependence rest on the mass, but never freedom or the free unfoldment of the individual, never the birth of a free society.”

– Emma Goldman: ‘Minorities versus Majorities’ 1917.

There’s a fair amount of experimental evidence for system justification theory, but it is kind of intuitive anyway. We’re hard-wired to try and make sense of our world and we’re uncomfortable when it doesn’t add up. Wherever we fall in the pecking order our survival depends on our ability to reliably predict outcomes and rapidly adjust to them emotionally. Our expectations become tailored to our experiences to avoid repeated disappointment and mitigate stress. It’s been observed that people often rate the desirability or otherwise of a given outcome according to how likely they think it is.

The benefits of identification with a group depend on the perceived status of that group, and may involve playing to stereotypes created by others; for example, it’s harder for the unemployed to organise together because people don’t readily identify themselves as unemployed,* they’re all “between jobs”, the U.K. government craftily emphasises this by calling them ‘jobseekers’, which also displaces any personal ambitions they may have in favour of simply getting a job.

* The ‘National Unemployed Workers’ Movement’ in the 1930’s benefitted from the overwhelming ideological coherence and group identity of the Communist Party.

So if you have less invested in identifying with a group you have fewer reasons to think highly of it, which depresses your sense of entitlement. Meanwhile all those braying toffs at Prime Minister’s Questions have a strong group identity (a fair few of them went to the same school, what are the odds of that?) which reinforces their conviction that they’re entitled to dominate and exploit the rest of us. The advantaged only have a little conscience to assuage whereas the disadvantaged have to weigh the loss in self-esteem that comes from accepting their victimhood against the greater loss that would go with being unable to predict or adapt to their fate. They are therefore subject to vastly greater mental stress to go along with their reduced material circumstances, placing them at greater risk of illness and social dysfunction, thereby perpetuating their misery.

To examine why people would consistently act against their own interests, John T. Jost and Orsolya Hunyady cited experimental studies to test eighteen specific hypotheses derived from system justification theory. These were concerned with: the rationalisation of the status quo, the internalisation of inequality (out-group favouritism* and depressed entitlement), relations among ego, group, and system justification motives (including consequences for attitudinal ambivalence, self-esteem, and psychological well-being), and the reduction of ideological dissonance.

* A tendency in individuals who identify with a particular group to think more highly of those perceived to belong to another category.

It turns out that a great deal of emotional and intellectual effort is expended in defending the status quo, however unsatisfactory it may be. The compulsion to do this is greatest amongst those who benefit least from the distribution of power and resources, and the effect increases as inequality expands. Specifically the belief in meritocracy – weak in those whose business is loading the dice – is strongest amongst those who are bound to lose, and have only the consolation of trusting that the game was fair. Does this explain why the bourgeoisie has always been “a class for itself” and the proletariat is not? Can it account for the survival of disastrous totalitarian regimes that by any rational analysis ought to have been overthrown in a heartbeat?

“We speculate that system-justifying ideologies serve a palliative function in that they reduce anxiety, guilt, dissonance, discomfort, and uncertainty for people who are in positions that are either advantaged or disadvantaged.”

[…] “What we have argued is that there is a socially acquired motive to justify and rationalise the existing social system. The operation of this motive has been demonstrated on measures of stereotyping, ideology, deservingness, desirability, and even memory. … Paradoxically, the system justification motive is sometimes strongest among those who are the most disadvantaged, presumably because they have the most ideological dissonance to resolve. System justification often has opposite social psychological effects on members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups. For members of high status or advantaged groups, system justification is generally associated with in-group favouritism, increased self-esteem, and decreased ambivalence, depression, and neuroticism. For members of low-status groups, by contrast, system justification is generally associated with out-group favouritism, in-group ambivalence, decreased self-esteem, increased depression, and increased neuroticism.

We have argued that, despite these potential costs, system-justifying ideologies serve a palliative function in that they make people feel better about their own situation. System justification may reduce dissonance and uncertainty especially (but not exclusively) among members of advantaged groups. From a coping perspective, there are many reasons why one might accept the potential costs that come from embracing system justifying ideologies. These include the denial of discrimination, the perception of control, and the preservation of hope. We have argued that people engage in system justification in an attempt to cope with circumstances that they cannot change.”

– John T. Jost & Orsolya Hunyady: ‘The psychology of system justification and the palliative function of ideology’.
European Review of Social Psychology, 2002-13.

With both advantaged and disadvantaged having an ideological stake in the status quo, and the ruling class having such a huge material investment in perpetuating that ideology, is it any wonder that we’ve found it so hard to effect social change?

Of course, some of us have all this arse-backwards. We’re attracted to the minority point of view, like to side with the underdog, give folk the benefit of the doubt and have a taste for self-examination, maybe that’s what makes us anarchists. I’ve seen it argued* that cognitive biases cannot be avoided because they are essential to our thought processes. I utterly refute this; I don’t accept we are limited by our biology, individually and collectively, we can evolve.

* On the internet, of course.

If we are to topple the pyramid of capitalism we will have to flatten the pyramid of status, we must learn to despise the privileged and advantaged, and seek unity not in ideology, but pride in our Class and its achievements.