The campaign for Britain to put Jane Austen on banknotes in the name of gender equality crystallised my thoughts on the way we articulate injustice.
There is a well established template for ethical debate that’s come to dominate the way we think, and it is deliberately reinforced by the way we are taught history. I say deliberately reinforced because politicians, who set the national curriculum, love the template because it distracts us from issues that put politicians in a difficult position.
The fixed ethical template
1) Identify some well defined, discrete demographic, often women, ethnic minorities or gays
2) Investigate to see if there is some sphere in which they are systematically disadvantaged
3) Lobby the responsible authority for change
I absolutely agree that discrimination, as captured by this template, is wrong. I don’t think it’s the only kind of injustice though. Moreover, I think this three-stage model of injustice is vastly over represented in the national conversation.
There is much discussion about the gender wage gap. For the people I follow on Twitter gender inequality is perhaps the salient issue of the day. The gender pay gap is a subtle problem with many contradictory facets. The difference in what men and women get paid for doing exactly the same job is very hard to calculate, and smaller than most people think – though of course any difference is wrong and should be condemned.
Demographic: women, injustice: wages, authority: legislators - all the hallmarks of an ethical problem that fits the template, and much time and energy is spent on this topic. Especially on Twitter.
There is another group of people who experience a very, very large wage gap which is statistically undeniable: poor people. Yet directly addressing the issue of income inequality is uncommon. If the issue of poverty is so clear cut and so large, why is public debate is so dissipated? I would argue that it doesn’t fit the template. Poor people are not a well defined, discrete demographic. Moreover, it’s not clear who is responsible for inequality – we wouldn’t ask our MPs to make poverty illegal. It’s just not such a neat ethical problem as, say, gay bishops.
Another case study is the shooting of Trayvon Martin. It was a big story because it had the right components: a demographic (black people) were subject to an injustice (vigilante shooting) and an authority (the police) needed to address the situation. I would contend that the problem was not racism, the problem was the crazy stand your ground law that virtually gives the go-ahead for exactly the kind of vigilante behaviour that George Zimmerman was perpetrating. Zimmerman was cleared of the charges not because of a racist jury but because he did not break the law.
Racism & sexism are very comfortable topics for politicians
In the case of Treyvon Martin, politicians got a debate they were very comfortable with. First of all, the vast majority of voters agree that racism is wrong. So if you are politician, it’s a surefire winner to condemn a racist shooting. Second of all, there are no legislative consequences – racist murders are already illegal, so there are no policy implications that flow from denouncing racist murders.
Conversely the stand your ground law, which is the actual problem, is likely to divide voters, and has actual policy consequences: any politician who condemns the stand your ground law should try to have it repealed. In my opinion, most politicians would prefer to engage with the race debate instead of the substantive, but potentially unpopular, question of stand your ground.
In the case of the gender pay gap, every sensible person agrees that it should not exist. We already have a law against wage discrimination. So for a politician to condemn the pay gap is easy. The wage gap that we currently experience is the result of social phenomena that are very hard to address through legislation, ergo politicians have done their bit. It’s a great campaign topic.
Wage inequality in general is much harder for politicians to talk about. Rich voters, unsurprisingly, will often not want to see this issue addressed. Any politician who says “I want the rich to be less rich” is in a difficult position: there are many policies that would achieve this, and advocating them will be controversial. Much easier to tackle (or talk about) homophobia, racism, or sexism.
Using history to shape the template
Godwin’s law, that any internet debate will eventually start using the Nazis as an analogy, is a perfect embodiment of the way the template is inculcated through history. Nazi Germany is probably the most extreme example of discrimination by a state. Other episodes include the Civil Rights movement in the US, the Slave Trade in the British Empire, Apartheid South Africa, the Suffragette movement. Certainly when I was at school, these were popular historical subjects. These are all examples where an authority (a government) singled out defined demographics for ill-treatment, even murder. The solution is clear – the authority has to change the legislation or be destroyed. By constantly looking to these past examples of hideous, egregious immorality, we are taught to see the same problems in contemporary society. We are drawing the wrong analogies.
Today, at least in Europe and North America, governments do not support discriminatory laws, and discrimination, which is exists and is awful, cannot be solved by shouting at legislators.
Other historical injustices, which genuinely are analogous to today, go virtually unmentioned. During the long period that Britain was the richest country in the world, a tiny veneer at the very top of society became absurdly rich while most people huddled in slums and got almost no stake in the newly created wealth. The rich miss-allocated their wealth in ludicrous acts of self-aggrandisement, while shaping the laws to make themselves ever richer. The Corn Laws and Enclosures Acts are at least as salient analogies to contemporary injustices as, for example, the Rosa Parks bus protest.
When we learned about communism in school we were taught that one good thing about it was the equality of men and women, as though the equality of everyone was an after thought.
We’re hypnotised by systemic discrimination against particular demographics, but in truth, we’re (nearly) all getting screwed by a break-away set of super rich people sucking in all the resources.
The fact that there is a tiny cabal of City bankers making a fortune from investing the nation’s wealth with no democratic control and no incentive to look to the long term is terrifying, and it wouldn’t much better if they were a gender-balanced, ethnically representative subset of the population.
Many well-remunerated, London-dwelling white collar workers profess their stand against discrimination almost as though it’s a talisman against the accusation that they themselves might be thoroughly implicated in a system which isn’t really very nice.
In some cases I even feel like rallying against racism and sexism on Twitter is just a kind personal positioning exercise to ensure everyone knows that you have political views that are simultaneously strident and completely uncontroversial.
We’d be better to spend less time discussing which pictures are printed on our money and more wondering about where it’s all going.
* Deliberate at a subconscious level, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy