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The just-world phenomenon asserts that people, to protect their peace of mind, tend to believe that bad things happen only to those who deserve it. This phenomenon surfaced in Nazi Germany where Jews were blamed for the violence they endured. Similarly, survivors of rape are often blamed for the assault and asked to account for their own behavior. Some have even rationalized that the gay community solicited the AIDS epidemic as a result of its “sinfulness.”
The flip side of this concept is that those who enjoy a privileged position may feel confident that they deserve their success. The just-world phenomenon discourages an acknowledgement of substantial, unearned privileges that create most wealth, including being born of wealthy parents, living in a safe neighborhood, attending well-funded schools, and so on.
This does not bode well for Nonhuman Animal rights activists. Audiences are likely to believe that other animals deserve their speciesist treatment. This block against empathy is a difficult barrier to overcome. Nonhuman Animals are frequently dismissed as “dumb,” “dirty,” “uncooperative,” and “ungrateful.” Audiences may also claim that a higher power created other animals to be human resources, and, thus, nonhumans willingly fulfill this divinely-sanctioned role in providing their bodies and labor. Likewise, the Suicide Food blog documents hundreds of advertisements produced by the food industry in which victims appear to be delighted by their own torture and death. Subsequently, audiences need not acknowledge that exploiting other animals is wrong, as victims are portrayed as willing and deserving participants.
Complicating matters is the feeling of entitlement that privileged humans often harbor. Remember that the just-world phenomenon encourages humans to think that bad things happen to those who deserve it, but also that good things happen to good people who deserve it. This explains the biased construction of food chains and evolutionary charts which frequently place human beings at the top. This superiority is believed to have been earned as a result of cunning and skill. Some believe this hierarchy is divinely sanctioned. In any case, it is a privilege believed to be deserved. The tendency for humans to blame victims and see privilege as deserved will be a particularly difficult hurdle for activists to overcome.
For the Vegan Toolkit
- Challenge victim-blaming
- Highlight that other animals are not willing participants
- Challenge individualistic understandings of oppression; focus on systems
Carli L. et al. 1999. “Cognitive Reconstruction, Hindsight, and Reactions to victims and Perpetrators.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 25: 966-979.
Imhoff, R. and R. Banse. 2009. “Ongoing Victim Suffering Increases Prejudice: The Case of Secondary Anti-Semitism.” Psychological Science 20: 1443-1447.
Lerner, M. 1980. The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. New York: Plenum.
This essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.
Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.