The blogosphere is one place where you will never find any shortage of opinions and punditry. The recent election has been rife with partisan bickering and and all or nothing thinking. The healthcare debate online suffers from much of the same problem. It is fascinating to me how perceptions can vary from one person to another regarding the same reality.
Through it all, I cling to the idea that the vast majority of people are basically good. At the same time, a look at history or the news makes quite clear that even good people are capable of doing some pretty horrible things. Jonah Lehrer at Frontal Cortex recently shared a personal experience with one way that people with good intentions can make the world worse, the Just World Phenomenon.
The basic idea is that people will often make judgements in the face of injustice that convince themselves that no injustice occurred. People have a strong tendency to believe the world is just and fair.
Often, the only way to maintain this perception is by blaming the victim. Con men seem quite adept at this as they convince themselves people are suckers, selfish, foolishly trusting, and therefore deserve to be taken. In war, soldiers must convince themselves that the other side is evil and inhuman. They find nicknames and epithets to refer to them in an effort to dehumanize them. It is often the only way killing is possible for people who otherwise are productive members of society. This perpetuates the injustice and multiplies it. Ironically, the world becomes much less just in the effort to maintain belief it is more just.
It is no wonder to me, that once the horrors of the holocaust were known at the end of World War II, there arose a group of people who simply believe it didn’t happen. The belief in a just world is at the root of holocaust denial. The shattering of that illusion makes Schindler’s List and holocaust museums profoundly unsettling. They remain important because to forget the holocaust happened is to leave the door open to it happening again.
Most examples or the Just World Phenomenon are less extreme however. In the healthcare world, I see this most often applied to the poor or the uninsured. When I volunteered in college at a local free health clinic, complaints about a sense of entitlement were everywhere. People with insurance spent much time complaining about how they work hard and sacrifice much for their healthcare. They felt certain that the people in the clinic were lazy and undeserving.
This is not to deny that a sense of entitlement exists. It certainly does. I think this sense is coming from exactly the same place however. The poor, the self employed, and the uninsured often lack access to health care through no fault of their own. Because the world must be just, they feel entitled to it.
Both sides end up exacerbating the problem. Efforts to universalize health care are seen as unjust because people who have “earned” their health care feel they are being robbed to pay for others. People who feel entitled end up justifying this impression and damaging their own cause.
It is an implicit belief in a just world that will motivate others to blame the sick for their illness. It is this same idea that causes people to refuse to tolerate the idea of health care rationing, even as rationing goes on covertly, or even openly, by access to insurance.
As with most world religions, in my own faith, we have our own painful example of this phenomenon carried to horrific excess, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. It serves me as a sobering reminder that I am not immune from these problems.
In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Nephi warns us of this tactic to enable evil, when he writes,
And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateththeir souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.
In the famous experiment by social psychologist Melvin Lerner, described in detail at the Frontal Cortex Link above, subjects watched an fake experiment where shocks were administered to a graduate student. They were told a variety of stories about the student’s motivation. The group told that volunteered without compensation to experience the shocks, judged this student the most harshly. Lerner writes,
The sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character
While this may be human nature, I cannot believe it is inevitable. Indeed, Christianity is founded upon the idea of one completely innocent, who suffered for all, yet he is revered.
I believe that by overcoming fear and acknowledging the horror of injustice and grieving over it, we develop the empathy and the power necessary for us to start fixing the problem and build a better world. Indeed, my entire faith depends on it.