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Monday, May 21, 2018

The Just World Hypothesis, and Annals of Successful Parenting

Hi Readers,

Chitchat about the weather, etc. So much has been going on. I’ve been turning the heat off, then on, then off, then on. Fan in the window. Fan out. Window closed. Birds too loud. Birds on the pillows. (Well, so it sounds.) Rain, then sun, then clouds, clouds, clouds. Sweaters packed away in lavender for summer. Sweaters needed. That’s spring in the Northeast. Flowers and rain. Hot at night, cold in the day.

I’ve finished my book draft and reread it all, making notes for revision. This is the good kind of writing, the making it better kind, not the figuring out what I’m trying to say kind. That part sucks.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about. It’s the Just World Hypothesis. This is a theory developed by a social psychologist Melvin Lerner that says that humans have a powerful intuition that people get what they deserve. I.e., the world is essentially just. If good things happen to you, then that proves you’re good; if bad things happen, well, you deserved them. This is where blaming the victim comes from. In a just world, and here I am extrapolating, if something awful happens to someone else, that awful thing suggests the person is sub par somehow. And if something good happens, then they are being rewarded for being good.

I was reading about this in a very interesting book about fear-based parenting. Fear-based parenting is what most of us parents are doing these days, to one degree or another, according to the book. The Just World Hypothesis is a cognitive bias that colors our perception of events. It’s part of what makes us fearful. We want to prevent bad things from happening to our children, who are, let’s be clear, offshoots of us, because a bad thing happening has an associated taint on our virtue.

I couldn’t help thinking about how this bias relates to our culture’s extolling of wealth and fame and prestige and all those trappings of success. You can draw a straight line from there to there.  And those trappings of success relate to greed and materialism. The need to prove we are successful is powered by fear that unless we amass some amount of these things, we won’t know that we’re good people. We must scramble to amass amass amass to show ourselves and others that in this Just World, we are the Good.

In recent years, I have become acquainted with some purported Christian teachings called the Prosperity Gospels and Dominionism. These teachings are the Just World Hypothesis in Sheep’s clothing. If you have wealth and so forth, it is because you are godly. This by the way, according to Stephen Cope, a writer and yogi and generally wise guy, is also an association you find in Hindu mythology. The equating of godly with goldlyness.

It’s really an endless cycle of misery we step into when we buy into this cognitive bias. And of course we would much prefer that there is a Just World than that there isn’t one.

Yet it was not always so.

Reading about this bias made me think of Boethius. I heard about Boethius during my Junior year at Oxford, where I took a tutorial on Chaucer. My teacher—don, in Oxbridge talk—was an unfriendly woman who was unimpressed by my grasp of Middle English. Her attitude was opposite to that of my main don, who offered me Earl Grey tea and told me I had a nice, intuitive approach to essay writing.

Anyway, Boethius, wrote in about the 6th Century C.E. One of his most successful tracts was a letter from jail. He went on trial for something—heresy, perhaps—because he was a Hellenist and Christian mix. He wrote this philosophical treatise in which he talks to Lady Philosophy about his misery and bad breaks and losses of fortune and material wealth and all the trappings of success. Lady Philosophy tells him that the Wheel of Fortune rules the world. We all ride on it. Sometimes we’re up, and sometimes we’re down, and it’s really nothing about us. We don’t add blame and shame to the burden we carry if things don’t go our way. Failure says nothing about our virtue. Furthermore, because we can’t count on Fortune providing all those external signs of success, we need to live in accordance with more abstract and noble values, such as virtue. That will make us happy.

This wheel of fortune idea, which predated Boethius, became known as The Boethian Wheel of History, and this book, called The Consolation of Philosophy became a best seller in late Ancient and early Middle Ages. Chaucer talks about it, which is why scary don lady had me read Boethius.

Boethius was executed, by the way, for whatever he did to piss off whomever he served in the late Roman Empire. Nevertheless, and most appropriately, his words lived on.

Somewhere along the way came this shift to the idea that dominates our culture now. That if something good happens to you, it means you deserve it. And if something bad happens to someone else, then they deserved that, too.

With an attitude like that, no wonder we’re all anxious and stressed out.

Here’s something I’ve been doing. I spent three days at training for my upcoming job teaching writing to first year students in college. That’s going to be exciting, and maybe the pay will cover the new outfit I bought to attend the training. But, hey, it’s a job, and it will count on a resumé, and at this point, with two teenagers in my house, it seems appealing to know I’ll have 18 other teenagers captive to me starting shortly after Labor Day. They’ll have to listen to me, or they’ll fail.

Here are things that have been happening. The other day the 19-year-old came home for a brief visit before she heads off for a ten week summer internship in particle physics. When we arrived home we discovered the 16-year-old in a tree. With a boy. Or, to be more specific, two bikes were in the driveway, and after a brief look, we saw four legs dangling from the maple tree.

The boy soon rode off on his bicycle, which was when I realized he was biking without a helmet. This caused me to yell after him and generally embarrass the 16-year-old. Then I discovered that she had biked with him without her helmet. This occasioned further yelling. Dignified yelling, I hasten to add. Yelling that sounded jokey but wasn’t. You know, things like, “Sure, it feels good. Until your brain is smushed by a passing car.” And, “Yeah, a helmet flattens your hair, and you look dorky; an accident could flatten your head and then you’ll really look stupid.” That kind of thing.

I told her that unless she wore her helmet, I did not want her to bike with the boy again.

She says she won’t.

I choose to believe her. I have no choice.

Anyway, I suggested she invite this fellow over for dinner, along with some of her other friends. We’d have a nice, friendly dinner, lots of fun. In the background, I would have a couple screens set up, you know, just casual, playing videos, since videos catch the attention. Videos about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, drugs, alcohol, bike safety, vaping, juuling. That kind of thing. Maybe some Beyoncé or Childish Gambino thrown in to break things up.  I thought it sounded nice, welcoming, and friendly. Also laid-back.

Did I forget anything? Please alert me in the comments. Thank you.

Now the 19-year-old is gone. I am left to experience the inexorability of time. It’s a cliché, and also true. Boethius might talk about wheels of fortune that have a kind of inexorable randomness, but the wheel is a reassuring thing, promising return. Whereas time is just moving forward, moving forward.  Time moves in linearity, never mind what those physicists say. That’s why it’s inexorable. Whether I am tied to the track like a damsel in distress, with tight Kewpie doll curls and mouth moving out of alignment with the subtitles, or watching in horror from inside it, makes no difference to the inexorable train of time.

So, you know. I’m feeling as if I need to find a way to make a mark, to be of use to people. To be needed. It’s not all over, the being needed by the children. It’s just moved into a phase where they don’t know they need me. And I really, really like it when they know it. However, time and all that. Change occurs and one must adjust. I’m needed now to keep an eagle eye on bike helmets and legs in trees. I take what I can get.

I wonder if there is a way to incorporate bike safety into my first year seminar with my captive audience. Will it fit with the Franciscan themes I am required to teach: heritage; natural world; diversity; and social justice? I will find a way.