Character Justification

Justification is the process of changing context to change meaning.  We see a clear example of this when a child comes up with an excuse for some small transgression, or even when someone says, “he made me do it.”

Justification is actually a good trait for survival or we wouldn’t have it.  It allows  us shift our point of view in space or time so we can perceive potential solutions to problems that are not visible from the original perspective.

The story of the Gordian Knot shows how spatial context can be shifted to find a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem.  This exact same dynamic was employed in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the assassin comes at Indy with a sword and our hero just pulls his gun and shoots him.   Another example is “Don’t raise the bridge, lower the river.”

Temporal justifications are illustrated by the little pig who built his house of brick – not for a current problem but a potential future one, or every squirrel that buries nuts for the winter, rather than eating them all now.  Every retirement fund or medical insurance policy is a justification that actually creates difficulties in the present by limiting resources in expectation of a future life (which may never materialize).

All justifications are not of such magnitude or import, however.  Imagine, for example, a person, we’ll call him Joe,  who has a friend come to visit for the weekend.  Joe has a great time with the visit but in the morning when he goes to water his plants, he discovers his friend has parked in such a way to block easy access and he must walk around the long way to do the job.

Joe’s first reaction is mild anger at his friend for the inconvenience.  Almost instantly, he regrets feeling that way as he knows his friend was unaware of the issue.  So, he is able to dissipate some of his negative feelings by re-contexualizing the issue spatially with the notion that he would rather have his friend visit and have the problem than have his friend not visit.

But, this only balances the inequity by saying the benefits outweigh the costs.  So, Joe is still left with negative feelings due to the emotional value of his friend’s visit now being lessened by deducting the emotional cost of the inconvenience.  So, Joe, while watering, also tries a temporal justification by considering that he is a little out of shape and the extra exertion will do him good in the long run.

Joe now feels good about the extra walk and has fully eliminated the negative feelings and now has a positive cost-free perspective of both his friend’s visit and of the inconvenience.

Problem is, since the inequity has now been eliminated, the potential for further motivation is now also removed.  The end result is that Joe will not now consider buying a new hose to avoid the long walk around, which would have solved the problem once and for all for every visitor he receives in the future.

Bottom line – justification is neither good nor bad, except in context.  It may eliminate dissonance, but it also eliminates motivation.  If it perpetuates dissonance to continue motivation, it may, in time prove to be either a goal achiever or the preventer of a different, more important goal.

Understanding the mental mechanisms by which justifications occur can provide insight into our characters, furnish them with believable motivations, and offer valuable understanding for our readers/audience through the voice of the Wise Author.  And, by turning this understanding upon ourselves, we can learn to recognize these mental patterns within ourselves as they happen, allowing us to make a conscious decision as to the best perspective for our purposes, rather than subconsciously falling into habitual patterns regardless of their effectiveness in the current situation and circumstances.