2/24/2013

That Shouldn't Happen: The Just World Fallacy and Autism

Everyday, we hear about tragedies, some that hit too close to home for comfort, and our reactions range from "That just shouldn't happen!" to the belief that when it does happen, it must be someone's fault.

If we can blame someone, then we can reassure ourselves we can protect ourselves from that situation ever happening to us. When we do this, though, like our nation collectively holding Adam Lanza's mother to blame for his mass killing, we can pat ourselves on the back, feel good about ourselves, certain our parenting skills are so much better that we'll never be in that place. In the autism community, we've watched the nation not only blame Nancy Lanza, who cannot offer a defense, cannot rebut, but we've watched the media use autism as a scapegoat. The recent Frontline show focuses not only on what Nancy Lanza did or didn't do "right" (the father resolved of any responsibility because he wasn't there and he's stayed out of sight) but on how Adam Lanza was different, isolated, other, and how his mother's attempts to help him were somehow so deficient and damaging that it is what led to his acts.

Even the show's title "Raising Adam Lanza" makes it clear that the bias is on the raising, that the blame must lie there, that killers are made by others and by their otherness. There is comfort here, for the masses, for parents: if it's Nancy's fault, then we don't have to worry about it happening to us. The just world fallacy or hypothesis makes our adjustment to tragedies and injustices easier for us; it helps us resolve our cognitive dissonance and our fear. Unfortunately, it also means we are less likely to react compassionately to those who have been harmed. According to Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez,

"The need to see victims as the recipients of their just deserts can be explained by what psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. According to the hypothesis, people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve. Such a belief plays an important function in our lives since in order to plan our lives or achieve our goals we need to assume that our actions will have predictable consequences. Moreover, when we encounter evidence suggesting that the world is not just, we quickly act to restore justice by helping the victim or we persuade ourselves that no injustice has occurred. We either lend assistance or we decide that the rape victim must have asked for it, the homeless person is simply lazy, the fallen star must be an adulterer. These attitudes are continually reinforced in the ubiquitous fairy tales, fables, comic books, cop shows and other morality tales of our culture, in which good is always rewarded and evil punished."

This plays out not just in cases of mass killings and the media's dogged determination to assign blame, even if that is at the feet of mental illness or parents, peers, schools and medical professionals who failed the perpetrator, but also in cases where autistic individuals are killed by their caregivers. Far too often we witness parents using autism to explain why another parent snapped. If the burden was so severe on the parent, then it is the burden to blame, not the parent. It's bullshit and entirely unfair to the victims, and fortunately, part of the autism community, an alliance of autistic advocates and their allies, has decided to stand up and rebut that, to offer a national day of mourning on March 1 for autistics who have been killed.

The just world fallacy is also at play when stories about aggression in autistic children result in families living in fear. Recently, Kelli Stapleton, mother to a lovely young woman, Issy, who is autistic and physically aggressive, went public with Issy's story because the family's insurance was refusing to pay for the intensive treatment needed to teach Issy how to more effectively communicate without aggression and the family how to respond more effectively.

The just world fallacy is behind the comments from people who blame Kelli for Issy's aggression, who insist that if it were them, they'd have gotten it under control years ago. It's nice to think so, isn't it, that we'd never allow that to happen, that it would never happen to us? It insulates us, makes us feel not only safe, but superior. Has Issy's behavior been reinforced, unintentionally? Yes; Kelli's the first to announce she needs help as much as Issy does. Unfortunately, that humility doesn't help reduce the criticism and censure being aimed at the Stapletons for bringing their story to public attention.

In a just world, bad things wouldn't happen to good people. Much of what we, as human beings, must grapple with throughout our lives is why we suffer and why that suffering is often so lopsided. It's much easier to blame others for the things that happen to them, even if it's the random devastation of a tornado or hurricane. When we blame others, we reduce our ability to empathize with them, to want to help them, to care about them. We ensure the status quo that way. Rich people can blame poor people for being poor, skinny people can despise fat people as weak, and healthy people can look down their noses at those who are ill, and those who haven't experienced violence at another's hands can gleefully blame the the person who has.

In order to truly make the world a better place, if never a just place, we have to reject the premise that anyone who is victimized, traumatized, different, etc. must be to blame for it. We have to stop looking for someone or something to blame and instead focus on how to help the person or people in need, in a compassionate, respectful way that does not deny the person/people autonomy and agency. A call for rejecting the blame game  should in no way be taken as a call for rejecting the accountability people must take for their own actions, though, just as a true attempt to identify cause and effect should not be mistaken as playing the blame game. If we can identify certain factors that make negative outcomes more likely, then it behooves us to make changes, to work to make the world at least a more even playing field for all of us.

Plus, there's a certain necessary humility in realizing that it's not a just world, that it could and might be you in that situation at some point in the future. Rather than raining down judgment and condescension, self-restraint and reflection are much more effective tools. Sure, you give up your air of superiority, your certainty that you have everything under control, but since those were illusions anyway, better to dispense with them entirely and accept that much of what happens to us is going to be out of our hands, out of our control. In the end, what we do control is how we react. It's foundation-building 101: making sure that our inner strength and fortitude will withstand not only the random hurricanes and hailstorms, but also the assholes who will get off insisting it was our fault that we were hit by adversity and therefore our obligation to get out of it on our own (and yes, that could be taken to the political arena as well).

8 comments:

Jo Ashline said...

I wish I had an intelligent comment to offer but the only thing that comes to mind after reading this post is: RADICAL.

Thank you.

kathleen said...

I had never heard of the "just world fallacy"..really thought provoking. I think that it is something we all do from time to time..makes us feel safe I suppose. Our perception of things shades everything. Far too often we react instead of respond. One thing that I have learned through blogging-is that if I feel like reacting it is probably because the subject matter hits close to home-may have a kernel of truth to it that I do not want to recognize..stepping back..thinking things through..trying to figure out what it is that is causing this "reaction"...hard as it may be-really does build inner strength.
It is hard reading on-line. Sometimes, a post is just a post..but, because of how it is written and/or how it is personally perceived many readers might feel as if it is a personal
attack on them...

Jill Smo said...

This is awesome, Kim. Thank you for writing this and for talking about the unfair treatment that Kelli and Issy have received.

Charlene Thomas said...

A really good read. I'm Kelly's cousin and I know what she's going through as we have a 9 yr. old granddaughter who has these tendencies. we love her so much and with my daughter's struggles and our struggles with her we know first hand what kelli goes through. Hats off to this writer. h

Charlene Thomas said...

A really good read. I'm Kelly's cousin and I know what she's going through as we have a 9 yr. old granddaughter who has these tendencies. we love her so much and with my daughter's struggles and our struggles with her we know first hand what kelli goes through. Hats off to this writer. h

Phil Dzialo said...

So very true..."The Nobel Prize-winning geneticist James Watson who has a son with schizophrenia, once told me that Bruno Bettelheim, the midcentury psychologist who asserted that autism and schizophrenia were caused by poor parenting was "after Hitler, the most evil person of the 20th century."
Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree

Jim W said...

I liked this.

K Wombles said...

Thanks, everyone. :)