I know I’ve written about this before, but it’s in my brain for some reason, and I wanted to go deeper. You know how we think (fictional) villains have to have some logical explanation for what they do?
Okay, imagine you’re watching (let’s say season 1 or 2) Once Upon a Time with your kids. You talk about how all those villains have these sad backstories that explain everything, like how Regina became the Evil Queen. Lots of fairytale remakes these days focus on the bad guy perspective, because it’s interesting to think how the villain from one view is the protagonist from another. So, you’re talking about that as the episode comes to a close, and you agree that of course Regina would turn bad after what she’s been through, it makes perfect sense.
Then when the credits roll, you flip over to the news. Now your kid’s asking you why those people did that terrible thing, and it makes no sense at all. You don’t get an answer. All you can do is shrug and say you don’t know. There are just bad people in the world. Things don’t work like they do in fiction. Because in real life we don’t get any explanation ever. And yet we expect one.
I learned about the “just world” hypothesis in school, forgot about it 100% after graduation, and refigured it out in writing terms after I graduated. Thought I’d had some brilliant revelation for a second, then realized… this idea already exists. But I don’t think it’s talked about enough, because even though on one hand, it’s optimistic to the point of being beautiful, it’s also insanely dangerous.
The just world hypothesis is basically everyone’s idea of karma. Good people will receive good things, and bad people will be punished. But this is where victim blaming comes from, because of course the world doesn’t work this way. Yet that idea—that you can be a kind-hearted, hard-working, smart and carful person, and still have horrible things happen to you by chance—is far too terrifying for a lot of people to comprehend. So, when we hear that something bad happened to a good person, we automatically think they were doing something wrong. Because if we follow a certain set of rules, nothing bad is supposed to happen to us. They must have broken one or more rule, and somehow deserved it, right?
Just think about it. It can be a wonderful perspective, because in a way, it answers the “are people generally good or evil?” question. We want to believe people are good. This is why we explain away villainous traits in our fictional characters, and a character who’s just bad for no reason is considered “unrealistic” most of the time. It’s a nice thought.
But also think about how tightly you hold this belief, and how you feel when it’s untrue. We’re told over and over as kids that “life’s not fair,” yet all of us have the same reaction: eye rolls at our annoying parents who throw this generic phrase at us every time we don’t get something we want. Which is 100% understandable, but it does make the thought too easy to shrug off.
No matter how careful we are, no matter how good we are, bad things can still happen to us. That doesn’t mean the world is descending into chaos. It just means things are a little less black and white, and a little more complicated than we hoped.
So next time you think “well, he/she should have been doing this that or the other, and this wouldn’t have happened,” consider if your fear of a chaotic, unjust world is moving your finger to point blame in the wrong direction.