Moral Licensing is a hindrance to Societal Progress
“I was never a pioneer but just a token”
“Evolution is an algorithm. An all-purpose formula for innovation. Through its special brand of trial and error, creates new designs and solves difficult problems. Evolution’s simple recipe [Differentiate, Select, Amplify] is a program for creating novelty, knowledge and growth.”
- ERIC D. BEINHOCKER
As an observer I have noted this behavior of justifying unjust actions but not fully knowing how to articulate this practice, especially in the private sector here in south Africa, until a friend put me on to Malcom Gladwell’s podcast and the first episode gave me a light bulb moment and the emotions of finally having a way to express this observation compelled me to sit down and write this.
Moral licensing can be hard to understand sometimes. In it’s essence, it’s about using something “good” to justify something “bad”, often without even realizing it.
The internet goes on to give easy examples like eating junk food and not feeling guilty because you had a good workout the day before. But Gladwell gives it the context it deserves to accentuate how dangerous moral licensing is, and the impact it has in perpetuating injustices and stifling societal progress.
Moral Licensing introduces “… the strange phenomenon of the “token” — the outsider whose success serves not to alleviate discrimination but perpetuate it.”
This hit home as South Africa is battling with economic identity and therefore failing to articulate a clear vision for itself that is all encompassing and progressive. We continually oscillate between “White Monopoly Capital — the perpetual protection of white ideology and supremacy” and “Radical Economic Transformation — expedient reparation, expropriation with(out) compensation”.
But how did we get here?
Some might say it began in CODESA 2, when the Faustian pact was signed. Where the then government conceded political power but retained everything else. This is where Moral licensing would kick in and the people in power felt morally justified in deliberately excluding us from anything else they were involved in — economic and social activities.
We gave them the government, they can now vote for whoever they like. Now they must leave us alone to get on with our business.
That is what I imagine some might have thought and still believe till this day.
I fought against the oppressive regime — as if that absolves them from future injustices — I voted for the ANC! How can they say I am racist? How can they want me to partner with people I don’t know and trust? People that are incompetent, corrupt, inexperienced and lazy.
You get my point!
When Malcolm Gladwell spoke about the strange phenomenon of the “token” meaning If an industry like mining helps create a black billionaire mining magnate, does that mean the door is now open for all blacks to follow? Or does that simply give the status quo the justification to close the door again?
This is the major bone of contention with the current Mining Charter 3. The industry is fighting for a concept called “Once empowered always empowered”, meaning that historical empowerment transactions that they undertook to comply with the MPRDA and Charters in order to get the new order mining rights should be permanently be credited to them. Meaning that they do not need to do any other empowerment transactions for compliance.
Tell me if this doesn’t sound like a classic definition of moral licensing; or at worst a race, class and social discrimination.
This closing of the door is real.
You speak so well!
We like you more!
You’re not like the others!
All these words have been heard by the underprivileged, marginalized and discriminated at one point in their lives. They preface the true feelings of the speaker — who often stops there and leaves the truth to be implied, unless they are brave enough to fully articulate their irritation or disdain for the particular grouping or sect the “token” represents.
Okay, thank you for the perspective. Now what?
I read this and feel defeated. Where is the solution? Why are you highlighting this phenomenon?
Well, there is no silver bullet.
I write this to share, make aware and create a topic for discourse because the solution is fragmented amongst us. We must volunteer our thoughts to these injustices and thread the meaningful ones together to form a quilt that will cover us through the dark ages and deliver us to the new promised progressive future.