Number 515 October 8, 2012

This Week: The Belief in a Just World

"Quote" of the Week: Voter Fraud, Yes. But Not What You Think
Just World Theory
Living Under Drones


What you'll find in this issue is the beginning of an exploration of the psychological dynamic that forms a part of the foundation of the Propaganda system in this culture. Examined in relation to the power dynamics that drive and shape the performance of the media in our market-oriented economy, we begin to get a picture of how a Propaganda system in service to the status quo sustains itself in the absence of any heavy-handed conspiracy. At least, that's what I get! (I'll explain, hopefully, in the second installment, which I plan to publish in the next Notes.) Let me know what you get out of it, especially if you see something I don't. This work is in progress.

In solidarity,



"Quote" of the Week: Voter Fraud, Yes. But Not What You Think

Voter fraud, you say? Well, yes, but it's not what you've been told. The man to know about is a guy named Nathan Sproul, "a former executive director of the Arizona Christian Coalition and the Republican Party in Arizona," and to whom the Republican Party has been paying millions to register voters in five states. On page 11 of the October 5th New York Times we read about Mr. Sproul:

"Republicans are now playing defense over the role of a well-paid operative, Nathan Sproul, in a voter registration scandal that emerged in Florida and has spread to other states. . . Complaints have surfaced in 10 Florida counties, among them allegations that registrations had similar signatures or false addresses, or were filed under the names of dead people. In other cases, party affiliations appeared to have been changed. In recent days, similar claims against Mr. Sproul have arisen in Nevada and Colorado."

What we appear to have here is some REAL voter fraud, not the fake kind that Mr. Sproul's employers have been using to justify the various "Voter ID" initiatives all over the country. And this Sproul guy seems to have been doing this for years, at least since 2004. None of this has made the front pages. Yet. If you want to know more, just point your search engine toward "Nathan Sproul" and "fraud".


Just World Theory

On August 19th Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin was speaking to a local Fox News reporter when he was asked if abortion should be legal in the case of rape. He said, in part, "It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

He has rightly been ridiculed for his remarks, which are absurd. But, in the wake of his comments, the race for a U.S. Senate seat between Akin and his Democratic opponent is a dead heat. How to explain this?

I'm not a mind-reader, so I don't know where Akin got the idea that the female body can magically protect itself against unwanted pregnancy (or whatever he meant). But apparently he wants it to be true. And it's likely that many other people want it to be true, also. That's because many people want the world to be fair. And not only fair, but under our control, a place where bad things don't happen to good people. Many people insist on believing in a world where justice reigns; so many, in fact, that a theory has been developed to explain it. It's known as the Just World Theory.

Melvin J. Lerner started studying the phenomenon in the 1960s, and in 1980 he articulated the idea in a book called The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. According to Lerner, "We do not believe that things just happen in our world; there is a pattern to events which conveys not only a sense of orderliness or predictability, but also the compelling experience of appropriateness expressed in the typically implicit judgment, "Yes, that is the way it should be." Or, as Sunil D'Monte in his humanist blog Nirmukta more succinctly put it in August of 2011, "According to this theory, [humans] are psychologically inclined to think that the world is fair, and that people deserve their happiness and their suffering."

To put it even more simply, to believe in a Just World is to believe that people get what they deserve, and that they deserve what they get. Why would people believe this?

Lerner hypothesized that people need to believe that the world is "manageable and predictable." He says that, in order to "engage in long-term, goal-directed activity," people need to believe that they have some control over their world. Or, in his somewhat academic language, "In order to plan, work for, and obtain things they want, and avoid those which are frightening or painful, people must assume that there are manageable procedures which are effective in producing the desired end states."

Dealing With the Pain of Injustice

That may be true, yet it's also true that we all have experience with the "real world," which is a world in which we regularly witness injustice. How does a reasonably aware adult deal with the dissonance between the desire for a just world and the experience of the real world, where power, luck, privilege, and connections often prevail, and where rewards and punishments are often distributed without regard to who "deserves" them?

Lerner points out that, when we become aware of another person's suffering it "is often a painful experience" and, since "most people are interested in reducing their pain" they employ "mechanisms . . . that are at least temporarily effective in reducing the stress associated with witnessing an injustice."

One way of dealing with injustice is to take action. That is, we can attempt to address the injustice by working to prevent its occurrence or to make attempts at restitution. Lerner calls these "rational strategies" for dealing with the pain of injustice: We can try to reduce the injustice.

In the realm of "non-rational tactics," Lerner lists two "psychological defenses" against the pain caused by awareness of an injustice. The first defense is Denial/Withdrawal, or what I would call avoidance. As Lerner describes it, "This is a primitive device, but it works. All it requires as an intelligent selection of the information to which one is exposed. And it has the added advantage of requiring no direct distortion of reality."

The second psychological mechanism that people employ in the face of injustice is a "reinterpretation of the event." Lerner mentions three ways this can be done. The first way is to reinterpret the outcome. Lerner points to "a great number" of examples "from common observation, in which the victim's fate is seen as rather desirable, where the suffering and later greater benefit, was good for the soul, made the victim a better person," one who is "actually happy in their own way—carefree, happy-go-lucky, in touch with and able to enjoy the 'simple pleasures of life.'"

The second way of reinterpreting an injustice is to reinterpret the "cause" of the event. "If," Lerner says," it is possible to attribute the victim's fate to something he did or failed to do, then the sense of justice is often satisfied. Experiments have shown that presumably when the victims' suffering or states of deprivation can be 'blamed' on them, then even those people with easy access to [the means to help] are willing to let them suffer. . ." After all, "they 'have it coming'—they brought it on themselves."

The third way of reinterpreting an injustice is to reinterpret the character of the 'victim.'" Lerner notes that "our culture, and probably every other, has 'statuses,' socially-defined 'kinds' of people, for whom suffering and minimum access to desired resources is an appropriate state of affairs. These are the people who, by virtue of some act they committed or would be likely to commit, or some personal quality, are assigned to an inferior position. They are judged to merit 'punishment'. . ."

Subsequent research seems to support Lerner's conclusions. Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics wrote in a 1990 essay that "the research suggests that humans have a need to bring their beliefs about what is right into conformity with the objective reality they encounter—and that they will work to achieve consistency either by modifying their beliefs or attempting to modify that reality." That is, through Lerner's "non-rational" and "rational" approaches.

Although I don't have space to elaborate on them here, I just have to mention the theories of moral development developed by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and formalized by Lawrence Kohlberg.

Young children, according to Piaget, believe in what he called "immanent justice," which is a belief that "a fault will automatically bring about its own punishment." I call it the "Santa Claus" syndrome: "He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good, for goodness' sake!" When Piaget presented children with a story in which a boy disobeys his mother and later accidentally falls into a stream, he found a strong tendency for young children to view this accident as punishment for the boy's disobedience. There's also a story of a young boy who believed that his hitting a power pole with his baseball bat caused a major power blackout in the New York city area. No Christmas presents for him!

Immanent justice is sort of the ultimate belief in a Just World—it's a world in which everybody always gets exactly what they deserve—and, according to psychologists Zick Rubin and Letitia Peplau, Piaget's "data indicated that this belief [in immanent justice] declines with age, existing in 86% of the six-year-olds he interviewed and only 34% of the 11- and 12-year-olds."

Where the Media Comes In

Rubin and Peplau suggest that "Whether children outgrow the belief [in immanent justice, or a Just World] quickly, slowly, or not at all depends in large measure on processes of socialization. If we wish to attenuate the belief in a just world, therefore, we may wish to consider modifications of prevailing socialization practices—at home, in church and school, through the mass media."

The mass media, they add, are "among the perpetuators of the belief in a just world. They note that "virtually all" television shows reward the "good guy" and punish the "bad guy." They point out that "Producers of children's television shows also defend the perpetuation of the belief in a just world as a matter of public responsibility. The Television Code of the National Association of Radio and T.V. Broadcasters (1954) includes the following provision, under the heading "Responsibility for Children": "The education of children involves giving them a sense of the world at large. Crime, violence, and sex are a part of the world they will be called upon to meet, and a certain amount of proper presentation of such is helpful in orienting the child to his social surroundings. However, violence . . . should not be presented without indications of the resultant retribution and punishment."

Rubin and Peplau are talking about children's shows, but the same dynamic is at work in the adult world of media—where the violence and injustice are real. I'll explain in the next installment.


Living Under Drones

In the last issue of the Notes, on September 21st, I wrote about drones ("Drones: 'Killing Untold Numbers of Real People'"). Wouldn't you know it, four days later a major report was released on the subject, which I would have quoted extensively had I known it was coming. I suppose I needn't mention that this major report was almost completely ignored in the U.S. media—there was an opinion piece by one of the report's authors in the LA Times, and another opinion piece was published in a small New Jersey paper. Otherwise it was relegated to the "In Brief" news summary columns of a few newspapers here and there.

Entitled, "Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan," the 192-page report features extensive research—and damning conclusions—from human rights experts at the Stanford International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic, in collaboration with the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law.

I want to point especially to a recommendation in the report that directly echoes the call I put out in the last Nygaard Notes. The report says:

"Journalists and media outlets should cease the common practice of referring simply to 'militant' deaths, without further explanation. All reporting of government accounts of 'militant' deaths should include acknowledgment that the US government counts all adult males killed by strikes as 'militants,' absent exonerating evidence. Media accounts relying on anonymous government sources should also highlight the fact of their singlesource information and of the past record of false government reports."

There are many things in the Report that should be the subject of intense discussion by the presidential candidates and those who are "covering" them. I'll just highlight a few:

The first example comes in the first two sentences of the Executive Summary: "In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling 'targeted killing' of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false."

Later in the Executive summary we read that "evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks."

On page 55 it says, "the US practice of striking one area multiple times, and its record of killing first responders, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid to assist injured victims." Such practices, the Report notes, "may constitute war crimes."

As far as knowing what is going on by reading media reports, the Report points out that "discrepancies in these reports [on drone strikes] are the result of numerous factors—primarily the US government's opaqueness. . ." And they explain that, "Corroborating or challenging the divergent reports [journalists] receive from officials, stringers, and locals is difficult. As a result, journalists often find themselves in the position of having to choose between reporting 'official' casualty figures that they consider untrustworthy, or higher numbers from civilian sources that they may be unable to corroborate. Those who work for major news outlets and wire services tend to spend more time embedded with military and intelligence officials and are thus more likely to report 'official' accounts. Those who are not escorted into FATA by the military rely more on locals and stringers. The result is that different journalists with different contacts get different stories, make different decisions about who to trust, and frequently end up publishing conflicting accounts of each strike."

"FATA" refers to the Pakistani regions that border on Afghanistan, which are known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Entire sections of the Report are devoted to subjects like: Direct Property Damage and Economic Hardship Impacts; Mental Health Impacts of Drone Strikes and the Presence of Drones; Impacts on Education Opportunities; Impacts on Burial Traditions and Willingness to Attend Funerals; Impacts on Economic, Social, and Cultural Activities, and Impacts on Community Trust.

The section called "Understanding the Target: FATA in Context," is particularly useful in understanding the complexity of the culture that lies under the drones.

If you enjoyed, or found useful, the last Nygaard Notes on the reporting of drone strikes, you may well be interested in this major report. It can be found on the web HERE.