It is common nowadays to cite inequality between rich and poor as a reason for much of the violence in the world. Why would that be? I used to brush aside such questions with the answer “envy”. Surely, just because someone has more than I, there is no reason I should steal or kill for it. However, as we learn about the psychology of conflict, a clearer picture emerges.
The UK Mental Health Foundation cites studies that have found that living in an unequal society causes psychological and physiological changes. Inequality leads in some to a constant “fight or flight” reaction and perpetual stress. It can lead to violence directly through increased crime (including homicide), and can also create the conditions in which violence festers: less trust, disintegrating families and communities, poor scholastic and work performance and mental illness. The US and the UK, the most unequal societies in the rich world, show the deepest symptoms.
Humans are endowed with the power of sympathy, which means we feel moved to help those who appear less fortunate than ourselves. On the other hand, we also possess schadenfreude, which is taking pleasure in others’ misery. Seeing the misfortune of others who do not threaten our self-worth is a boost to our own self-esteem. The combination of sympathy and schadenfreude seems to make us want to be equal with others (or perhaps a little better), and that equalising our fates brings us pleasure, whether we are helping others rise or watching them fall.
Thus, an imbalance of wealth begets violence. A different imbalance that could lead to conflict, something slowly being recognised by the cognoscenti, is the preponderance of unwed males who cannot find a peaceful outlet for their unnatural predicament. Men in China and India outnumber women by millions. In both societies parents prefer to have boys than girls, and because of infanticide and sex-selective abortion, they do. Economists project there will be thirty to forty million more males than females of marriage age in both of those countries by 2020. Others estimate 60m to 100m women worldwide are missing, meaning that, because they are more likely to be aborted, killed, neglected to death or abandoned, there are far fewer females than males. Unwed young men who cannot have sex, who cannot find mates (called “bare branches” in China), become frustrated and angry. As militaries and other violent groups know, teenage males are extremely susceptible to indoctrination, to blaming others, to channeling their frustrations toward condoned violence, easily legitimised through appeals to god, country or fraternity. Such young men are ideal vehicles for terrorism and war.
There is no doubt that other unequal situations can lead to violence. Apartheid South Africa (violence has not abated in South Africa since then because unequal rights have given way to unequal wealth), just like in many African societies today that privilege one ethnic group over another, are conflict prone because of inequalities of rights. Other psychological studies have demonstrated that humans have a desire for justice that is so strong they are willing to give up what little they have to make things fair and punish those they consider acting unfairly. Anywhere we perceive undue favour for an identifiable person or group, humans might turn to vigilante justice to level the playing field.
In the book Lost Horizon by James Hilton, a thoughtful British diplomat and his companions crash their plane in the mystical Shangri-la, a monastery inhabited by Tibetan monks. The monks’ overriding value is moderation. The novel juxtaposes the diplomat with a restive young man who cannot see value in the monks’ ways of life and thinks only of escaping to the outer world. It also juxtaposes the monks’ peaceful and sustainable approach to the world with a brewing world conflict (presciently, as the book was written in 1933). Moderation in wealth, desire and emotion can lead to peace within oneself and peace in a community. Imbalances and inequalities are everyone’s concern.