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Menders and Justice

Trauma and belief in a just world.

Key points

  • The intimate experience of injustice within psychological trauma provokes a sensitivity to injustice to others.
  • Menders respond to the their personal exposure to injustice in trauma by taking action to pursue justice for all.
  • The Belief in a Just World is a psychological theory that helps explain our devotion to justice.
  • Belief in a Just World may help explain why the moral dimensions of psychological trauma have been ignored for so long.

In my previous writing for Psychology Today, I’ve described Menders, people who suffer from PTSD and respond to the moral violation of their trauma by saying, “No! This is not right. I can’t let this happen to anyone else… I have to be part of the solution.” This series examines what motivates Menders. I’ve written before that their moral responsibility emanates from an aroused sense of empathy and compassion. If empathy and compassion provide Menders with an emotional drive, the pursuit of justice directs their moral compass. Injustice stands at the core of trauma. It calls forth indignation as surely as its violence elicits horror and fear. But the pursuit of justice cannot be located solely in tragic circumstances: indeed, psychologists find that all people view the world through the lens of justice and injustice. Researchers call this “The Justice Motive,”[1] and it’s embedded in a larger system labeled “Belief in a Just World” (BJW).[2]

BJW works quickly and preconsciously in a person’s mind to assess whether a situation is fair or not. Children develop a belief system with three basic tenets: the world is just, one’s own behavior is good, and people ultimately get their just deserts. BJW assures us that we live in a just world even when we’re presented with blatant evidence to the contrary. BJW research finds that when people are presented with injustice, they make instantaneous, often prejudicial judgments about the worthiness of the victim in order to reduce dissonance and preserve the tenets of their belief system. If the victim belongs to the observer’s in-group, a perpetrator will be blamed and punished, keeping the just world belief intact.

But if the victim is “other,” belonging to an outside group, then the perceived degree of injustice is modified. People seen as different by race, class, gender, or distance are judged to be more deserving of their unfortunate fate. Victims of rape, for instance, are often blamed for the crime perpetrated against them, leading to disproportionate burdens in obtaining legal justice.[3]

Trauma makes Menders into “others” as they confront the conventional order of the world in the light of the harsh truth of their victimization. Ordinary people then treat Menders as “others” and try to dissuade them from pursuing justice that challenges the system. The Belief in a Just World might even explain why, for decades, the American Psychiatric Association ignored PTSD in the face of known suffering from trauma.

Among Menders, the pursuit of justice takes many forms ranging from forgiveness to revenge. It can be direct and limited or slow, elaborate, and expansive. The following cases illustrate some of these differences.

Charlotte's Story

Charlotte, age 26, was referred for treatment following a brutal rape. She was jogging in a wooded area when an armed adolescent forced her off the path, raping her as he held the gun to her head. Traumatized, she entered therapy wanting only to stop thinking about what happened.

Weeks after her rape, police arrested a suspect and Charlotte reluctantly identified him from a photograph. She was relieved, but still desperate to “put it behind me.” A few months later, the young man escaped from pretrial detention and her symptoms flared in spite of every effort to forget what happened.

A District Attorney from another state called to tell her that the young man had been re-arrested after yet more rapes. The DA wanted her to testify to establish the dangerous nature of the criminal. Describing the call, Charlotte looked lost in space. But, to my surprise, she announced she decided she had to testify because she held the power to prevent harm to other innocent women.

Charlotte’s PTSD did not magically disappear after the trial, but its quality changed. In my view, when she took action on behalf of the other women, she confronted what had been shattered.[4] In her moral choice, Charlotte modified her opinion of herself. She saw herself not as an example of injustice but as a fighter for justice.

Julia's Story

Twenty-five-years ago, Julia joined a group I led for mental health professionals to explore psychological trauma. At age 14, just as she entered high school, she had been groomed and repeatedly raped by an older student. She told no one, partly because of peer pressure from the boy’s friends and because she feared her family’s reaction. She was isolated in her trauma.

Julia nonetheless confronted the puzzle of her own confusion. Social Work appeared to offer a promising road forward, bu twhen she volunteered to work in a rape crisis center, she was rejected because, she was told, her own experience would interfere with her work.

Undeterred, in spite of years of doubting herself, Julia went to social work school and continued her search for a meaningful response. Eventually, she found employment as a social worker in a Public Defenders Office and rose in the department to become Chief of the Social Work in the Defenders’ office for a large judicial system. She met daily with clients who faced trial for a variety of crimes, including men who raped.

“I think that my earlier experience made me all the more committed to working with people who have raped others,” she said. ”I know that they need treatment instead of prison, which … makes people angrier and more dangerous. More unable to do what they need to do to be independent and healthy people. They usually get prison time, but I fight for them to get treatment and other community services.”

How had Julia transformed herself from a rape victim to someone who helped rapists?

“It has not been easy, but I have come to understand why people do what they do. Trying to help them find a way out of the chaos, fear, and madness of their lives might help them lead healthier lives in which they do not hurt more people … I care about people. That means helping them find the goodness in themselves. People don’t want to do bad things…I did not get help for myself but I find that being able to be in that process with someone is a gift ... It’s the reversal of the trauma process, making the other a real person like themselves while they have to confront their own feelings. Bottom line: I just don’t want people to be raped anymore.”

I asked Julia if it was a painful sacrifice to do the work because of her own past. “I always think about myself at 14. What happened is grotesque, ugly and sad. But, doing this work gives me inner peace… I think my past might make me more passionate and patient.”

Julia’s action allows her to be hopeful by becoming part of an arduous process to re-humanizing both victims and perpetrators, to heal past traumas and prevent future ones. Those who have not released their bitterness will not have the capacity to move forward. Julia’s professional practice resembles the more than 37 Truth and Justice Commissions that have operated around the world since the 1970s.[5][6] These commissions give dignified, judicial respect to large numbers of victims of the worst ethnic cleansing, warfare, and genocide. In the face of enormous injustice and bottomless trauma, these commissions, like Julia, dedicate themselves to an honest, painful confrontation with trauma. Both embody a commitment to a real, more Just World.

This post is part 5 in a series of articles on Menders. Click here to read part 4. To read this series from the beginning, click here.


[1] Michael Ross and Dale T. Miller. The Justice Motive in Everyday Life. Cambridge university Press. Cambridge, UK. 2002.

[2] Melvin J. Lerner and Susan Clayton. Justice and Self-Interest, Two Fundamental Motives. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, UK. 2011.

[3] Bard, Morton and Dawn Sangrey Bard. The Crime Victim’s Book. NY. 1979. As early as 1979, Bard labelled this phenomenon “the second wounding.”

[4] Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions Towards A New Psychology of Trauma, Free Press. NY. 1992. Psychologist Janoff-Bulman uses the BJW to conjecture about the plight of people suffering from PTSD. However, she sees only one good outcome for them: to integrate their own suffering into a slightly modified belief in the goodness of the world. Menders provide a different direction, seeing themselves as participants in creating a more just world.

[5] Trudy Govier. Taking Wrongs Seriously, Acknowledgement, Reconciliation, and the Politics of Sustainable Peace. Humanity Books. NY. 2006.

[6] Martha Minow. Between Vengeance and Forgiveness. Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence. Beacon Press. Boston. 1998.

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