‘Psychological distancing’: why do we hate talking about inequality?
Updated: Jun 10, 2020
Although it is not just us, the refusal to talk about topics deemed ‘uncomfortable’, such as religion and politics, is quintessentially, and ashamedly, British. It has taken a global pandemic for many of the stark realities of economic inequality to be granted centre stage. Coronavirus has exposed many truths in our society, amplifying the health, race and class inequalities that have been a ubiquitous stain on our society for so long.
In Great Britain, the richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth whilst the poorest 50% own just 9%. This is income inequality, and it’s getting worse: between 1984-2013, the top 0.1% doubled their share of the total wealth. Trickle-down economics has been proven false. Just because a pie may be expanding, it does not mean that everyone is getting to eat more of it. In fact, some are getting so little that they find themselves hungry.
The Gini index, seen on the y axis, is a measurement of income distribution. A higher index indicates a greater income inequality. This graph shows rising inequality in the UK.
The UK has an extremely high level of economic inequality when compared with other developed countries, and yet, this remains a taboo subject. Why is it that the rising income gap rarely infiltrates public discourse? Why is it that mainstream media so often rejects talking about the disparity between the billionaires in our country and the rest of the population? Why are children not taught about these explicit issues, and potential solutions, at school?
Currently, we are being called to ‘socially distance’, but for far too long society has been practicing ‘psychological distancing’. Just as distance offers protection from infection physically, we protect our psyche through detaching ourselves mentally and emotionally. We ardently dissociate ourselves from the extent of inequality not only because it is ‘uncomfortable’, but because it presents a social, and even personal threat.
Once we accept the injustice of society, we are forced to look inwards, acknowledging that our own privileged position is unjust. Rejecting the existence of equality of opportunity de facto debunks the myth of meritocracy, or the idea that power is distributed according to merit. If people’s wealth, position in society, or even their job is not attributed based on their talents, we are forced to question our own position and the comforting feeling of entitlement is thrust into jeopardy.
Not only does society cling to the myth that power is distributed according to skills and talents, but we like to believe that we have earned the position that we find ourselves in. Normative desert is the philosophical idea that people are affected by the choices they make. If society were arranged by desert, then it would follow that just as the rich have earned their money through hard work, poverty is a result of active decisions too. This discounts all factors out of our control, such as access to education, disability, and the availability of opportunities in general. Just as we do not live in a meritocracy, neither is society organised according to desert. This realisation has the potential to undermine the justification for our achievements and earnings, so it is no surprise that people desperately ‘psychologically distance’ themselves.
A CEO may earn 100x what one of their workers earn. It does not necessarily follow that they are 100x more talented, work 100x harder, or even, that they produce 100x more output, especially true in companies where it is not the CEO’s innovative ideas fuelling business. Another example is the case of a teacher and banker. The latter salary generally far outstrips the former, yet education has positive spill-over effects on the economy. A person in a mid-level corporate desk job is not producing comparable external benefit to society through accumulating returns to the wealthy. Incomes are not distributed according to how much worth a person is bringing to an organisation or our economy, but by how much negotiating power people are granted by society.
The Great Gatsby Curve shows that the higher income inequality is in a society, the more difficult it is for a person to move outside of the income class they were born into. Refusing to talk about economic inequality exacerbates the problem itself. Desert and merit work both ways, and through hearing repeated rhetoric that those at the top earned their place or are exceptionally talented, those at the bottom are implicitly told that they belong there. The longer that society closes their ears to stark inequality, the harder social mobility becomes, and inequality is even more entrenched into the fabric of society, thus completing the cycle.
Society is grossly unfair and if we are silent – meaning the media, institutions such as schools, and us as individuals - we are part of the problem. ‘Psychological distancing’ is unacceptable. If we refuse to engage in it, our ability to empathise will be awakened and we will learn to understand our own position in society as, at least in part, due to a complex intertwining web of privilege. This acceptance would be the first stage in combatting inequality together. If something makes us uncomfortable, it is a pretty good sign that we should be talking about it.