Getting Past Politics for Social Justice

Elijah Ricks, assistant professor of forensic psychology

2018 is a year in which political divides are heated and deep, more so than I’ve seen in my lifetime. These differences in opinion too often lead to a sense of “us” verses “them,” where people are judged not by the quality of their argument or the content of their character, but by the person for whom they voted or the party to which they belong. This sort of all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking is dangerous for everyone.

Although the political left and right often emphasize different principles in their pursuit of a better world, we must recognize that social justice issues are not inherently left or right. For example, as a forensic psychology professor, I have an interest in the criminal justice system and the public’s approach toward our prison population. Although our per capita prison population has decreased over the last decade or so, the U.S. still has the highest per capita prison population in the world. Both political left and right should find this concerning and have reason to find solutions.

The political left generally values equality highly. Therefore, the left should be concerned about prison overpopulation because it is partly due to social problems that disproportionately affect marginalized groups, such as those in poverty, racial and ethnic minorities, and people whose home environments held several disadvantages. Reducing the prison population can be brought about by mitigating inequalities in our society.

The political right generally values individual liberty, constitutional rights and small government. Therefore, the right should be concerned about prison overpopulation because it removes individual liberties, sometimes because constitutional rights were violated, and it is very costly to imprison a person, thus growing government’s size and reach. Reducing the prison population can be brought about by increasing personal liberties (i.e., scaling back what is illegal), ensuring due process, and finding less expensive alternatives to incarceration, such as diversion programs (e.g., veteran’s courts, mental health courts, etc.).

The point is that there are many common aims between the political poles. Just because somebody has a different reason for wanting to solve a problem does not mean that that person’s aims are nefarious, or that person is bad. On the contrary, unifying around a solution, even for different reasons, is not only hopeful, but exceptionally powerful.

Take this real example. The proportion of the world that is in extreme poverty has declined enormously in the last few decades, from about 50 percent in the 1950s to closer to 10 percent in 2015. Although no one is yet satisfied, this is an unprecedented success for humanity. Why has the rate dropped so dramatically? The reasons are an exquisite combination of values that the left emphasizes (e.g., globalization and compassion) and values that the right emphasizes (e.g., private property, free trade). Namely, the left’s aims of compassion and equality can be met through tools that are valued by the right.

When we work together on common concerns, rather than facing each other with scorn or suspicion, we should embrace the diversity of thought and ideas that people of different political backgrounds bring to the table. We must believe that it is possible to solve problems like gun violence, the national debt, automation, pollution and dozens others, while embracing the values of both political styles. Naturally, not everyone will be perfectly satisfied with the outcomes every time, but if we focus truly on solutions rather than political or emotional wins, we can make real impact on the world, as we did with world poverty.

When you encounter someone who does not share your opinion, avoid the gut reaction that demonizes that person. Try to then find what is important to that person and look for common ground upon which to build solutions that can satisfy the values both of you hold. Do not fall prey to the easy, reactive response of immediately dismissing someone’s view as crazy, uneducated or extreme, just because you do not share it. Instead, focus on finding common values upon which you can work toward solutions.

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