The kindness of slave-owners
Being a psychology student, you don’t really learn a lot about left-wing politics, or anything remotely related to politics for that matter. We’re mostly just taught to memorise the facts. But recently I had a lecture on intergroup relationships, specifically on this phenomenon called Contact Theory which led me to ponder oppressor-oppressed relationships in the modern era.
In short: contact theory is the idea that the mere interaction between a dominant group and subordinate group can produce harmonious relations.
There have been numerous studies testing this phenomenon, the earliest coming from 1978. S.W. Cook hired a white worker for a railway task, and informed him that he had to co-operate with a black colleague in order to complete his job. At the end of the task, Cook found that the white worker rated the black worker higher in likeability, competence, and even attractiveness (Cook, 1978).
The problem with this phenomenon is that social equality may be achieved, but economic equality is not. Not only is economic inequality perpetuated, but it’s now presented with a smile. The harmonious relationship that’s established merely gives the illusion of equality. In the study “The Irony of Harmony”, Saguy et al. (2009) divided participants into two groups, those with and those without money. The groups were instructed to discuss their commonalities; to encourage intergroup harmony. The group with the money would then distribute as much money as they wished to the group with no money. This study was also repeated where intergroup conflict was encouraged instead of harmony. The results showed that even though a harmonious relationship between the groups was established, it did not result in the even distribution of money. Surprisingly, they found no difference in the distribution of money between the harmonious groups and the hostile groups.
As I sat through this psychology lecture, the immortal words of Oscar Wilde kept echoing through my mind: “… the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves” (Wilde, 1891).
The façade of equality presented when a boss pays you your annual bonus or by social democrats accepting modest wage increases benefits no-one but the ruling elite. The maintenance of this illusion of equality means that the ruling class no longer need to placate the disgruntled plebs since we, under this delusion, have mollified ourselves. This blindfold of social harmony prevents us from seeing the fundamentally unequal structures hidden within society. Peace between the oppressor and the oppressed results to nothing but the perpetuation of the status quo which is, of course, the perpetuation of inequality and oppression.
- Cook, S. W. (1978). Interpersonal and attitudinal outcomes in cooperating interracial groups. Journal of Research & Development in Education, 12(1), 97-113.
- Saguy et al. (2009). The Irony of Harmony: Intergroup Contact Can Produce False Expectations for Equality. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 20(1), 114-121.
- Wilde, O. (1891). The Soul of Man Under Socialism.