Earlier in the decade, I was what you’d call a radical leftie, but I’ve been through that phase and come out the other side of it. Now, I write this from my new home, the political centre.
As we hurtle toward another Federal Budget and election campaign, I meta-muse on the writing I did as an undergraduate student earlier this decade. Occasionally, I receive reminders via cringey Facebook “memories” about embarrassingly radical leftist views I held passionately and proudly as a younger person. I’m grateful that some time and space have left me in a balanced place and politically dead-centre on many issues. However, what hasn’t changed are my views on the importance of and mechanisms to achieve social justice. Stripped back, my central thesis is that you don’t have to be a raging leftie, virtue signaller, snowflake or SJW to want maximum levels of wellbeing and least amounts of suffering for the most amount of people.
Painfully irritating rhetoric from my new ideological home, the political centre, touts with trigger happy bitterness that the principles of diversity, inclusivity and equity are the tools of sinister neo-Marxist post-modernists and write empathy off as a useless interpersonal tool that engenders feelings of moral superiority on the part of the protagonist. These accusations seem to miss the point of what these concepts aim to achieve in our societies and in particular, in our health care services. Of course, at some point we all have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and not place responsibility solely on institutions to look after us, yet it is not dichotomous that we should have systems equipped to respond reflexively to people who have varying capacity to reach their bootstraps. Adults are not responsible for the things that happened to them when they were children, yet they are absolutely responsible for fixing their shit up when they get to adulthood. If they happen to need supportive systems to help them with that, I can’t really see why that’s such a bad idea. At the very least, everyone needs equal access to systems that provide support and those systems need to be responsive to the complexity of biopsychosocial needs. Currently, we are not in a space where that access is consistently available or reliably provided.
Surely, regardless of where we sit on the political spectrum, achieving the maximum levels of wellbeing available for everyone would seem to be a good thing. Looking at standard dictionary definitions, equity can be loosely translated into equality of outcome. Equity is a very triggering term for people who believe in merit-based systems because by using this principle, some people are being given unfair advantages, and simultaneously being robbed of their ability to grow, achieve and thrive without handicap or Government intervention. They’re good arguments in one sense because it is true that people tend to grow the most when they suffer and are thrust into uncomfortable situations. However, within this argument for merit-based systems, and equality of opportunity over equity, what isn’t acknowledged is the extraordinary role of luck in determining our starting points, and the glaringly obvious fact that “willpower” is a logical fallacy that doesn’t make a scrap of difference in terms of our social outcomes. Yes, we have willpower in the sense that we are free to follow our desires, but we don’t get to choose what we desire. Knowing this, surely, is a gateway to understanding that some people are born into more lucky circumstances than others. Using the equity principle is a way to redress some of that bad luck. In the worst-case scenario, it would mean that there is an unjust distribution of resources in favour of people who start off from a point of disadvantage, which then leads to a better outcome for those previously disadvantaged groups, thus, perpetuating a cycle of inequality in an opposing direction. However, what fails to be acknowledged in this objection to equity is that we are not all striving for the same outcome, because the outcome of maximum social wellbeing does not look the same for everyone.
Referring to equity purely as equality of outcome and smuggling that concept in as pre-laden with all kinds of aesthetics and values is merely a cheap, lazy and convenient way of trashing a far more nuanced concept. If you look even a tiny bit closer, equality of outcome is actually a very subjective concept, and so many examples of this can be witnessed in the compassion-focused systems we build into health care. For example, the recovery model of mental health is not striving for recovery in the biomedical, return to pre-illness sense; recovery is whatever the person with the mental illness wants it to look like, which may be a completely different picture to what you or I might want, in the presence or absence of symptoms of mental illness. Any incidental parity in equality of outcome comes as a result of the sense of fulfilment and happiness that are the consequences of the lived experience of wellbeing. True equity, in terms of the distribution of resources according to need, would level the playing field so that people would have the access to achieving that social wellbeing. “But Polly”, the centrists cry, “establishing equity will mean that Government intervention needs to take place; that equity will be established through redistribution of taxes.” So, comrades, what’s your alternative suggestion? Philanthropy? As Rutger Bregman unpopularly pointed out at the recent Davos Economic Forum, in case anyone failed to notice, philanthropy isn’t working out so well as a mechanism for eliminating inequality.
Surely the common characteristic among most utopian ideals is an absence of suffering, but apart from that, there are huge differences in what we would want our ideal outcomes to look like. This is where we come to appreciate the concept of diversity. Diversity is out there, whether we like it or not, and more than ever, people seem to be caught up in the pursuit of self-promotion and expression, and very hasty to cry afoul and become offended by anyone or anything who appears to be suppressing or stifling any element of that individuality. Being pathologically self-obsessed and starting battles with people who don’t like you are perhaps consequences of the explosion of appreciation for diversity and individuality, but this is the world we live in. On the other side of that radical and unproductive self-expression, there are countless other individuals who are just as passionate about individual identity, however, just want to quietly get on with their self-expression and ensure that no one is going to ridicule or harm them because of it, and in the best case, value them for it. So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Isn’t it so that when you are quick to judge something poorly about another person, it is often a reflection of how you feel about yourself? Diversity is a mechanism by which we can all learn how to be more accepting of ourselves as we are of others.
If the goal is widespread social wellbeing, inclusivity is important because this is the aspect most closely tied to access. If the end goal is to establish equality of opportunity, to counter the impacts of the bad luck you were born with, let’s firstly try to make sure that everyone has equal access to establish their ideal. Once inclusivity has been established, we can then begin to believe that providing equality of opportunity is the pathway to maximum levels of social wellbeing. It is true that there are mixed views on what inclusivity should look like, and this is in part where the resistance to this concept comes from. Inclusivity based on recruiting or including quotas of disadvantaged groups is another one of those mechanisms, like equity, that often requires an unequal distribution first, in order to establish a ground where equality’s roots can flourish. The merit-based argument and the equality of opportunity argument fall down time and time again here, because they have been shown not to work and the division and marginalisation continues. Inclusivity of women seems to be impacting one particular group more than others—straight white men—men’s rights movements are on the up and seem to be a direct and traceable response to feminism. The less people feel socially connected, the unhappier they are. This is why I’ve always felt it important to include men’s voices in feminist debates, rather than shut them down, because building a bridge to social connection is not made through further-marginalising people who already feel angry and self-righteous. In another example, some great evidence of the value of social connections, conversations and active listening can be found in the work of Deeyah Khan, a Norwegian-born Muslim woman who manages to convert white supremacists. Some people are always going to stay radical…others seriously just want to feel connected.
It’s been well-established in the literature that, broadly speaking, empathy is not useful to adopt as an enduring way of life because of the risks associated with fatigue, and the lack of activity in the verb; empathising is useful only to the extent of perspective taking of the other to acknowledge that suffering is ubiquitous. Once you’ve achieved that, you jump out of the other person’s shoes and get back into your own so that you are not paralysed with feeling, and can make corresponding compassionate actions that acknowledge the universality of suffering. I think it’s possible to be concerned about the wellbeing of everyone in the world, without being overcome with emotion about the plight of every individual circumstance. Though I wish that more people shared this view, I don’t think I’m morally superior to those who don’t think like me. Those who understand what empathy is and its limited but undeniable value are also aware that people who think empathy is stupid have very valid reasons for doing so.
I’m not a leftie. My discipline might be synonymous with leftie politics, but I’ve been through my leftie phase and come out the other side of it; I cross to the other side of the street to avoid people collecting for charities that support the developing world; I am unsupportive of open borders; my friends will tell you that I’m far from a bleeding heart—if someone is having some sort of psychosocial issue, I’m usually the last person they call because they know I don’t like to work outside of business hours; I’m not a good feminist; I don’t believe in participation ribbons for everyone; I don’t think that feelings and intuition substantiate an argument; and I support free speech even if it’s hateful, so that lights can be shone on bad ideas. You don’t have to be a leftie, chained up by any philosophy, philosopher, text, deity, dogma or ideological straitjacket, to care about other people and to desire to build a society that maximises the wellbeing and minimise the suffering of the most amount of people.