We all hate change. I think it’s safe to say that unwanted change in our lives is one of the primary sources of stress for pretty much all of us. Even for those people who appear to thrive on change and chaos, underlying their lives are secret routines they have that we can’t see. If our routines and habits are disrupted by someone or something, this makes us angry, confused and stressed out.
The most obvious reason why we don’t like change is that human beings prefer what’s familiar. That’s a constant throughout human history; we humans have always preferred the familiar to what’s not. We could have a long conversation about why that is, but I want to focus on a second reason why human beings fear change and, more specifically, dislike reform, e.g. socio-political changes. This reason compliments and reinforces our innate fear of the new and different. This reason is The Just World Fallacy.
Reform is Unjust
The Just World Fallacy is the fallacious belief we all hold, to one degree or another, that the world is actually a fair place, where everyone gets their just desserts. This belief infects nearly about all of us, to some extent or another. One of the ways in which it is most clearly expressed is status quoism, the belief that the way things are currently is better than they could possibly be in the future. Status quoism exists to some extent in all societies and all situations – no matter how awful life is for a particular set of people or most people in a society, somebody somewhere will defend the status quo.
It’s clear that status quoism is very much a product of humanity’s fear of new and different things and our preference for the familiar and comfortable. That is an important aspect of this belief. However, I want to focus on how the just world fallacy reinforces the fear of the new. When we unconsciously assume that the world is truly fair, the things that happen in the world can be justified really, really easily. We don’t do this consciously, of course, but we all do it. Status quoism is, along with victim-blaming, the most pervasive manifestation of this belief in a fair world.
When a reformer tries to make a change, many people – especially those on the other side of the political spectrum – wonder aloud as to why it’s necessary. ‘What is wrong with the way things are?’ they ask. Unless we are personally affected by the problem that is trying to be reformed, we don’t think reform is necessary. ‘My life is okay’ we insist. We see people protesting in the streets or making a big deal in the media and we cannot bring ourselves to imagine what could have made them feel protest was necessary. Instead, we pretend they like to riot, or they are merely seeking attention.
We do dislike reformers and protesters not because we’re scared of them. Maybe we’re scared of the uncertain future, to a certain extent but, unless our own personal welfare is negatively affected by a reform or a protest, we are not scared of the possibilities of reform. No, the reason we ignore or even attack reformers, and the reason we dismiss protesters and other people who want to change things in the here and now is that we think the world is already fair. We strongly believe that we got what we currently have through our own efforts and we deserve our life. We got what we have through the world as we know it. Reform threatens that world by challenging the fairness of it.
Right now, older women are condemning the #MeToo movement for various reasons. The content of what they are saying doesn’t actually matter much for our purposes; they are expressing a time-honoured view of older people: the way I grew up was the right way, the just way, this new way is wrong. The backlash against the #MeToo movement by older women is an expression of the Just World Fallacy: unwanted sexual advances from men are part of the world I grew up in, that world was a fair world, therefore women who don’t want to live in a world with unwanted sexual advances from men are weak/snowflakes/whatever.
Reform is Good
We live at the greatest time to be alive in the history of the human species. I know you don’t believe that, but it’s true.
- Our lives are safer – violence has declined shockingly since human beings first appeared as a species
- We are healthier and live longer – life expectancy in nearly all of the world is the highest it’s ever been in history
- For most of the world, life is more equitable than it’s ever been, especially for women who, needless to say, make up over half the species
- Improvements in technology have drastically altered our circumstances, mostly for the better, so we can now do an innumerable number of things faster than we ever could before (and do some new things too).
This is a very short, general list. The real list would take up too much space. Here’s a book about how the world is safer in case you don’t believe me.
This doesn’t mean that the world is perfect, far from it. The world we live in is full of all sorts of problems for individual people, for communities, for societies and, of course, for the species at large. But we got to this point where life is significantly less bad through change. Some of that change was mostly bad for many people for extended periods of time but much of that change has had primarily beneficial consequences, as we can see from the fact that we are living in the best time to be alive in human history. The world we live in – which is safer, healthier, fairer and easier than the past – is a product of human beings trying to make the world a better place.
And the successes have been on the incremental side of types of change. That is to say, most of the positive changes in our lives have come from people trying to make their own lives better, or the lives of their communities better, rather than from those arrogant enough to think they could make the entire world a better place (or, worse, perfect). The sum total of millions of incremental improvements, through 200,000 years of trial and error, is that we live at a time when it’s better to be alive for the average person than it ever was previously.
Sure, some of this improvement was through invention and innovation. That role should not be ignored. (Though we should also not forget that invention is a social process, not the mythologized individual process we like to pretend it is.) But a lot of this improvement has come through reform; human beings making minor changes in institutions, laws, regulations, norms and the like over the course of the 12,000 or so years human beings have lived in settled communities. Reform is the enemy of the status quo. The powerful don’t like it because they fear that they will be less powerful in the future. The content don’t like it because they fear change, as is only natural, and think that they will be discontent. (And, unfortunately, they believe the past was better than the present.) Most of the unhappy (including many poor people) don’t like it because they can still imagine things that could be worse. It’s only people who have trouble imagining a worse life, or those who are possessed by some kind of motivational desire to make life better, who favour reform. They are usually the minority. (Worse, a minority them have convinced themselves that they can change the entire world in their lifetimes, meaning that the people who desire reform, not revolution, are an even smaller minority than we might presume.) This minority is up against both the power structure of the day and the natural human inclination to prefer the familiar. They are also up against the belief that the world is fair, and we are all in our correct places in the world right at this very minute.
That view is absurd. We know that we are better off because people tried to make a difference. That is literally the story of human history. Look at your phone. Think about how old and healthy your parents are (if they’re still alive). Think about how you are living in a building with plumbing, heating, cable TV and the fucking internet. As the line goes, you have all the collective knowledge of human history at your finger tips, but you can choose to watch cat videos if you desire. That’s wonderful. And it happened because people tried to buck the status quo.
But there are still problems. So we must still try to reform our world despite the constant resistance to change. Here are some examples of current status quoism that bother me:
- We can’t reform the police because anything we do to try to change police behaviour, tactics and strategy will unleash anarchy on our society
- Gun ownership and lax gun laws do not contribute to mass shootings, bad people do; changing gun laws will allow the bad people to run amok
- If we change our court procedures (or even our laws) to better serve rape victims, society will breakdown due to mass witch hunts
- Our political ideology cannot be wrong, no matter how bad its actual policies, because it was the ideology of our parents, who we love (or remember fondly)
- And, of course, the backlash to women wanting to be treated as if they’re not sex objects.
None of these are outlandish ideas, but they are fiercely resisted due to fear but mostly due to the Just World Fallacy. The only “reform” everyone can get behind is tax cuts – if you can call defunding your own government a reform – because tax cuts have a clear, immediate personal benefit – provided you believe you will personally benefit from said tax cuts.
Change for the Sake of Change
While we’re on the subject, the absolute worst argument against reform is the argument that reformers want “change for the sake of change.” This “argument” claims that those advocating for change just want something new in their lives, and that it’s only this desire that is causing them to protest, write letters and perform other acts of advocacy. This “argument” should obviously be shot down any time it is uttered because it is not actually an argument, but it is actually a favourite of Op-Ed columnists who are apparently too lazy to actually come up with arguments as to why a particular reform should not be adopted. The critique that reformers want “Change for the sake of change” is perhaps the most glaring expression of the Just World Fallacy: I think the world is fair therefore nobody else could believe it’s unfair. This critique of “change for the sake of change” must be the laziest anti-reform position out there, because it is really, really dumb. I mean, it’s really dumb.
Do you know anyone who wants to change their life for the sake of it? I do. We all know lots of people who have felt like they are in ruts and want to get out of them. Few of them act on these desires immediately. In fact most just talk about changing. Sometimes that change might be “for the sake of change” but it’s normally motivated by real problems in their lives, sometimes the problems are problems they don’t want to admit to, so the change is driven by unidentified factors. I think it’s easier to think of people who will eat at a different restaurant because they’ve been eating at the same place too long, or want to check out new music or a film outside the genres they normally watch than think about people who have successfully reformed their behaviour or thought-processes “for the sake of change.” It is much easier for me to conceive of someone trying a new restaurant for the sake of it than someone who is actually able to wake up one morning, with little effort, and decide that they are making a change in their personal habits just for the sake of it.
Another thing I will grant: voters often – even regularly – state that they voted for someone because they wanted a change. It’s worth thinking about who these voters are when deciding this is a regular motivation for people. I suspect these voters are about as little involved in politics as they could be while still voting. Who actually votes just for the sake of change? Someone who thinks they must vote to avoid social stigma but who cannot be bothered to learn anything about the election. Far more voters vote for the party they voted for last time or, worse, vote for the party their parents voted for their whole lives, just because.
These people we’re talking about are not the people who participate in letter-writing campaigns, who volunteer or who pick up placards and march down streets disrupting traffic. The idea that someone would join a reform campaign solely because they want “change for the sake of change” is moronic. One suspects that every columnist who has ever trotted out this cliche has never actually participated in a protest, or even seen one in person. Protesting takes guts, whether or not you agree with what protesters are protesting about. Nobody does this for “change for the sake of change.” Nobody sits down to write an angry letter for “change for the sake of change.” Nobody devotes hours out of their month for “change for the sake of change.”
They do it because they know that this is how lives improve. They do it because they feel like they must do it, either for themselves or for loved ones. And they do it because they know how powerful status quoism is. At some level, they recognize the presence of The Just World Fallacy; they recognize that other people believe everything is good, that everyone is in their place, and things do not need to be changed. That’s why people try to reform. It’s not because they want “change for the sake of change.”
The Just World Fallacy tells us: the current distribution of wealth, power, ability and opportunity is fair; why would anyone want to change that? Yes, even in our highly advanced age we should all be able to recognize that there are hugely unequal distributions of wealth, power, opportunity and ability in our society. The people who do not want things to improve for others are often not as principled as they seem, they are just victims of fallacious reasoning, and they don’t have the life experience to empathize to with people who want to change their lives or the lives of those in their communities.
That brings us to the question, how do we convince people the world is not fair?