Monkey Business: Why Income Inequality Rankles

Monkey Business: Why Income Inequality Rankles June 7, 2017

40442682 - three wise monkeys or three mystic apes sacred ancient icon
40442682 – three wise monkeys or three mystic apes sacred ancient icon

Dear Mr. Kristof,

In your article in the New York Times, June 4, 2017, What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Fairness, you wrongly blamed today’s societal “dysfunction” and “the fraying of the social fabric” on income inequality. Paradoxically, the source of these modern afflictions is equality not inequality. It’s no wonder you came to the wrong conclusion – apparently the researchers conducting the experiment did, too! We cannot understand the complex ways in which inequality and equality (or more broadly, “difference and loss of difference”) function by simply declaring one bad and the other good. The great social theorist, René Girard (1923 – 2015) recognized the complexity of differences in human culture. By applying his “mimetic theory” to the monkey experiment you will see how it illuminates the true source of both conflict and group cohesion overlooked by your analysis.

Inequality Has Social Benefits

At the beginning of the experiment, two caged monkeys are treated as equals, each receiving the same reward, a cucumber, when they presented the researcher with a pebble. At this point it seems that these two guys have nothing against each other. But when the researcher changed the rules and gave a grape to one monkey and not the other, the cucumber monkey felt insulted. In some cases, he would “throw the cucumber back at the primatologist in disgust.”

What you failed to understand was that the angry reaction was a result of the condition of equality established by the rules of the experiment. Because the monkeys had been treated equally, the introduction of difference was perceived as unjustified, leading to the observed case of monkey-resentment and acting out. It’s because the experimental conditions including no difference between the two that the introduction of a small difference appeared random and unfair.

But if a difference, an inequality, between the monkeys had been established from the outset, the reaction would have been quite different. For example, if the monkey who received the grape had been an alpha male, there would have been no cucumber throwing because the difference in rank would have justified the difference in treatment. Inequality would have mitigated the conflict and violence, not the other way around. The price of the “peace” would have been the unfair treatment of the lower ranking monkey, but that’s how it works in the animal world. No one gives a second thought for the little guy.

The Human Solution

However, the benefit to the entire community of this system of differences is that conflicts are kept to a minimum and easily sorted out when they erupt. Alphas rule. When their rule falters and a new alpha does not emerge quickly, the competition for the top spot can threaten the peace of the entire community. We don’t need monkey experiments to prove that one. The resulting chaos that has engulfed Iraq and Syria as their strong men are toppled and threatened show that inequality cannot so easily be done away with.

If the two caged monkeys were capable of human-like communications, they might have stumbled on the human solution to conflict – finding a scapegoat. They might have been able to restore their frayed social fabric by uniting against the researcher. In other words, they would have been able to shift the conflict from within their little community of two to someone outside who was “other” and expendable. A scapegoat is the most common occurrence of difference used to establish and maintain peace. The scapegoat may be guilty or not, but it is necessary for the entire community to believe that he is responsible for the problems besetting them. Belief is enough for the expulsion of the scapegoat to restore peace, at least temporarily. Until the next conflict and the next search for a scapegoat.

Scapegoating (Unfortunately) Has Its Benefits

To summarize: Differences can function to maintain order within a community. They operate on a scapegoating principle: one person or group can be sacrificed for the greater good. When differences disappear and equality prevails, conflict and violence can spread unchecked, threatening to destroy the community from within. Peace is restored when a decisive difference is found: the community unites against the scapegoat who can be blamed for the conflict and can also cure it by being expelled or killed.

Because of this penetrating insight, Girard has been criticized for appearing to endorse scapegoating. He did nothing of the sort! Analysis and diagnosis are not an endorsement. What mimetic theory illuminates is the uncomfortable truth that human societies rely on false, scapegoating differences to maintain peace. Those with a conscience who recognize this pattern in the culture at large begin to realize the ways in which we may have unwittingly engaged in scapegoating or benefited from it. Others may exploit their awareness by creating group cohesion over against others. Politicians can be quite adept at this.

Antagonism against the 1% is best understood in this context.

Equal Opportunity Conflict

While you quote convincing statistics on income inequality in the US today, I doubt that this is a historical anomaly. While we cannot deny the vast chasm separating the top 1% from the bottom 99, imagine the gulf separating Emperor Nero from his slaves or Czar Nicholas from the serfs or Marie Antoinette from the peasants. These gaps were not only vast by any measure but virtually insurmountable. Hereditary rule came under threat by a rising belief in equality. When slaves, serfs and peasants began to imagine that they were just as good, noble and worthy of the privileges of the wealthy, upheavals spread throughout the world.

Please notice that it was not inequality that led to the revolts, but a growing understanding that there was no meaningful difference between a commoner and a king. The historical anomaly we face today is an unprecedented surge in equality. Today we all imagine that anyone can be a king or a CEO, a hedge fund manager, a movie star or a President. Because we cannot find any good reason why someone should be more wealthy than ourselves, we resent the 1% (and the first class passengers and the highly paid team member, as you noted in your article).

Life Beyond Scapegoating

Allow me to offer a solution to our dilemma with a brief look at a difficult biblical verse attributed to Jesus, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” Weird, right? Jesus was all about serving the poor and sick, the weak and marginalized. Basically his ministry was to the scapegoats of his culture and his message to them was that they were children of God, beloved and worthy despite their poverty and rejection. But what happens to a culture when the scapegoats refuse to play their part? When they come to believe that they are the equals of those who refuse to allow them full participation in the economic, political and religious structures of their society? We get empowerment movements that have swept the globe for centuries – workers’ rights, women’s liberation, emancipation and government by the consent of the governed.

Despite these gains, we have not abandoned the peace achieved through scapegoating. We are continually seeking out new scapegoating categories to replace the ones that are being lost. We cling to racial and gender discrimination, find new immigrant groups to unite against or religions to demonize or enemies to fear. All to create unity through the exclusion of others who will be revealed over time to have been the innocent victims of our addiction to peace through false differences.

Jesus knew that his ministry and death as an innocent scapegoat would undermine the scapegoating mechanism by revealing the false difference upon which it is built. He knew he was inaugurating an era of instability and unrestrained violence because it would take us a long time to accept his way of creating peace and solidarity: accept forgiveness and seek always to forgive. It’s good to remember that Jesus pointedly said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) The next time the monkey in the cage next to you gets a grape, try being happy for him. He just might offer you some of his.

Image Copyright: ekarin / 123RF Stock Photo

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