For many of us, and perhaps for more and more of us, we live with a familiarity with despair. It's a kind of desperation that silently grows as the injustice around us is heaped like so much kindling, waiting for the spark. We feel it when we hear the news, and we feel it in the experiences of our own lives, when we walk out the door into an unsafe world. It is overwhelming, and has been for a very long time.
The history of the West, with its complex mix of incredible and awful, is not one thing, despite how our civic myths like to shoehorn every story into a narrative of progress. In reality, this history is also the history of white supremacy, imperialism, and patriarchy. And we are still bearing bad fruit, as recent headlines reveal, through stories of the violent and misogynistic actions of sexual predators (SOURCE), or the late night passage of tax legislation that benefits corporations and the wealthiest 1%.(SOURCE) And, with regard to the latter, we are yet to see what further impact the final form of the tax bill will have on the most vulnerable,(SOURCE) especially since cutting vital social programs is a favorite past time of those in power. Meanwhile, approximately 1,100 people have been killed so far by police in the USA in 2017.(SOURCE) And, according to the FBI, hate crimes continue to be on the rise, with over 6,000 reported cases in the latest numbers from 2016. Of those cases, 58% were motivated by “race, ethnicity, or ancestry”; 21% were based on religion, and 18% were based on sexual orientation.(SOURCE)
We could fill the rest of the day with a litany of these tragedies and injustices, with more than enough sorrow that all of us would feel that creeping desperation, born of grief and rage. But none of this is a surprise; neither is it surprising to say that we humans continue to experience a lot of polarization, growing farther apart. We have a long history to demonstrate how efficient we are in producing new circumstances that fuel those divisions. What we have proven to be less efficient at doing is bringing us together. That’s also not surprising, as it is much easier and faster to destroy than it is to create, to bring death than to nourish life. And yet we have to find ways to keep walking out the door. We have to find ways to live in this very world, while injustice persists, and the water is always at or near boiling. And we have to find ways to do so without either giving up or giving in to the way things are.
Fortunately, there are lots of exceptions to human cruelty and greed, and many beautiful stories of change. We have made important progress in addressing systemic injustice in certain cases, and we have made important strides in understanding human psychosocial dynamics and applying those to social change programs. Unfortunately, we typically are unfamiliar with most of these stories, both successes and failures, and so their lessons are too often lost. And we have not been able to translate those bright spots into the type of lasting social change where everyone’s voice is heard and needs are met. So what I’d like to think about this morning is one of the less skillful dynamics of how we come to live with the condition of this world and with ourselves, and especially how we come to tolerate, excuse, and even justify inequality and injustice. And then I’d like to reflect on some principles that might help us focus our energy and attention on working for lasting change.
I can think of many different examples from my own life where I’ve encountered this dynamic, but most of them are more personal than I would prefer to broadcast over itunes and youtube. So I’m going to stick with a more professional one. From 2007 to 2010, I was living in Cambodia. Besides providing support for organizational development, the bulk of my time was divided between two areas: 1) helping develop research-based training for community leaders addressing family conflict and violence and 2) providing training and services on conflict transformation, reflective practice, and nonviolent direct action to human rights defenders and community development workers. In both of those circumstances, we were encountering some similar challenges, interacting with people or engaging with the consequences following their violent, exploitative actions.
Sometimes, we felt powerless. Too often, we were limited in the kinds of actions we could take in response. We had to be creative, because the un-creative choices were things like despair, rage, or apathy, which generally made things stay the same or get worse. And there was always the risk that we would simply learn to tolerate injustice, to adjust to it as the “new normal” and make do. Simultaneously, we were working on developing cultures and practices of empathy and compassion, bringing healing to ourselves and others who had been wounded by injustice. And the question arose: how do we then deal with those who have acted coercively, violently, and hatefully? When and how do we interact with them? What is appropriate? And what will bring about true and lasting change?
In 2009, a paper was published that helped provide more clarity on why this struggle can be so difficult. Tamar Saguy (Yale University), Nicole Tausch (Cardiff University), John Dovidio (Yale University), and Felicia Pratto (University of Connecticut) conducted two studies to explore how contact between unequal groups impacted people’s commitments to equality. “The results of Study 1, an experiment with laboratory groups, and Study 2, a survey of an actual disadvantaged group, converged to demonstrate that, beyond improving attitudes, positive intergroup contact may also lead disadvantaged-group members to attend less to group inequality.” (“The Irony of Harmony: Intergroup Contact Can Produce False Expectations for Equality." Psychological Science 20:1, 114-121, page 119) (SOURCE, pdf download)
And attending less to group inequality erodes just the conditions necessary to energize and sustain movements for social justice. As the researchers explained, “because positive contact improves attitudes and blurs group differences, it can undermine the necessary conditions for collective action to occur: recognition that one’s group is subordinate and external (typically outgroup) attribution of one’s disadvantage … .” (ibid, 120) That is, people feel less motivated to do something about inequality and injustice when they lose the sense and weight of that injustice, and when they stop seeing the connections between that injustice and the actions and attitudes of the advantaged group. Positive interactions, however, can have just this impact. The feeling that “we’re getting along now” plays a psychological trick on us, and we become more tolerant of inequality.
In the study, one of the reasons this happened was that disadvantaged participants became optimistic that changes in the relational aspect would naturally translate into larger changes in behavior, structure, and culture. People in disadvantaged groups believed that, having gotten to know them better, the advantaged group members would become uncomfortable with inequality and want to behave more fairly. But that’s not what was happening in the advantaged groups. These participants did show a change in attitude that favored equality, but “to equality as a principle, rather than as a reality … .” (ibid, 120) In other words, they thought positively enough about the disadvantaged groups to support the idea of equality as a theory, but did not become more willing to take necessary steps to actually do something about it.
In my experience, what is often going on here is that the human mind wants to find ways to reconcile these two conflicting experiences, and the easy way forward is to imagine that one of the scenarios doesn’t exist. In other words, because we feel better about a relationship, we want to believe that things are objectively better in the world. Because there is no longer a problem between us relationally, we want to believe there is no longer a problem structurally.
Despite these limitations, many of our approaches to dealing with inequality have focused on getting people from different groups to spend time together. The Contact Hypothesis (SOURCE), which in its strict form has some very particular guidelines and has demonstrated value in reducing prejudice, has been popularized in such a way that it is easy to view intergroup contact as a cure-all. While I am 100% in support of reducing prejudice, it is important to note that this emphasis also reflects our society’s preference for elevating the individual over the structural and cultural, a preference that means it is all too easy to deflect our attention and intentions away from movement building. The lessons of both history and psychology insist that, if we want true equality in community, we must not substitute individual change for systemic change. We must never confuse getting along with getting justice.
But this is exactly the risk we take when we focus on harmony without also focusing on equality. It also means that social change in the direction of justice requires more than a devotion to the principle of equality, or even harmonious feelings between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. As John Dovidio has expressed it, “Superficial inclusion can be a problem because it cloaks injustice. … Inclusion, in terms of superficial commonality, seems like a solution, but it actually contributes to the problem. … Dominant groups strategically use superficial commonality to maintain the status quo and the stability of their advantage.” (in “Gender and Work: Challenging Conventional Wisdom”) (SOURCE, youtube video)
With awareness of the tendency and potential of human psychology to find ways to tolerate injustice, we must be intentional and persistent in keeping ourselves and our communities accountable to the practices of justice in real life: in our habits, relationships, organizations, and cultures. So what kind of principles might we bear in mind if we want to take these very human limitations seriously? Three stand out to me.
1. I must continue to bring attention to the historical, institutional, structural, and cultural aspects of inequality and injustice, and not just the individual aspects, if I want to work for lasting change.
2. I must center the voices, experiences, and lives of people living in disadvantaged groups.
3. I must assume that lasting change will not happen unless we diligently work to make it happen and create mechanisms that hold us accountable at structural and cultural, and not just personal, levels.
There are some real practical applications of these principles if we take the time to reflect, but they may require a shift in priorities for many of us. For example, many of us struggle with how much energy to invest into having conversations and relationships with people that have aligned themselves with injustice, perhaps symbolized in our current news cycle by folks who support politicians like Donald Trump and Roy Moore. It’s also a timely topic, as many of us navigate holiday gatherings at work or home that put us in company with folks that we otherwise might not be likely to be in the same room with. I am sensitive to this situation, especially when it brings stress into family relationships, and it’s something I have to deal with myself.
But, to be honest, it is actually low on my list of priorities. My perception is that, most of the time, these types of conversations are more about making us feel better and less conflicted than about working for social change. I always ask myself, why is this important to me? Is it the most effective way to meet that need? Does it distract me from my deepest held values and aspirations? Is it aligning me more or less with strategic movement building? Is it making me more passionate and effective in building community and social capital that is truly just, equal, wise, and kind? When I get in touch with those answers, the path I want to take is usually a lot clearer. I’m not as easily distracted or upset, and I’m less likely to invest my energy in relationships, conversations, or habits that aren’t committed to dismantling oppressive systems and cultures.
It’s true that I used to spend a lot of time in conversation, trying to change the minds of people who were convinced that LGBTQIA+ folk were evil, people who believed corporate greed was a virtue, people who told racist jokes, people who were more concerned about men being falsely accused than women being raped. But the lessons I learned in Cambodia changed me; my own life is much richer and better for it, and my activism is more sustainable and effective. That’s not to say that I am unwilling to have those conversations now, but there’s a limit to the amount of change they can bring in the absence of a willing focus on inequality and injustice. If the folks we are having a conversation with are unwilling to acknowledge and address systemic and cultural injustice, that conversation is not likely, in my view, to be strategic when it comes to social change and social justice.
To return one last time to the research, the study pointed out that - “Whereas a sole emphasis on commonalities may deflect attention from issues of group disparities, encounters that emphasize both common connections and the problem of unjust group inequalities may promote intergroup understanding as well as recognition of the need for change … . … However, it is critical, both in theory and in practice, to recognize that intergroup harmony per se does not necessarily lead to intergroup equality.” (Saguy et al, 120)
So we must be honest about our situation. As long as white people have something to gain from systemic racism, we are going to face resistance to dismantling white supremacy. As long as men enjoy benefits at the expense of women and gender nonconforming folks, we are going to have to fight for an end to patriarchy. As long as the rich dominate and profit from the poverty of the poor, we are going to see the 1% grow in power and wealth. As Assata Shakur powerfully expressed it: “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” (SOURCE)
I realize that this hasn’t been a happy or funny or even uplifting talk. It is no easy thing to look deeply at these kinds of things. Most of us don’t want the world to be unfriendly or unjust, and we want to count ourselves among the shining examples of those humans who are good and kind and fair. So it can be difficult to learn to listen, to really listen, to those voices around us, and often within us, that cry out in rage and grief against the suffering of this world. It can be painful to learn the complicated part we play in social, cultural, institutional, and historical forces of injustice. And it can overwhelming to consider what must be done to bring about real and lasting change. But listening may lead to wisdom, and wisdom may yet make it possible for us to do what needs to be done.
It's especially important because there are some pretty good reasons to suspect that the bad news is going to keep coming, and we can’t be wearing ourselves out chasing down dead ends. Beyond giving up and giving in, we can keep carving out a community where we can get a glimpse of what equality and kindness actually mean. It’s good for us to celebrate together the opportunity for us to listen, learn, and love as a community gathered in commitment to truth and justice. And by working with, rather than denying, the suffering created by our oppressive systems, we can learn to transcend and replace those systems. As long as our hearts long for these changes that will finally turn the systems right side up, for communities and practices that bring health and well being to replace these centuries of death and destruction, we must find ways to channel our energy into communities, relationships, and practices that bring life and keep us accountable to life.
And when this longing in our hearts is finally answered, and these oppressive structures are turned upside down, it will be because all of us, joining this long line of humans through history, dared to insist that equality become more than a principle, that equality become a reality.