It’s a story out of a bad Hollywood message movie:
A black man is shot in the back seven times by police, in front of his kids.
In the ensuing protests, an armed white teenager is allowed by police to freely patrol the streets until he kills people and then is allowed to get away.
If this was a movie, I’d write a scathing review of how contrived the plot is.
It’s Crash-level bad writing.
And yet, it happened.
And events like it will continue to happen.
And what’s worse, a large portion of the population of the United States seems to believe that the police were justified in shooting a man in the back…
And the police were justified in allowing an armed teenager to patrol the streets after a government curfew others were being arrested for breaking…
And a teenager was justified in killing two people.
Why is that?
We All Believe the World is Fair
There are complicated reasons why white Americans think it is okay for the cops to shoot black people. There are complicated reasons why white Americans would defend a potential mass shooter for killing protestors. I don’t know how much I can comment on either, as a white Canadian who only travels in the US. (My father is American but he has lived here since before I was born.)
Instead, I want to focus on a simple reason, the one that doesn’t even get to the history of systemic racism in the US, nor the history of Americans supporting the forceful suppression of peaceful protests, though such demonstrations are supposed to be constitutional.
And that reason is that we all believe the world is fair: people are where they are because of the just nature of the universe. If someone is poor it’s because they haven’t worked hard. If someone is rich it’s because they worked hard. If someone is shot, it’s because they’re a criminal. And so on.
You may think you don’t believe the world is fair. And, on a rational level, when you are “thinking slow” (so to speak) you may indeed recognize unfairness everywhere (because the world is not fair).
But when we make instantaneous and instinctive judgments, these judgments are based on deeply held and felt assumptions, ones we’ve usually never challenged.
Most of us in North America have been raised to believe in some kind of cosmic or earthly fairness, whether it’s through religion or just socialization.
(To be clear, this is far from the only reason for people to react the ways they do. It’s just one of them.)
And the most dangerous, harmful and significant consequence of a belief in the fairness of the world is this:
You Deserve What You Get
The belief in a just world requires the belief that everyone (or, at least, most of us) gets what they deserve.
If a black man is shot in the back seven times by a cop, he’s a criminal.
If a white teenager kills two people it’s because they were trying to hurt him.
We work backward from what happened and create a narrative that fits our conception of a fair universe.
To look at these events as they actually happened hurts.
It hurts because these events are unfair. And it hurts because these events force reality into our beliefs, they create cognitive dissonance between the unfairness of the world and our beliefs about the fairness of this world.
But it also hurts because these events are painful and they are very clear – one might say obvious – signs that something is deeply wrong in a society in which everyone is supposed to have an equal opportunity. (So obvious it’s bad scriptwriting.)
But our deeply held beliefs are more important to us than facts.
If we still believe, deep down, that the world is fair. If we haven’t quite grown up, all evidence that the world is unfair must be denied. Moreover, it must be reinterpreted to show that the world is truly fair.
Jacob Blake deserved to be shot in front of his children.
Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber deserved to die, and Gaige Grosskreutz deserved to be shot because they were trying to prevent a mass shooting.
That’s America for you. The Just World Fallacy as national ethos.