Last week we set up the metaphor of a global schoolhouse with nations acting more or less in the same manner as schoolchildren. The G20 was used as our analogous “Classroom G,” divided socially along economic lines—developing countries on one side, developed on the other. Next week we will discuss another group in the global schoolhouse—multinational corporations—and how organizations that transcend geographic boundaries may be the answer to the developed-developing divide. But for now, let’s move from the classroom to the schoolyard and discuss the psychology of cliques—the psychology of global discrimination.
As a social clique, the “Western Powers” have played on the schoolyard relatively unopposed for the past 100 years. They generally make their own rules and exclude most newcomers. Sure, the West may have included nations like Japan or Korea, but only because of economic parity—common developed status. Financial prowess is the basis for in-group membership.
Sociologist would call this discrimination “in-group favoritism“—the concept that people positively view their own group’s members while looking upon outsiders with contempt. In-group favoritism, social identity, stereotyping, system justification—these are what fuel discrimination at all levels, and discrimination has been a part of the global schoolyard for centuries.
Developing countries have many obstacles on the road to equality, let alone dominance. Not only do they struggle to improve their skills of the game (economics), they are often closed off from making the rules or even playing in the first place. The popular kids on the schoolyard may justify this exclusion by citing past support or inclusion of Eastern countries like Japan, but ultimately they will continue to exclude. This justification is called “moral licensing.”
Moral licensing is defined loosely as, “being good frees us to be bad” or more specifically, “past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic.” This principle is behind the justification for bad behavior occurring time and again throughout history.
Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized moral licensing in the first episode of his podcast Revisionist History. In the episode, Gladwell recounts the story of the 19th century British painter, Elizabeth Thompson, who sought entry into the most elite group of English artists of the era—the prestigious Royal Academy, thought to be made up of the forty most preeminent artists of the time. The problem was that the Acadmey had never had a woman member.
While the 19th century Royal Academy felt a moral obligation to allow the most talented artists into their club, they didn’t want a woman to be such a person. Elizabeth Thompson’s fellowship was put to a vote shortly after her painting The Roll Call (1874) rose to fame, and Thompson narrowly lost the majority required for induction. But almost—the fact that she had been seriously considered (proven by the narrow margin)—was close enough to morally justify nearly 50 more years of male-only membership.
Much like the 19th century Royal Academy was largely shaped by historical precedent and pseudo-supremacy, so too are the “Western Powers” of today. China and other emerging markets are said to be symbols of the global shift in power from established G7 economies to rapidly developing nations; however, like Elizabeth Thompson’s denial of acceptance, social barriers still loom over the future of developing countries.
While this seems like a bleak reality for the majority of the world’s nations, perhaps social norms play only a small part in the success of a rising nation. For there’s another role to be played in this schoolhouse, a role that transcends traditional schoolyard games. As a relative newcomer in history, multinational corporations may be the answer to global discrimination—a new paradigm to counter the old. And that’s where we will leave off until Part 3 next week.
Merritt, Anna C., Daniel A. Effron, and Benoît Monin. “Moral self‐licensing: When being good frees us to be bad.” Social and personality psychology compass 4.5 (2010): 344-357.