"We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all." These were the words of Lord Brian Griffiths, Goldman Sachs international adviser, when he spoke at London's St. Paul's Cathedral last fall. With inequality at historic levels here in the United States and around the world, it's a reassuring message we all might wish to be true.
Unfortunately, scientific research reveals a sharply different reality: inequality is a driving force behind many of our most profound social ills. The Equality Trust reviewed thousands of studies conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the World Bank. Consistent patterns emerged, both between and within countries. Inequality is associated with diminished levels of physical and mental health, child well-being, educational achievement, social mobility, trust, and community life. And it is linked to increased levels of violence, drug use, imprisonment, obesity, and teenage births. In short, Lord Griffiths' claim--despite the venue--was a self-serving fiction.
Shared Outrage and Solidarity
Although there are no easy or quick solutions for reversing today's extreme inequalities and repairing the daily harm they cause, the path forward may be clearer than we realize. Change of this magnitude requires a stubborn, passionate, and broadly embraced commitment to greater equality as a moral necessity. Although regularly overlooked and misunderstood, the catalyst for such a transformation is often surprisingly simple: shared outrage. Indeed, when shared by the disadvantaged and oppressed on the one hand and by those with greater security and resources on the other, outrage can spur the concerted action required to overcome the injustice, insensitivity, and inhumanity that foster inequality around the world.
Recent work by social psychologists such as Emma Thomas, Craig McGarty, Kenneth Mavor, and Emina Subasic (among others) highlights why this is so. Outrage shared between groups that otherwise differ in many ways creates the solidarity vital to forcefully challenging a destructive status quo. This shared emotion is so powerful because it breaks the established boundaries that separate the "haves" from the "have-nots." Outrage over inequality can unite the direct victims of discrimination with those who find discrimination morally repugnant even though they themselves have not experienced it. Similarly, outrage can bring together in common cause people struggling to make ends meet and those who while better off are convinced that it's simply wrong for anyone to go without adequate food, shelter, or healthcare.
What also makes this shared moral outrage special is its collective action orientation--it pushes for sustained engagement against the individuals, groups, and institutions that benefit from inequality and seek to perpetuate it. As a political force, shared outrage takes us beyond the mere acknowledgement of regrettable circumstances in the world. It insists on explanations for what's wrong, and it seeks accountability for the wrongdoing. And the chorus of voices rising up in shared outrage prevents any single group from becoming an isolated target for condemnation or retribution from the powers that be.
In the U.S. alone, there are many settings today that cry out for this shared outrage. Consider a small sample:
**Wall Street's largest banks turn a taxpayer-funded bailout into billions of dollars in bonuses for their highest-paid employees--while millions of working people lose their jobs and their homes. It's not only the unemployed and homeless who should be outraged.
**Health insurance giants add to their bottom line by denying life-saving treatment to sick children, dropping policyholders when they become too ill, and aggressively raising premiums despite the economic hardship facing so many. It's not only those whose health or recovery is imperiled who should be outraged.
**Profit-driven global polluters, their lobbyists, and their political defenders block effective responses to climate change while the poor suffer disproportionately from environmental disasters and devastation. It's not only those whose lives are destroyed by drought or flood who should be outraged.
**Unethical politicians protect the privileged and the wealthy by embracing falsehoods and obstructionism to prevent legislation that would address inequality in such arenas as preschool programs, student aid, worker rights, and the minimum wage. It's not only those denied an adequate education, a decent job, or a chance at a brighter future who should be outraged.
**With support and funding from powerful elites, hate-mongers take to the airwaves and the print media. They condemn, ridicule, and arouse fear and hostility toward minority group members already disadvantaged by prejudice, discrimination, and infringements of their civil rights. It's not only the targeted groups who should be outraged.
The Limits of Compassion
The shared outrage I'm extolling is by no means the only prosocial emotion we can experience in response to human suffering. Compassion, for example, is another common and important reaction--but alone it's not sufficient to promote meaningful and lasting social change. Part of the problem, as demonstrated by the research of psychologists such as Paul Slovic, Ilana Ritov, and Tehila Kogut, is that our natural tendency to experience compassion is quite limited in breadth. We tend to respond most strongly to the misfortune of a single identified individual. Unfortunately, these feelings of care and concern quickly diminish in strength as the number of victims increases. So even though compassion can lead to crucial short-term efforts to help the needy, it doesn't readily translate into a sustained movement. It doesn't truly unite groups in common purpose over time.
In fact, compassion felt toward those less well off actually highlights differences between groups rather than effectively transforming two groups into one. In contrast to moral outrage, which can be fully shared, compassion is a feeling experienced only by the outsider; a disadvantaged group doesn't feel compassion for itself. Moreover, compassion too often finds expression in patronizing gestures. A we-know-better attitude inadvertently intensifies group boundaries by failing to fully recognize the capabilities, resiliency, special knowledge, and equal humanity of those to whom help is offered.
Just as important, compassion does not search for, identify, and hold accountable those responsible for conditions of inequality and injustice. In short, feeling bad for those less fortunate isn't enough. Shared outrage goes much further. It combats illegitimate attempts to blame the victims for their plight. It prioritizes the need for long-term change beyond emergency assistance alone. And it demands accountability for the failure to use power and influence for the greater good.