Here’s another way that we are biologically wired for being social, but not in a good way. Our brain chemistry responds to grievance (real or imagined) the way it responds to narcotics. We can become addicted to grievance. This is hurtful enough on an individual level. In inequitable societies, grievance becomes a powerful force to drive people either apart or into conflict.
Grievance comes from unfairness. As we know, fairness is innate, even for Capuchin monkeys. We all know when something is not right. If we leave unfairness unaddressed, unacknowledged, it festers into grievance.
Grievance is also a social matter. Grievances spring from interactions with other people, groups of people, or institutions.
Now we know that grievance can be an addiction. As explained in this Politico article, people experiencing grievance can develop a craving for retaliation. That retaliation can take many forms of antisocial behavior ranging from relatively harmless insults and threats to antisocial behavior like gossip to outright violence.
Getting Hooked on Retaliation
Like other addictions, retaliation addiction can spread from person to person. This phenomenon is called social contagion. Social media like Facebook and Twitter are potent tools for spreading the social contagion of grievance and retaliation.
Grievance isn’t limited to individuals, either. Groups within society that experience unfairness, real or imagined, also experience social grievance. This is the mechanism that drives a lot of social strife and even violence. Protests, riots, and violent conflict often spring from a group’s sense of grievance.
Examples of Social Grievance
Social grievance has been front and center recently. Here are a couple examples from the US.
- Black Lives Matter: This movement has a mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities. They have a legitimate grievance over the systemic unfairness towards people and communities of color. Redlining, separate but equal, lack of investment in communities, all are a form of unfairness that leads to grievance.
- White grievance: As this article in the New Republic explains, there a complex history behind the perception of unfairness among white people. Yes, white people overall enjoy more economic assets, more education, and more privilege. But not all white people are the same. Plenty of white people who don’t enjoy high levels of wealth and education feel like they have played by the rules of the system and been burned. In locating a place to fix their grievance, it’s often simpler to blame minorities and immigrants than to question the systems and incentives that keep even them from fair treatment.
How Can Social Goods Address the Problem of Grievance?
Grievance has an easy solution: fairness.
Equitable and universal distribution is key. Distribution is a key component of marketing socials goods. For many years, in many ways, in many communities, the distribution of social goods has been unfair. Some neighborhoods get more parks and pools and trees, better schools and community centers. But when distribution has been unfairly weighted in your favor, getting just your fair share can feel like losing and start your own grievance.
Public education is a social good we can use to teach fairness. We can implement a more emotionally attuned education to install fairness as a core value. We can improve our capacity to recognize, prevent, and rectify unfairness through increasing Emotional Intelligence skills. (Disclosure: two of my clients work for increasing emotional intelligence education in preK – 12 schools.)
As communities and nations, we will progress slowly, if at all, if we cannot escape the cycle of grievance and retaliation. Understanding the dynamic of our time comes down to understanding and defusing social grievance.