Moral licensing: I’m not sexist, but…
No offense, but women can’t handle politics.
Sexist? I’m not sexist, I voted for Gillard!
It sounds odd when you read it, but something like this is going on inside the heads of everyone to varying degrees. And in your head, it makes perfect sense…
A great analogy is the ‘closed door’. Imagine you run a prestigious art club that everyone is trying to get into. With a closed-door attitude towards women, the club remains men-only and will pretty soon be called out for being sexist, . But open the door (just once) to a woman, and you can put those accusations to rest. That is the story of Elizabeth Butler and the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
World renowned author Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, The Tipping Point) illustrates the concept with a story about his mother:
“My mother is Jamaican, and she and my father moved to England in the 60’s. Our neighbour, who my mother knew quite well, would always talk to my mother about how outrageous it was that so many West Indians were moving to London… despite the fact that my mother was a West Indian who had just moved to London. [It climaxed] with a conversation this neighbour had with my mother, saying that she and her husband were going to move to South Africa because they were anxious to go to a country that really had their race problems sorted out…”
Keep in mind that this is a white person telling their friend, a black Jamaican, that they wanted to move to a country that at the time was carrying out gross injustices against its black population. Gladwell goes on to say that moral licensing allowed their neighbour to say this to his mother’s face, without feeling ashamed or guilty of it.
Gladwell: “The neighbour felt that they were in a certain sense ‘insured’ against the charge of prejudice, because they had a black friend… Because I’m friends with a black person, I can then say whatever I want about black people, because who can say that I’m biased…”
The act of doing something morally good (i.e voting for a woman as PM, having friends from diverse backgrounds, giving to charity) gives us the license to then publicly or unconsciously hold opinions that directly oppose those sentiments.
Moral licensing in action: Obama v. Trump
Jacob Weisberg, who is chairing the interview with Gladwell, brings up a really good point: how can Americans, who elected the first African American president (and re-elected him), now even consider electing Trump, who would have to be the most racist president to date? “That’s classic moral licensing” says Gladwell. Individuals who voted for Obama are now able to do a full 180 and think, or say to others, ‘hey you know I voted for Obama but it didn’t work out well, and now I might vote for Trump… but I’m not racist’.
You vs. junk food
Interestingly, the same mental glitch is at play when it comes to rewarding exercise or dieting with food. It’s a well-known practice, and explains why many people experience failure. The fact is that we’re more likely to think we ‘deserve’ a tasty snack or bigger meal after having completed a tiring, demanding or unpleasant task.
We feel we’re entitled to some self-indulgent behaviour that we’d not normally allow ourselves without having first done some positive, opposite action. The same thing can be said for sexism, homophobia, donating to charity, and anything else that affects our self-image in some way.
Moral licensing or real change?
Julia Gillard was voted in as Australia’s first female Prime Minister, and sworn into office by Australia’s first female Governor General. It seemed like real change was in the air. But towards the end of her term in office she was the target of misogynistic and sexist remarks by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, which culminated in a courageous and comprehensive dressing-down by Gillard in Parliament house. Despite the video going viral and drawing widespread condemnation upon Abbott, his party later allowed him to replace Kevin Rudd as PM, possibly heralding the end of Australia’s brief foray into female leadership.
On the other hand, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play Major League Baseball in 1947, breaking the racial segregation of the league. For non-white Americans the doors remained open, and many were soon playing for MLB teams.
So how are we meant to know whether something is just a temporary, tokenistic concession brought on by moral licensing or is part of a truly pioneering moment? Gladwell says there’s no way to know. [Cue classic cliché] Only time will tell…
Revisionist History podcast – Ep. 1: The lady vanishes
The inspiration for this blog post
Gillard’s misogyny speech
It’s hard not to get that tingly, uplifting feeling watching this (unless you’re Abbott, who stopped laughing and started shrinking the longer it went on)