• Wed, Aug 17 2011

Living Nonfictionally: There Is No Justice

I love stories. Whether it’s in the form of novels, comic books, theatre, movies or television, I love fiction. Stories are comforting. They make sense. They exist in a universe where things happen for a reason and people get what’s coming to them. I love to temporarily immerse myself in a world where, if I’m good, I won’t die in a horrible accident. Or if I do, at least everyone will remember me lovingly and I’ll probably come back as an awesome ghost or something.

In stories, justice is important. If the villain gets away with his villainy, it’s infuriating. If the hero doesn’t get rewarded, it’s depressing.

The thing is, we don’t live in a story. “No, really?” you say. Well, a lot of people (including myself) often forget that real life has a different set of rules. Story-logic isn’t the same as real logic, and believing that everyone gets what she deserves is called the just-world fallacy. Its consequences are many and far-reaching.

One major consequence of the just-world fallacy is victim-blaming. This is the belief that someone who’s been raped must have been asking for it, or that people who’ve been hit with a natural disaster deserved it for living in a natural-disaster-prone area (or having sex with a Sun Goddess). It’s tempting to blame victims. If we can figure out what someone did to deserve being attacked or impoverished, we can choose not to do that thing and then we’ll be safe. Except that, of course, every occurence has multiple causes and being a great person is no guarantee of safety.

Nice Guy Syndrome has been discussed on TheGloss before. In its most pernicious form, it is a guy who erroneously believes himself to be nice, and is full of rage at all the hot chicks who won’t date him. Even genuinely nice guys, however, sometimes feel victimized because women they are attracted to don’t always return their interest.

This comes back to the just-world fallacy. “If I’m good,” the belief goes, “I shouldn’t suffer things like unrequited affection. I would be a loving and attentive boyfriend, so I deserve a relationship with whomever I want.” This is not exclusive to men, either. I have been guilty, in the past, of whining “Why won’t he give me a chaaance?” This is a case of life imitating art imitating life imitating art. From centuries-old English madrigals bemoaning the “cruelty” of the uninterested beloved, to Gertrude McFuzz singing “Notice Me Horton” in Seussical the Musical, our storytelling is full of the notion that love is something that can be earned and deserved, and that not loving someone who “deserves” it is heartless. This is such a ubiquitous trope in fiction that we often forget it is fictional.

Just as we value justice in fiction, we also value balance. Everyone, discounting those on the extreme ends of the moral spectrum, is allotted roughly equal portions of good things and bad things. No one can have it all, but no one has nothing, either. So the wealthy, successful tycoon is secretly lonely and miserable because he doesn’t have a wife and kids. The poverty-stricken family may not be able to pay their bills, but they love each other so much more than moneyed families do. The characters might get the love or money they’re lacking by the end of the story, but for the majority of it, their good luck in one area is going to be directly proportional to their bad luck in another. And if a character starts out well-off? Watch out. Someone who’s blissfully in love will either be dumped or cheated on, or the loved one will die. Someone with a great career will be fired. Now, this isn’t a criticism of storytelling. In stories, conflict is necessary. Suffering is necessary. In real life? Not so much. Suffering happens, but it’s not a punishment for being bad or for having too much. It just happens.

Speaking from personal experience: for much of my life, I have been afraid to gain anything because I believed it would mean losing something to compensate. If I got a good job, my pet would die. If I was in a good relationship, my debit card would get stolen. Of course, many good things and bad things have happened to me, as they have to everyone. But I’m not living in a sitcom, so when my guinea pig died, it wasn’t to “balance things out” after I got to go to Disneyworld. I am working on letting go of this false idea of balance, because I got sick of being unable to enjoy anything due to the accompanying terror. (Sweet, I got a big tip! Oh great, I guess now the car’s going to break down or something.)

I still love stories, and will continue to enjoy well-told stories in various media. What I’m advocating is not to apply real-world logic to stories, but to stop applying story-logic to real life.

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  • andrea dunlop

    Love, love, love this. I could talk about this subject all day. Another problem I have as a fiction lover (and writer) is that I gravitate towards people who are great characters but might not be such great, you know, people.

  • Wharton Lover

    Love this also. I just finished Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (italicize that title with your eyes) and the main character, Undine Spragg, is an incredibly self-centered social climber. At the risk of spoiling a bit of the novel, Undine is basically the cause of the downfall and eventual death of her first husband, who was a writer and utterly in love with her.
    The House of Mirth (italicize for me), which is also by Wharton, follows a heroine who is a good person/character endlessly suffering from an unfortunate social downfall. She is the opposite of Undine (who not only recovers from her fall from grace but is never satisfied with her undeserved good fortune).

    • andrea dunlop

      Only read Summer by Edith Wharton. What should I read next??

  • Wharton Lover

    andrea dunlop – I’m sure you’ve come across Ethan Frome and Age of Innocence already at some point. I really liked the two I mentioned in my comment. I read House of Mirth first and The Custom of the Country second.

  • Anne Butler

    Good article.