I’ve adopted a philosophy over the years that my failures and disappointments have propelled me into being a better version of myself. I’ve embraced my losses and painful experiences as lessons that have strengthened me. But I realize that this “everything happens for a reason” philosophy has limits. Yes, terrible unfortunate events happen in life and it’s appropriate to accept them and move on. But, as a society, adopting this “everything happens for a reason” and “accept it and move on” philosophy when faced with atrocious, heinous, wrongful acts caused by injustice is extremely dangerous.
We instinctually want the world to make sense. We want to feel in control. And we want to avoid discomfort. When a person is harmed, we naturally look for a reason. We want to believe that if we follow the rules, things will work out. And unfortunately, sometimes they don’t. This is when we need to distinguish between unfortunate events and injustices.
An unfortunate event is when a tree falls on someone in the park and kills the person. An injustice is when someone is sexually assaulted. An injustice involves power and/or a violation of someone’s rights. In both cases, we might ask ourselves, “why did this terrible thing happen?” And then we ask, “how could it have been avoided? who caused it? and how do I make sure it doesn’t happen to me?”
When faced with injustices that are so wicked that they feel unbelievable and overwhelming, we risk feeling powerless to make things right. In the the absence of an answer or solution, we will do the next best thing psychologically, which is to convince ourselves that the victims must have brought it on themselves. Psychologists refer to this as the Just World Hypothesis. This is the erroneous, yet powerfully instinctual, idea that individuals get what they deserve. This is extremely dangerous thinking. This is the thinking that perpetuates oppression. This is the thinking that leads to apathy and civic disengagement.
As I discovered in my dissertation research, increased information and exposure to complex problems when presented without tangible solutions or reflection creates a decreased motivation to address the problem. When we cannot make sense of the problem, we are more likely to blame the victim or avoid the issue. If we have privilege (meaning we do not fall into the oppressed category), avoiding the issue becomes an attractive solution. If we relate to the victim, we may be more inclined to blame the victim to give ourselves the false sense of security that it can’t happen to us.
My dissertation research involved working with individuals experiencing homelessness. The causes and solutions to homelessness are complex. It’s difficult to identify the cause, it’s not a one-size fits all solution, and it can feel overwhelming when confronted with the task of improving the situation. On its surface, individuals who are homeless have often experienced an unfortunate event. However, upon further investigation, most individuals have also experienced some form of injustice – a power dynamic that resulted in their loss of ability to secure housing.
Whether we are discussing how to respond to homelessness or sexual assault, we must question our instincts to blame the individuals. Instead of victim blaming, we must root out the problem, name it, fight against it, and educate about it. Otherwise, we perpetuate the oppression and the problem.
There is no shortage of overwhelming and complex issues – immigration, health care access, pay equity – that are driven by underlying power dynamics. These are issues that can trigger our instinctual thinking to blame the victim. It is often easier to blame an individual – a refugee, someone struggling with mental illness, a person with a disability – than to confront the bigger issue.
Instead of moving quickly to the Just World explanation, we need to ask ourselves, “is there an injustice here? is this person impacted by a system that reinforces power? could there be another explanation?” These important reflection questions allow us to find the answers that empower us to make social change. These answers often challenge the status quo and require changes to the power structures that perpetuate the problems. These answers are often more unpopular than the idea of blaming the victim.
Too many of us are checked out, disengaged, overwhelmed, distracted, and feeling powerless. In order to reengage in social issues, we must help ourselves and others to think critically about these problems, to move beyond victim blaming, and to look for injustice and name it. This process of reflection is necessary if we want meaningful change. Yes, things happen for a reason but it’s not always what we think.
Burkeman, O. Believing that life is fair might make you a terrible person. The Guardian, February 3, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/oliver-burkeman-column/2015/feb/03/believing-that-life-is-fair-might-make-you-a-terrible-person
Pedersen, J. (2008). The effect of service learning in higher education on students’ motivation to be civically engaged. UCSB, Santa Barbara, CA.