That’s Not Just the Way It Is!


‘That’s just the way it is!’

Think of the last time you said, thought or unconsciously implied this. Who did you say it to? And what effect did it have on the situation? 

For me, this overused expression is a statement of complacency, which seeks to prevent us from acting for the common good. It is difficult to argue against the notion that we have a collective duty to create a fairer and more equal society, and yet, in our daily lives, we frequently sit complacent whilst allowing sexism to play out in the workplace, inequality to ever worsen and xenophobia to rule our mainstream politics. Should I go on?

The Lutheran Pastor, Martin Niemöller, reflected on his individual reluctance to act on behalf of others in a poignant post-war poem about the Nazi’s persecution of minorities:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Written concerning a collective life-threatening scenario; it highlights how our personal moral principles are more flexible and self-serving than we would like to admit. It also reveals how we tend to prioritise self-preservation, irrespective of the repercussions this has for the collective. It seems this reluctance to act for the common good is not just a modern conundrum; Aristotle implied it to be an innate bias in all humans:

“What is common to many is taken least care of, for all men have greater regard for what is their own than for what they possess in common with others.”

As a Regeneration and Economic Development Officer for a local authority, I see this resistance to act for the common good daily. In this role, I work in a team that is responsible for overseeing projects and programmes to help local town centres thrive as vibrant places for all to live, work and play. The core aim of our work is to facilitate inclusive growth for the common good and ensure that, through the process, we develop our communities’ agency over the place in which they live. In theory, the former and latter sit hand in hand. However, in practice, I believe our innate ‘That’s just the way it is!’ attitude plays a significant role in preventing communities from taking collective agency. 

I believe insight into this reluctance can be found within the typical bi-polar arc of a conversation with the community regarding this work. One part hopeful: supporting the principle of collective change. The other part fearful: conjuring up contrived nostalgia to excuse the need for collective change in their area. Unfortunately, my experience has shown fear to be a stronger emotion in leading people to act. Fear is selfish, preventative and mistrusting; it absolves personal responsibility and entices us to search outside ourselves for a scapegoat – be it an individual or organisation – to blame for our failure to act for the common good. 

So, how do we overcome this innate fear, take accountability and act for the common? First things first: we must teach ourselves to become more self-aware and challenge our innate fear. We can simply start by calling out our own use of the expression ‘That’s just the way it is!’. When comfortable questioning ourselves we can look to facilitate self-awareness in others. For clarity, this is by no means a call for a point and blame approach. A key to developing accountability is creating a safe space for dialogue.

The American philosopher John Rawls found such a space behind the ‘Veil of Ignorance’, a thought experiment detailed in his 1971 book, Theory of Justice. This experiment asks you to imagine that you are in a conscious and intelligent state before your birth. In this state, you know nothing of the person you will be; your natural abilities, gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, position in society etc. all remain a mystery. You are located behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. From behind this veil, you are asked questions concerning the world you want to be born into, for example: what principles are needed to make a society just?

As you do not yet know who you will be in this new society, the choices you make behind the veil will either harm or benefit you as an individual. For example, if you decided that men should be the superior gender, then you must face the risk of being born a woman. 

When asked to shape society behind the ‘veil of ignorance’, unaware of who you will become; you are unlikely to create a scenario where you risk becoming part of a disadvantaged group. The veil provides a unique neutral space – both personal and impersonal – to allow us to make unbiased decisions to produce the fairest and most egalitarian society.  

As established earlier, acting in the common good is not natural for us and is, therefore, a skill we must nurture. The ‘veil of ignorance’ gives us an essential convivial tool to help dissolve our innate fear, allowing our hope to surface and inspire us to make rational and accountable decisions for the common good.  

Aware that this exchange may have failed to convince you. I simply ask, that the next time you hear, think, imply or say “that’s just the way it is!”. Regenerate the discussion by drawing the veil of ignorance, and ask together:

“What is the just way?” 

                      Ashleigh Watkins

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