Unjust Deserts: Gaza, Syria and the Belief in a Just World

by Joe Morby on January 1, 2013

The experiment, like so many in American psychology it seems, involved electric shocks. During its course, the victim, actually a confederate of the researchers, appeared to receive a series of increasingly painful electric shocks under the guise of a punishable test, while the subjects watched, unable to help. At first, the vast majority of these ‘innocent observers’ were understandably appalled by the poor victim’s plight, but the shocks continued regardless, and as the severity of the situation increased, some began to change their minds. For some, the longer they watched, the more they began to derogate the victim – perhaps she was too slow, or too stupid, or perhaps she actually deserved a bit of punishment; anyway, it was her own fault she was getting shocked. Indeed, the researchers found that the greater the perceived injustice, the greater the tendency of observers to denigrate the victim.

The experiments were part of the work of the social psychologist Melvin Lerner, who ascribed his results to a ‘belief in a just world’. For some people, their ideas of right and wrong, guilt and innocence, justice and injustice were affected by a tendency to see the world as being a fundamentally ‘just’ place; people got what they deserved, and were at personal fault for their problems. So the homeless tramp on the street deserves to be there, as he hasn’t put the necessary effort into life, and the rape victim was at fault because she wore a short skirt that night; in each case, the ‘just world’ response is the same: either deny that the situation occurred (or question its severity), or if it can’t be denied, consider the victim at least partly to blame for their miseries. Conscience is satisfied, what goes around comes around, and we need not worry ourselves if people’s misfortunes are actually their comeuppances.

An overwhelming belief in a just world has an impact upon that core human requirement, judgement; indeed, studies have looked at the effects of ‘just world’ thinking on social spending and in the legal system (anyone who has served on a jury of a dozen of society’s finest will be able to attest to this). But in our abundantly informed modern Western society, is a belief in a just world affecting how some of the world’s events are being portrayed and explained?

Let us consider the charge of ‘false balance’ that is often levelled at Western coverage of world conflicts, particularly those in the Middle East. Any conflict that involves two (or more) distinct social or political groups is bound to suffer somewhere from false balancing: facts are exaggerated or downplayed, or just plain omitted, with the effect of making arguably unbalanced situations seem more evenly matched, particularly morally. The reasons for this will be legion; the media source may be overcompensating in an attempt to appear politically neutral and unbiased; the commentator may actually be aligned to one of the parties involved and wishes to either boost sympathy for them or turn attitudes against their opponent; or, the reporting may just be not very good, with too few facts or an emphatic reliance on sensational (and usually gory) stories and images in order to make the content more dramatic and engaging to the audience’s fleeting attention. But when it comes to Western media commentators, who view conflicts in the Middle East obliquely and without any direct connection or control over the events, one must consider the added effect of just-worldism.

In a piece on the FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) website, journalist Peter Hart called out the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times for subtle uses of language that appear to falsely balance the recent strikes to and from Gaza, named ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ by the Israeli authorities. He picked out the headline ‘Civilians in Gaza, Israel Suffer Amid Conflict’ as an example of false balance, as it appeared to imply parity when at that point, Gazan casualties and damage far outweighed those in Israel. He continued by pointing out how the papers give a seemingly equal consideration in their articles to the carnage wreaked in Gaza (160 dead) and the comparatively lighter consequences in Israel (6 dead). (A good, if sardonic round-up of the figures up to November 19, 2012 can be found here).

Other pieces have looked to ascribe blame for the Gazan destruction, with the tendency being to finger Hamas exclusively, sometimes even extending the culpability to the Palestinians themselves as a whole. The logic runs thus:

  • Hamas fires many of the rockets that endanger and kill Israeli civilians
  • It is Israel’s right to defend itself by attacking Hamas
  • But Hamas was elected by the Gazan people, so therefore they too are culpable, and as such are morally implicated; they are ‘asking for trouble’

That the same argument could apply to the Israeli government and population is not usually included. ‘Hamas’ and ‘Gazans’ therefore become a single, homogeneous enemy, a conflation of all the fear and loathing of Hamas, terrorism and political Islam with the vibrant mass of ordinary Gazan men, women and children, who therefore all receive, and crucially deserve, the death and destruction of the Israeli missile strikes.

Another indication of false moral balancing has been the widely repeated assertion by many commentators that Hamas is as much to blame for casualties on its side of the border as the Israeli forces, because its leaders ‘hide’ amidst the population (in what is one of the most densely populated areas in the world), thereby causing their deaths when the Israeli rockets strike them. Aside from the obvious truism that one hides with the expectation of not being found, the allegation is morally dubious as it absolves the Israeli Defence Force of all culpability when it is their response alone that causes Gazan deaths. The savage response by the IDF is billed as a natural conclusion, set in stone, immutable; that the IDF can choose not to kill entire families is considered unthinkable. Their own culpability is downplayed, and the false moral balance realigns.

That IDF massacres such as this and Operation Cast-Lead in 2009 (1,400 Palestinians dead) are usually referred to as ‘military operations’ is quietly indicative of an act of false-balancing; Western outrage is widespread, but muted, never reaching the vehemence or disgust we reserve for other indiscriminate killers, be they right-wing fanatics, Islamic terror groups, or embattled dictators. Strikes that kill scores of innocents in Palestine are rarely described as the acts of collective punishment that they are (‘collective punishment’ was one of the key observations that lead to the smothering of the 2009 Goldstone Report), and the punitive aspects of the destruction, including the wanton bombing of infrastructure and housing is clouded in the haze of ‘Hamas’, the miasma that incorporates every man, goat and building in Gaza and declares it to be the enemy. Women and children can be assumed to be innocent, but any male old enough to grow facial hair is tacitly suspected to be a militant, in print and on the ground.

When it comes to Israel’s purported justification for the strikes, the essential moral fallacy, that they are preventing innocent deaths by causing innocent deaths, is swallowed without wincing. One can stomach this if one considers the average Palestinian’s life to be ‘worth’ a fraction of anyone else’s, but then such contempt would negate the need for false-balancing in the first place. It does become easier to stomach, however, if one thinks of the Palestinians as a single entity collectively at fault, reaping what they somehow have sown, deserving of their deaths, or at least of their punishment – the just world has been sated.

We can find more examples of false balancing just up the road, in Syria. In 2011, riding the wave of progressive optimism that was the Arab Spring, the Syrian people took to the streets to protest against the autocratic Ba’athist regime under Bashar al-Assad. After a brutal crackdown by the government, an armed rebellion rose to oust it from power and bring democracy to the nation. As the uprising escalated, Western nations were reticent about supporting the revolution against Assad, even rhetorically. At the same time, the situation in Syria was becoming ever more monstrous, as the regime’s forces increasingly used artillery, airpower and murderous militias to slaughter the Syrian people and prevent the uprising from challenging its power.

In assessing the situation, most Western media expounded on the terrible toll being exacted upon the Syrian people as a result of the regime’s murderous collective punishment. But as it became less and less likely that anyone was going to help the popular rebel uprising, particularly the main body known as the Free Syrian Army, news and op-eds increasingly sought to ‘balance’ the two sides as being somehow equally morally culpable. While the regime indiscriminately shelled towns like Homs and Hama, committed hand-drawn massacres in villages like Houla and bombed lines of people queuing for bread in Aleppo, all to the tune of hundreds of innocent deaths a day, a fair number of media reports chose to juxtapose this with the occasional reports of rebel extra-judicial killings and prisoner mistreatment as if both sides were somehow balanced in terms of their overall moral reprehensibility. Rebel atrocities, despicable as they were, were portrayed as if they were the only atrocities occurring, when every day saw the regime murder hundreds. The reader was invited to view those fighting the murderous Assad forces as no better, morally or practically, than the overwhelmingly and systemically more egregious fascist regime they were trying to topple.

Some leftist commentators chose to derogate the uprising as being under the control of U.S. imperialism, which was using the rebels as a means of enacting regime change with nefarious Western interests standing to benefit; this conclusion became the prevailing belief for many leftist commentators, despite the fact that the reason the conflict has lasted as long as it has is because the rebels haven’t been getting assistance. But by associating the uprising with the hated imperialists of Washington and Europe, we could denigrate it, falsely loading their side of the moral balance in the situation.

As with Gaza, the line was offered that it was as much the rebels’ fault for civilian deaths as the regime’s, as in bombing them innocent people were being killed. As with Gaza, this ‘view’ bore little relation to the regime’s practices on the ground, but it served to implicate and accuse the armed revolution, brought about as a response to Assad’s brutality and murder, as being somehow culpable for the toll exacted upon the people whose ranks it was drawn from. Western action or assistance was therefore unnecessary: they were bringing it on themselves, as do any victims in a just world.

The effect of false balancing is subtle, but palpable. It employs the mechanisms of just worldism, including, as Melvin Lerner listed, ‘blaming, rejecting or avoiding the victim, or having faith that the victim will be appropriately compensated’, leading to the ‘devaluation of the victim’s character’. It can be a symptom of an opinion that has changed due to our powerlessness and fear, and a karma-like belief in cosmic consequences.

The point of a just world is that, like the spectators watching the electric shock victim, it appears to absolve us of any moral responsibility, complicity or obligation to assist. It also helps us confront the supreme ugliness of our world, by explaining misfortune and murder away as natural consequences, and it masquerades as a kind of justice that always aligns to ensure that people get what they deserve. One can’t claim it to be a defining factor in the debate, and certainly we do not all think like this, but some do. To an extent we all believe in a just world, or at least, a world that should be just; it is this aspiration that guides our notions of fairness and justice that underpin our legal institutions and social policies.

But it is when this coping mechanism runs unchecked, or serves to lead opinion, that it can have the effect of exacerbating or prolonging a problem, or preventing the best response. Unsurprisingly, Melvin Lerner and others found that belief in a just world tends to increase with a person’s conservatism and religiosity, two of the main reactionary factors that arguably impede solving humanity’s problems. Religion in particular, has always provided the archetype for just world thinking, giving us a tableau where the good are rewarded in heaven and the bad fry in hell, compensation in the afterlife for the wrongs we as a society failed to put right in the present. And if hell is visited upon the living… ?

However, it is not all bad. The scientists did find that they could reduce the subject’s derogation of the victim by urging them to empathise with them; Lerner found that associating the subjects with the victim, or using victims who were socially similar to the subjects actually decreased their tendency to denigrate them. He also found that just worlders were quite altruistic, sometimes more so than people with low just world belief, if only they were given the chance. They could be as long as the help was relatively easy to provide, when it didn’t conflict with existing prejudices and, crucially, when it was sanctioned by authority.

Wherein we see the way forward: the internet and modern media have brought us closer to those we assess from a distance, so that empathy has never been easier. The Arab Spring has challenged our prejudices towards the Middle East, and towards Muslims in particular. What we lack is the will of those in power.

We do not live in a just world, and we must confront confusing and ambivalent moral situations in the Middle East that are not balanced, morally or physically. If they are to be solved, they must be looked at objectively, and without false moral balancing in our adjudication, because there’s no heaven or hell to sort us out when we’re done down here.

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