The news cycle in early May seemed to portend Armageddon. I noticed the psychological impact of the bad news among my heartiest, most hopeful progressive intimates. My mother is having nightmares about the incalculable impact of the BP oil disaster on the Gulf Coast. Having survived Hurricane Katrina, my friend could not bear to watch coverage of the Nashville floods. My own heart raced when I thought of how often I have stood at the corner of Forty-fifth and Seventh in New York City, where Faisal Shahzad allegedly attempted to detonate a car bomb. Evening news typically trends toward the negative and alarming, but in the wake of the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes, the continuing unemployment woes and the deepening foreclosure crisis, these recent stories of disasters, terrorist plots, European economic catastrophe and Wall Street roller coasters seem particularly jarring. Together they are a reminder of our staggering collective vulnerability.
These events reveal the inherent limitations of our technology, our prosperity and our government solutions. They remind us that despite tremendous progress and best intentions, we live in a contingent and often frightening world. This sense of vulnerability has political consequences. Progressives often accuse the right of using these news cycles to stoke fear, mobilize the uninformed and win battles by terrifying the public. Undoubtedly there’s some fear-baiting in the Tea Party panic over higher taxes even when most Americans received a tax cut; the racist Arizona anti-immigrant law, based in anxiety about low-wage competition; and the white-knuckled panic that equal rights for homosexuals will unravel the nation’s social fabric.
But the effects of heightened vulnerability are not exclusive to the right. During the 2008 campaign Barack Obama declared an end to the politics of fear, offering instead a politics of hope. His campaign rhetoric was steeped in a triumphant American narrative about a historical arc that bends always toward justice. He recalled the end of slavery, the growing equality of women and the triumph of civil rights. Candidate Obama encouraged Americans to rest assured that despite inevitable challenges, the world was basically a fair and just place. He promised that it was safe to be hopeful and asserted, "Yes we can." While this optimism was a clear rebuttal to the fear-based politics of the Bush administration, it also held some potential dangers. There is some evidence that believing in the fundamental fairness of the world can lead to surprisingly conservative reactions in moments of disaster and suffering.
When faced with the circumstances that reveal human vulnerability, people have two choices: they can determine that the world is an unjust place, or they can decide that the victims must somehow be responsible for their suffering. Decades of psychological research have found that those most attached to the idea of a just world become most cognitively frustrated when they are presented with stories of victims who suffer through little fault of their own. In an unexpected twist, those most attached to the belief that the world is fair are those most likely to reconcile their distress about unearned suffering by blaming the victims. Even when we know that suffering is undeserved, it is psychologically easier to find a way to blame the victim rather than give up the idea that the world is basically fair.
In one set of studies, subjects viewed a videotape of people learning a task. In one scenario the learners were punished for incorrect answers with simulated electric shocks. In another scenario learners were simply told that their answers were wrong. Subjects expressed much lower opinions of those who were "shocked," even though they did not get any more answers wrong. When there was no possibility of the victim finding relief from the ordeal, or when the victim voluntarily remained in the painful experiment, the subjects decided that the victim deserved the treatment he was receiving. When the idea of justice and fairness is threatened by the suffering of innocent victims, people will work hard to maintain a sense of balance even if that means rationalizing that innocent people deserved to suffer.
The belief in a just world can act as a psychological distortion encouraging support of political agendas focused on individual effort rather than structural change—like blaming the poor for having an insufficient work ethic. Fear leads us to imagine that we can build walls that will keep out all enemies (like along the Mexican border); discover technology that allows us to tap all resources without danger (offshore drilling); pursue wealth that will never incur losses (Wall Street speculation); or craft an America that never changes. But we cannot replace fear with blind assertions of justice. Hope is a powerful electoral elixir, but the heroic narrative that things always get better can leave progressives feeling cynical and confused when faced with tragedy and defenselessness.
The problem of maintaining faith in the face of undeserved suffering is a central problem of world religions. It is also a secular political problem. We must find a way to live together and to govern ourselves despite the fact that as fragile human beings we are subject to indifferent and sometimes malevolent forces more powerful than we are. For progressives I believe this means finding responsible ways to embrace the realities of vulnerability while working to address the impact of injustice.
In the psychological studies, respondents reacted differently when they were offered a way to compensate the victims of injustice. People felt little need to denigrate them and instead were able to make the world seem fair again through their own actions to alleviate suffering. In these results there may be a lesson for progressive politics. We are better able to cope with our frailty when we get to work on behalf of fairness. The point is not to assert that the world is just, but to help make it so.