The most effective social justice movements focus on the distribution of empathy and the creation of wealth

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

Like Matt, I am drawn to approach the politically charged topic of social justice, inclusivity and identity politics by asking what approaches to achieving greater equity, peace and prosperity are the most effective. My hope is that focusing on effectiveness will allow me to approach this topic as a positive question rather than a normative one, and will therefore make it easier for all of the participants in this Discussion to distinguish what relevant evidence there is out there from personal biases or unsupported opinions (including my own). I approached this question by looking for historical examples of societies that became more peaceful and/or united over time, and examining what they had in common. While it is probably common sense to most people interested in the topic that wealth (or resources) and empathy between people are important concepts, what I believe most significantly distinguishes social justice movements that have been successful (i.e. creating a more equitable, united and prosperous environment) and those that have failed (i.e. those that degraded into tribal conflict, war, terrorism, unrest, etc.) is the following prioritization (as in the title):

The most effective social justice movements prioritize the distribution of empathy and the creation of wealth

I believe this thesis is also supported by much of what we currently know about human nature (which Matt will discuss in more detail in his series).

First, it is important to point out that creation and distribution are not mutually exclusive. In other words, it is obviously good if we can create and widely distribute both wealth and empathy. All can be pro-social behaviours: they embody a goal to replace competition with collaboration. However, I am suggesting how we prioritize creation and distribution is important, and that creation is more important for wealth and distribution is more important for empathy.

This might sound counterintuitive. Many social justice activists around the world would argue the converse: the path to a better world requires that we focus primarily on the distribution of wealth and the creation of empathy. The conventional wisdom is that this focus leads to a virtuous circle of collaboration over competition: the more I nurture my capacity to empathize, the more my feeling for others’ misfortune makes me want to distribute resources more equitably (or support public policies that do so); the more equitably resources are distributed within my community, the more empathy I will build out of shared purpose.

However, most of our history and much of what we now know about our own psychology suggest that the conventional emphasis (a preference to focus on distribution of wealth and creation of empathy) can also easily encourage fractionalization, which leads tribal conflict, oppression (with occasional revolutions interchanging oppressors and oppressed), and destruction more often than it leads to greater peace. The reasons for this paradox are as follows.

Why it is more important to distribute empathy than to create it: The social benefits of increasing our empathy are highly dependent on how well that empathy is distributed. Our capacity for empathy, combined with the natural human tendency toward reciprocity (our desire to the reciprocate collaborative and competitive behaviour of others toward us – ‘an apple for an apple, an eye for and eye’) creates the conditions under which the ‘us-vs-them’ instinct thrives. While increasing empathy strengthens ties within a family or community, increasing empathy can actually be highly destructive in a fractionalized environment where empathy is not evenly distributed. This is because increased empathy, when focused only for our ‘in-group’, actually stimulates increased animus for the out-group (e.g. we tend to defend our friends much more vigorously than our acquaintances against outsider attacks). While a world without any empathy creates disorder (e.g. crime), war and genocide are just as much products of empathy as is community. The strength of bond holding together a community are important, but far more important is how broadly that community is defined, and who it includes/excludes.

The history of the U.S. presents a perfect example of how even a fairly individualistic moral culture, but with an inclusive ethos (i.e. all citizens should be treated the same under the law and anyone who works hard and smart should be able to achieve the American Dream), can become a model for the world of how to rapidly build and maintain lasting peace and prosperity, including effective integration of many minority groups (e.g. Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Polish Americans). Many other societies that were much more collectivist, but less inclusive, were not able to achieve the same results (e.g. the Soviet bloc). Conversely, the U.S. also provides a cautionary tale of the social problems created by the exclusion of one group (the African American community) from the American Dream for most of its history. Many of the countries in Europe, all far more collectivist than the U.S. as a whole, have recurring social problems created by failing to integrate minorities into their communities or their national identity.

Why it is more important to create wealth than to distribute it: Once again, the principle of reciprocity ingrained in human nature is the key reason. Distribution of a fixed pool of resources is a zero-sum game by definition, and therefore the exercise is fundamentally competitive. Because of reciprocity, competitive distribution of a fixed pool of resources breeds resentment, whether it is corporations who make money by exploiting workers or consumers (e.g. payday loans) rather than innovating, or governments that use citizen’s tax dollars to bloat bureaucracies and provide kickbacks to employees and contractors without providing public benefit. In contrast, focusing on growing the pie until there is enough to go around for everyone is a fundamentally collaborative behaviour. Just like the concept of a ‘breadwinner’ bringing home resources from the outside and then sharing them with her family so the kids an eventually grow up and win bread themselves, wealth creation reinforces accountability between members of a community, since sharing the spoils empowers others to create more wealth themselves, making the whole group more prosperous. The widespread practices (and expectations within the community) of successful entrepreneurs providing mentorship, angel investing, as well as signing ‘The Pledge’ in the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem provide good examples of how creative accumulation of wealth (as opposed to competitive distribution of wealth) and a culture of ‘paying it forward’ are mutually reinforcing. It is no coincidence that other startup ecosystems that have embraced this model have become more successful, including in Israel and here in Canada.

Following from the above rationale, the most important metrics I would use to evaluate a social justice initiative are:

  1. How does this initiative distribute people’s empathy more evenly across a wider circle?
  2. How does this initiative make the overall standard of living (or wealth per capita) go up?

Applying these principles to recommend specific concrete steps we can take, I arrive at many of the same suggestions that Matt has in his piece (although we may disagree in some places too, such as the relative importance of creating vs. distributing wealth).

1. Distribution of empathy: Build bigger tents 

Social-justice advocates of modern identity politics often suggest that white people should practice becoming more aware of their ‘whiteness’. The purpose of this exercise is to better appreciate the privileges that whiteness affords and to enable greater understanding of how the world looks different to people of colour, and therefore greater empathy. While I personally can see some benefit of this exercise (likely because I have the privilege of doing so from a place of relative personal and economic security), there does not seem to be any evidence that placing more public emphasis on ‘whiteness’ has the desired effects at a societal level, particularly amongst the majority of white people in America who are facing very difficult economic conditions themselves. This identity-based strategy seems to more often lead to increased racial animus (among white and non-white alike) than greater empathy. In other words, this exercise, although well intentioned, may very well create more racists than ‘allies’ in practice. 

One consequence of examining the concept of ‘whiteness’ as a racial identity today — that I wish were noted more — is how our use of ‘whiteness’ as a singular term reflects a remarkable reduction in animosity between people of different European ancestries (e.g. Anglo-saxons, Italians, Irish, Polish, Russian, German, French, etc.) in North America over the last 50 years. If there is such a thing as a North American case study for how to completely transition from a racist to a post-racial discourse, this is probably the closest thing to it. So what allowed a bigger tent to be built around these groups that we might be able to apply to current problems?

Integration of people. Feelings of community increase between people of different backgrounds when they have to frequently interact within the same communities. When “that ‘other’ guy” becomes also “my neighbor”, it becomes easier to experience their common humanity on a daily basis and harder to hate them or “their kind”. The fear that drives tribalism turns to empathy. For example, just by getting to know its members, a single black musician was able to shut down entire chapters of the KKK. On a policy level, this means we have to aggressively fight segregation in all forms. Research increasingly points to the critical role that housing discrimination and community segregation plays in racial and economic inequalities. Recent experiments, such as in Louisville, KY, show just how big of a positive impact desegregation alone has on improving equity. Conversely, we are beginning to understand the negative effect segregation of our communities and our campuses into ‘safe spaces’ and echo chambers has on everyone, including the dominant groups. The more we engage with, socialize with, eventually even marry and have kids with people who are different from us, the harder and harder it becomes to even draw boundaries between groups, let alone breed feelings of animosity between them. This path to integration will initially require making ourselves uncomfortable – doing the right thing is often not what will make us feel ‘safe’ in the short term. However, increased exposure to our phobias, not avoidance, is exactly what makes us overcome them.

Integration of Identities. When different cultural groups come together, there is often a fear within each group that they will lose their distinct identity. This fear underlies many of the language laws in Quebec for example. If we are going to move toward integration, we need to acknowledge that these fears are founded. Yes, integration does lead us to lose a part of our original identities, but we have to recognize that what is gained in return makes it worth it. Cross-cultural exchange, appropriation and modification of customs into a new integrated cultural identity, fundamentally about sharing ideas, should be indisputably good things, although it is worth us understanding the difference between cultural exchange (e.g. Yoga), cultural ridicule (e.g. ‘Washington Redskins’), and individual blatant plagiarismNiya’s piece explores this distinction in more detail. It is important to emphasize that the responsibility for integration is a two-way street. It is not about a minority or newcomer group’s sole responsibility to embrace the culture and history of the dominant group. It is everyone’s responsibility to build and embrace a new-shared identity, with shared values and a shared history, which requires all sides to abandon the part of their old identity that is exclusionary. The diversity of reactions to the US-wide passing of marriage equality, both within the LGBTQ community (with some lamenting the end of the counterculture narrative of the LGBTQ movement) and outside of it (with some lamenting the end of ‘traditional’ marriage), provides an interesting recent example of the trade-off between the nostalgic cost of groups losing a part of their distinct identity and the larger benefits of their integration into a bigger tent.

Campaigning on messages of sameness. The fight for LGBTQ rights and marriage equality, one that turned public opinion dramatically over just a few years, provides an excellent example of how the most effective movements advocating for greater inclusiveness or equality do so by highlighting sameness (‘we just want the freedom to love and marry the person we choose to just like everyone else’). Identity politics (highlighting differences between groups) favours the dominant group and promotes oppression. Conversely highlighting similarities between groups promotes equity by forcing the members of a dominant group to look at members of minority groups as if they were one of their own.

2. Distribution of empathy: Maintain our commitment to liberal politics, and reject the allure of identity politics

In liberal politics (not to be confused with either modern left-wing or right-wing politics), social systems are built around ideas: defining institutions, preserving rights (e.g. property ownership, due process, etc.) and freedoms (e.g. free speech, free assembly, freedom of religious expression etc.), policing behaviours (e.g. theft, murder, rape, etc.) that are dangerous to society. Liberal politics are built around the central idea that empathy should be distributed evenly, or that everyone should have equal intrinsic value.

In contrast, the social systems in identity politics are defined around identities: defining hierarchies between identities, distributing rights based on identity, and policing behaviours between identity groups. For example, identity-based policing replaces liberal concepts of ‘violence’ or ‘terrorism’ with concepts of violence or terrorism by or against particular groups, where the definition or severity of the offense explicitly depends on the identities associated with the victim and the accused (e.g. Islamic terrorism, black crime or black-on-black crime, gender-based violence/misconduct, barbaric cultural practices). Implicit in identity politics is the concept that people belonging to certain groups should preferentially receive empathy over others.

Matt does a good job summarizing why identity politics of any kind is antithetical to the causes of social justice and equity. In political climates that promote fractionalization, feelings of empathy are directed only to those within one’s identity group, creating animus for out-group members. As all groups become self-interested as they feel threatened in such a political climate, the groups that start out the most powerful are likely to become more so. This common pattern of polarized political climates is one we are seeing with the rise in popularity of identity politics in North America today. The tribal opposition of each camp toward each other belies striking similarities between the ideologies embraced by each group and those that the same group finds abhorrent when practiced by or aimed at a different group. Similarly, discriminatory practices are tolerated or abhorred depending primarily on whether or not they benefit or harm the majority group, and not using some universal measure of equity (in fact, policies favouring the dominant majority identity would go against most definitions of equity or social justice)

For example, American conservative movements, whose identity politics are built in the context of a majority-white, majority-male demographic, and activist movements on college campuses, whose identity politics are built in the context of a majority-whitemajority-female demographic, seem to have a stark ideological disagreement on race-based discrimination. However, there is broad acceptance on both sides for similar discrimination against the same minority groups when their interests are in conflict with each majority demographic. This includes profiling of black men in campus sexual misconduct tribunals in a similar way as the police do off-campus, and discriminating against East Asians at most levels of the academic pipeline – a group that faces familiar negative stereotypes of leadership and a leaky pipeline in the ladder toward positions of power in society at large.

The greatest improvements in the standard of living in the past century have been built under political systems that espoused (however imperfectly) the liberal foundations of ideas, institutions and behaviours rather than identities, and aimed to ensure that all citizens are equally worthy of empathy. Empathizing equally with everyone is instinctually unnatural for us, and it requires confronting bias. Social justice advocates are correct that upholding this pillar of western society requires acknowledging its present imperfections (e.g. disparate enforcement of nominal liberal statutes such as racial profiling), which originate from our innate biases and our fears. However, where many current activists err is in using these imperfections as calls to abandon liberal ideals and embrace identity politics instead. Acknowledging micro-aggressions and ‘subtle institutional racism’ is important, but should be a call to improve our imperfect institutions rather than as a nihilistic justification (increasingly by all sides) to tear them down and revert to overt tribal hostility. In liberal societies, civil liberties are designed especially for people and ideas that make people uncomfortable. In other words, civil liberties are precisely the safeguards that protect vulnerable people (racial/religious/gender/cultural/political minorities in particular) from the dangers of identity politics. If free speech, free assembly and due process were reserved for only people and speech that everyone (or the majority demographic groups) liked, civil rights would not be needed.

We should be proud of our institutions in Canada and the U.S. Despite what we see as increasing polarization in our politics, we still can expect peaceful transitions of power after every election. Although discrimination remains a significant problem in North America, we have a suite of anti-discrimination laws that are applied to protect targets of discrimination regardless of identity, helping to move the pendulum towards fairness and keep it there regardless of which way it swings. This is highly unusual compared to many other parts of the world. In Canada, we have human rights tribunals that will simultaneously hear a case from a Christian woman facing discrimination from her gay employer and a gay student facing discrimination from his Christian school. Similarly, the US has anti-discrimination laws like Title IX (prohibiting sex discrimination in education) that are applied simultaneously to force campuses to take sexual harassment and assault seriously to protect (predominantly) female students and to protect (predominantly) male students from unfair disciplinary processes that contain gender-based double standards.

Maintaining the integrity of our liberal institutions is particularly important in tough economic times, when the conditions for fractionalization are ripe and our societal fabric is vulnerable.

3. Creation of wealth: Create win-wins wherever possible 

Increasingly, there is a message resonating from all sides of the political spectrum that voters and policymakers have to fundamentally make a choice between prioritizing either economic growth per capita or economic equality. Examining against history, this trade-off has some truth to it in some respects, but is highly tenuous in others. If fractionalization and the oppression that results are encouraged by conditions of scarcity (e.g. shortage of resources, hard economic times), shouldn’t the converse also be true: unity and equality are encouraged by conditions of abundance?

This is the ‘glass-half-full’ way of looking at the groundbreaking theory of economic inequality presented by Thomas Piketty recently. Piketty’s theory essentially says that in periods of slow or absent overall economic growth the return on capital (assets such as land, machines, etc.) outpaces the return on labour. In other words, in a zero-sum game, those who start off advantaged have greater leverage to further advantage themselves compared to those who start off disadvantaged**.  The converse to this situation is that when the pie is growing, the spoils tend to distribute more evenly, an effect also noted by Piketty that explains the anomalous increase in economic equality in the west in the few decades after WWII. If you believe Piketty’s thesis, sustained economic growth (creative destruction) and the rapid economic destruction of war (destructive destruction) may have been the only way that sustained trends toward equity have been achieved within any country over the last several hundred years, which includes a vast multitude of political systems (capitalist, socialist, communist, feudal, etc.). The robustness of this pattern across so many different political systems points to the immense strain that zero-sum situations put on the stability of communities and nations, because of the principle of reciprocity ingrained in our nature.

If situations of zero-sum distribution of resources will always carry high social costs, then policymakers should: 1) avoid these situations wherever possible should by actively seeking out and capitalizing on the situations where everybody wins; and 2) choosing their battles very carefully where win-wins are not possible by mandating distribution of the resources that are the most difficult to make more abundant (e.g. land, housing).

Governments actively seek out win-wins by: 1) making policies and investments that promise the highest returns to society at large (e.g. smart infrastructure spending), and 2) by encouraging and welcoming technological and social innovations. Innovations tend to involve a creative destruction process during implementation, and often require governments to intercede in favour of society at large against entrenched interests (e.g. established large corporations, unions, public-sector workers etc.). Innovation and long-term, high-ROI investment should therefore be at the center of our roadmap to social justice. Although we should not assume that all change is necessarily positive, we should be highly sceptical of calls to resist adopting technological innovations in the name of social justice. The bigger the pie (per capita), the less fiercely we feel the need fight over it.

Where win-wins are not possible or not sufficient to distribute resources broadly enough, governments may also need to intercede, but need to do so with care. Actions must be taken with understanding of the social costs of zero-sum policies, and with realistic (i.e. non-utopian) assessments of how people are likely to respond to policy changes, including how zero-sum policy changes may discourage innovation and the creation of win-wins. In other words, governments need to pick their battles carefully. Prioritizing zero-sum policies with resources that are difficult (or impossible) to create is the soundest approach. For most countries, the resource of value that is most conserved (i.e. hardest to create) is land. In fact, consistent with Piketty’s thesis that zero-sum situations are the primary drivers of inequality is the recent data suggesting that housing is responsible for nearly all of the rise in wealth inequality in Western countries since 1970. Therefore, the most effective intervention against inequality governments can make may be at the municipal level, by simply ensuring that enough housing is built to match supply to demand. This focus on housing also syncs very well with what have been shown to be some of the most effective efforts to build bigger tents by preventing racial and socioeconomic segregation.

**Interestingly the “Piketty principle” is a fairly direct human analog of a physical process called Oswald ripening, where larger precipitate particles in a closed saturated solution grow at the expense of smaller ones. This process occurs spontaneously because, while all molecules at any particle surface have an equal probability of dissolving, surface molecules represent a larger fraction of the overall mass of smaller particles. Replace the exchange between surface molecules and the solution with spending and earnings, and replace molecules in the bulk not accessible to the solution with savings, and the analogy is complete.


One thought on “The most effective social justice movements focus on the distribution of empathy and the creation of wealth

  1. I definitely agree with your distribution of empathy argument (as is evidenced by my own post), but I’m not yet convinced of your argument to prioritize creation over distribution of wealth. 1. Given the planet’s finite resources, we may not be able to have economic growth forever. 2. There are lots of mechanisms (e.g. your Oswald ripening analogy) by which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and these exacerbate other inequities (e.g. via segregation). Therefore, I think we would want to prioritize designing institutions that prevent the otherwise inevitable concentration of wealth–and recognize that these institutions can sometimes also stimulate the creation of wealth (via increased aggregate demand and a larger effective talent pool). Would you disagree?


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