Assuming justice and creating justice

I’ve been thinking about politics, assumptions, and justice.

I sat in on a recording of The Egonomist on Friday – thanks for having me there, guys! – and we discussed some of the issues and reactions to Sarah Wilson‘s articles on WINZ, specifically the backlash from people who insist that Sarah must be a liar, a bludger, or a lying bludger, because if you can blog, or go out with friends, you must be able to work.

Then I read this post by Chris Miller on the assumptions we tend to make about businessmen being good political leaders. Chris makes excellent points about why that’s clearly a silly assumption, but the post also brought together a lot of scattered thoughts I was having about our political narratives.

The technical term for it is a “just-world hypothesis“. It’s the idea that our universe is basically just. Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. If good things have happened to you, it must be because you’re a good person, and so on and so forth.

You can probably connect the dots yourself. People have attacked Sarah because the idea that she’s a good, hardworking person who’s been randomly struck by illness and then wilfully mistreated by our welfare system contradicts their assumption that the universe is just. And wealthy businesspeople must be good leaders, because they’ve managed to accrue a lot of material goods and influence, and that wouldn’t happen if they didn’t deserve it.

The idea extends to many area of our lives – the myth that ‘nice girls’ don’t get assaulted, or innocent people never get wrongfully executed – and every time, the just-world fallacy supports the status quo. It supports the mistreatment of beneficiaries, the influence of the wealthy, the patriarchy, and institutional racism. It supports the worldview of the right-wing and socially conservative.

We on the left know the world isn’t a just place. The people on the bottom aren’t worthless, and the people at the top aren’t inherently admirable. We don’t assume there’s justice: we want to create justice.

So let’s challenge this kind of thinking. Let’s say that workers deserve a living wage, and beneficiaries deserve to be treated with dignity, and kids who don’t do well at school deserve support, and families deserve a fair go to buy a home, or rent one that’s actually habitable.

These assumptions only survive because they’re repeated by our political leaders, in our media, at the pub, across the family dinner table. They’re accepted as common sense. But if we all stand up and say ‘no, that’s not right’ then slowly but surely we can turn that thinking around.

There’s definitely more practical things we need to do as well! But to create a lasting change in New Zealand society, we need to overturn the assumptions that support the status quo too.

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