#SJScience 1: Social justice movements can be more effective and less divisive

This article is part of a Discussion on inclusivity, free speech, and identity politics.

This is also the first in a new series of posts on the science of social justice. You can follow and/or comment on the series here and on Twitter using the hashtag #SJScience. The purpose of the series will be to scientifically examine solutions to common political, social, and economic inequalities — with the central question being: What works and why? The series will draw on insights from biology (psychology, neuroscience, evolution), history, economics, sociology, political science, and even mathematics. As always, I look forward to hearing from, learning from, and being challenged by our readers.  

Social justice is an important and often uncomfortable topic. But does it need to be divisive?

I strongly believe in social justice — whose definitions vary, but generally hold that all people deserve equal political, social, and economic rights, opportunities, and responsibilities. While I feel fortunate to live in a society in which a strong majority of the population shares this ideal (e.g. see here, here, and here), I also recognize (again along with a majority of the population) that there is much work still to do in eliminating social injustices surrounding race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and other axes of diversity. To any who doubt how far we still have to go, I suggest reading this, thisthis, this, thisthis, thisthis, or this…and all of that’s just the tip of the iceberg, just in North America.

At the same time, I, like many others (e.g. politicians like President Obama and Michael Bloomberg, and pundits like Conor Friedersdorf) can’t help but be concerned by some of the tactics used recently by some social justice advocates. These include: an increasing proclivity for disproportionate, mean-spirited shaming and vigilante retribution — even in response to unintentional ‘microaggressions’ — instead of education, dialogue, and community-building; the stifling of debate, free speechdue process, and sometimes even important course material on university campuses — in the name of creating ‘safe spaces’; and discourses that sometimes give absolute deference to identities over ideas in public debate.

The charge against these tactics is that they seem illiberal, often mean-spirited, and they seem to have increased the divisiveness of many important social justice causes in recent years; I find it hard to disagree. But I am also sympathetic to the counter-argument: that people who have finally found a voices amidst a history of injustice against them (and/or people sharing their identity) deserve to be cut some slack in our judgments of their messaging, and that too much tone policing can distract us from more important messages about injustice. So where do we go from here?

Acknowledge common objective. Ask: What works and why? Start from biology.

Despite the recent controversies, most people engaged on social justice issues seem to ultimately agree (or at least claim to agree) on the objective: social justice, defined as above or similarly. If we can agree on where we’re trying to go, then the logical next step seems to be asking objectively: What works and why? What social infrastructures support equal rights, opportunities and responsibilities across identity groups, and how do we build and maintain these infrastructures?

These are of course complex questions, with many non-mutually exclusive ways to approach them. Indeed, many aspects of these questions have already been studied extensively by scholars and pundits in fields ranging from history, political science, sociology, equity studies (and its identity-specific sub-fields, e.g. gender studies, Aboriginal studies, etc.), anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and occasionally even computer science (there are also probably fields I have left out, for which I apologize). Yet there still seem to be large areas of disagreement on both the answers and on how to go about looking for them. The conclusions people arrive at often seem to depend on which piece of the problem they start from.

If where we start matters, then I think there is a strong case for starting from our biology, and trying to understand how it influences social justice and injustice. Our biology — however imperfect — is probably hardest (if not impossible) for us to change. People — whole societies even — can dramatically change their politics, religion, institutions, and social norms within fractions of a single lifetime; and many (including Canadian and American societies) have. But we can’t change our nature — the traits given to us by our DNA — at least not on meaningful timescales. So our best bet, it seems, would be to try to understand our nature, and then design social infrastructures that work with — not against — it, as much as possible, to advance towards social justice.

To some, this may seem like a pessimistic or defeatist approach, but as I will argue in the rest of this series, I think it’s quite the opposite. There is no evidence I am aware of suggesting that social justice is intractably incompatible with our biology. Even if some of our biological tendencies pose challenges to social justice (indeed, some do), I think we would still want to know this so that we could design institutions to guard against these tendencies. Steven Pinker argues a similar point much more eloquently in The Blank Slate.

To conclude this introductory post, I will preview of some of the main conclusions that will likely recur throughout the series.

Series Summary: Building common understandings and identities is the only realistic path to social justice

History and biology seem to provide very strong evidence suggesting that bridge building — establishing common understandings and common identities among previously divided identity groups — is the only realistic path to generating stable equality among all individuals in a society.

The root of this claim is the overwhelming evidence from evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology (e.g. hereherehere and here) that humans have a deeply ingrained biological tendency to define ourselves in terms of in- and out- groups (‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’), and to treat members of our in-groups better than members of our out-groups. Bridge building expands our in-groups to include people it didn’t include previously, which creates strong equalizing social forces. Maintaining or deepening our in-group divisions makes equality likely to be unstable, because in-group preferences are likely to amplify any pre-existing power-imbalance between groups.

Oppression would be expected to occur in a society whenever there is both fractionalization (i.e. the division of society into multiple mutually recognized groups) and power-imbalances between groups. But because of in-group preference, you would expect efforts to combat oppression that only focus on rebalancing power — neglecting or at the expense of bridge building — to usually fail (because it’s hard to take power from a more powerful group by force) and occasionally reverse the oppression, but never result in equality. In contrast, you would expect efforts to combat oppression by bridge building to also result in a more equitable rebalancing of power. As I will argue in detail later in this series, history seems to support both of these hypotheses.

Is there any reason to believe that there are some types of people who simply cannot be made part of our in-groups? Some types of pre-existing identity differences that just cannot be reconciled? Fortunately, the answer seems to be no. Evidence from psychology and evolutionary biology suggests that we tend to instinctively place in our in-groups: our kin (i.e. blood relatives); those we have frequent contact with; those closely connected to us through our social networks; and those we collaborate with, or at least do not directly compete with (neighbors, friends, etc.). In the next post, I will discuss how human evolution might have generated this pattern. Aside from our blood relatives (who tend to stay in our in-groups relatively unconditionally), it seems that the compositions of our in-groups and out-groups can be highly malleable, and can even be trained (by ourselves or outside forces). For example, some experimenters have been able to train in-group biases based on completely arbitrary or made-up group categorizations; and in other cases, people have been shown to be able to greatly reduce or even eliminate sub-conscious in-group biases through mindfulness techniques.

Is it possible to build bridges while also correcting structural inequalities that have accumulated over time? Again, it seems to be possible (though certainly not easy). This is surely not a comprehensive list, but I will argue in this series that the evidence points to a need for (at least): two-way dialogues across identity groups in neutral spaces (even though within-group dialogue understandably feels safer and more comfortable, especially for some members of marginalized groups), contact and shared experiences (which will only be possible with institutions that prevent the statistically inevitable concentration of income and wealth in unregulated free-market economies; and that prevent identity-based geographic segregation), more cross-cultural exchanges (and therefore a fairly restrictive definition of cultural appropriation; Niya’s post provides some good insights), more identity-blind but inequity-correcting/preventing institutions (e.g. inclusive anti-indentity-based-discrimination policies, robust affirmative action programs based on direct measures of under-privilege instead of (even highly correlated) aspects of identity), more across-group empathy, and more self-awareness and critical self-reflection. Ian also seems to arrive at some of these conclusions in his analysis.

Comparing the successes and setbacks of specific recent social justice advocacy campaigns in North America seems to suggest that best practices include (but are not limited to): positive focus (i.e. on how good things could be if they were different rather than how bad they are now); collaboration across identity groups (i.e. treating an inequity as a shared problem to solve rather than an adversarial power struggle); clear objectives; and transparent, widely agreed-upon ways of measuring success or failure, progress or setbacks.

Finally, the most important message of this post and series is as follows. There is much cause for optimism about the future social justice advocacy (and results): Bridge building works. We already know how to do it. And it is designed to be non-divisive. Therefore, I see hope and opportunity for future social justice discourses to be both more effective and less divisive.

Next time on #SJScience: The Us vs. Them instinct: What is it, where does it come from, and how do we overcome it?

One thought on “#SJScience 1: Social justice movements can be more effective and less divisive

  1. Pingback: Academia’s conservative problem | The Tête-à-Tête

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