The key to ending injustice? Being good at relationships, according to this Harvard-educated psychologist

Abstract illustration divided into two halves: the left side depicts a dark, starry night sky with celestial elements like planets and moons, while the right side shows a bright daytime sky with clouds and swirling lines. In the center, a yin-yang symbol and scales of justice represent balance, harmony, and social justice.

When we look at the various expressions of injustice in our world, such as brutal wars, fascist regimes, mass poverty, environmental degradation, and animal exploitation, we can see that they all share a common denominator: Relational dysfunction, or dysfunctional ways of relating. 

This dysfunction is carried out between social groups and individuals, as well as toward other animals and the environment.

Relational dysfunction reflects and reinforces a particular mentality, which I refer to as the “nonrelational mentality.” This mentality causes us to think — and therefore to feel and act — in ways that violate our integrity and harm the dignity of others. 

Integrity is the integration of our core moral values of compassion and justice. When we practice integrity, we treat one another with respect, the way we would want to be treated if we were in their position. 

Dignity is our sense of inherent worth. When we honor someone’s dignity, we perceive and treat them as though they are no less worthy of being treated with respect than anyone else. 

Violating integrity and harming dignity, on the collective or individual level, leads to unjust power imbalances, as well as to a sense of insecurity and disconnection between all parties.

Think of an abusive relationship. The abusive partner is not acting with integrity, nor are they honoring the dignity of the other partner. 

And as the abuse continues, the power imbalance between the partners grows, as does the sense of insecurity and disconnection between them (though the abusive partner may harbor the illusion of being secure and connected). 

Or consider patriarchy, which conditions men to wield power and control over women and people of other gender identities. Consider, too, a toxic workplace where staff interact in ways that erode their collective wellbeing.

The nonrelational mentality is based on the belief in a hierarchy of moral worth: that certain individuals are more worthy of moral consideration — of having their interests considered, of being treated with respect — than others. 

Unjust or “nonrelational” systems, such as racism, patriarchy, ableism, and speciesism, are all based on this belief. 

These systems place, for example, males, able-bodied people, and humans at the top of the hierarchy and encourage these powerholders to act in ways that violate their integrity, harm the dignity of others, and lead to unjust power imbalances, disconnections, and insecurity.

If we hope to end all injustices — and that should be our goal, lofty as it may seem — we need a foundational shift in how we approach achieving justice. 

And it’s not enough to look only at who is acting unjustly toward — who is oppressing or abusing — whom. 

We need to understand how and why we oppress and abuse in the first place. We need to target the roots of the problem: the mentality at the core of injustice. Otherwise, we’ll trade one form of injustice for another even as we work to create a more just and compassionate world. 

For example, if we work toward justice for humans while disregarding and even contributing to animal exploitation, we’re reinforcing the same mentality that’s caused the human exploitation we’re trying to end. The same (nonrelational) mentality that causes us to harm human beings causes us to harm nonhuman beings.

The nonrelational mentality is also causing our work for progressive change to be far less effective than it could be. How can we hope to challenge widespread injustice if our very movements for justice are plagued by the same nonrelational attitudes and behaviors we’re working to transform? 

We’ve all witnessed — especially on social media — examples of well-meaning advocates for justice espousing nonrelational, toxic communication that often involves shaming those who disagree with their views and driving away those who might otherwise become supporters of the cause. 

And most of us have seen how this same toxicity is a key driver of the epidemic infighting that’s destabilizing our groups working for justice.

Just as relational dysfunction is a common denominator driving all forms of injustice, the common denominator in ending injustice is building relational literacy. 

Relational literacy is the understanding of and ability to practice healthy ways of relating. Put simply, healthy relating involves practicing integrity and honoring dignity.

I’m not suggesting that building relational literacy is the solution to ending injustice, but it is foundational to all other solutions. 

I believe that building relational literacy among advocates for progressive causes is essential to creating the resilience necessary for our movements for justice to succeed, which includes unifying internally and across causes. 

A resilient movement is powerful and impactful; first and foremost, it’s relational. 

As such, advocates feel secure and connected with one another, and power is balanced. Consequently, the movement is internally unified. 

In a resilient movement, advocates’ communication is respectful, which allows them to express differing opinions without fear of recrimination, such as being called out, shamed, or marginalized. 

Advocates are also willing to self-reflect and to assess the validity of their opinions, so they’re better able to develop effective strategies and solutions. And advocates are more likely to stand in solidarity with those from other justice movements.

Ending injustice requires not simply abolishing unjust policies and practices but transforming the way we think and relate. It requires an understanding of the psychology that informs our relationships with others (and ourselves), so we can shift from operating, largely unconsciously, from within a nonrelational framework to living consciously within one that is healthy and empowering. 

If we commit to building relational literacy in our work for social transformation, our movements will be strengthened, and we will move closer to our goal of ending injustice everywhere.


Melanie Joy is a Harvard-educated psychologist and the award-winning author of seven books, including bestselling “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows” and “How to End Injustice Everywhere.” She is the eighth recipient of the Ahimsa Award (previously given to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama) for her work on global nonviolence.

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May 21, 2024 1:40 PM
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