In economics, we have a saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. We like to say this because it expresses two important observations. The first is the lesson about “opportunity cost”, which is that the true cost of something is what you give up to get it. If you get a “free” lunch, you may not be paying money but you’re giving up the chance to have lunch somewhere else with someone else. The second lesson is that, as yet, humans cannot make something from nothing. So somebody somewhere is paying for this lunch. Someone made the lunch and their time was valuable, someone provided the inputs and those inputs were valuable. Lunch does not materialise out of nowhere.
This does not mean we cannot create something greater than the sum of the inputs. We know that certain things we make and do provide benefits far greater than the cost of the inputs (a vaccination is a great example). Actually, we routinely do this! Humans are amazing. But the inputs cost something, all the same.
I want to try to convince you that the “no free lunch” concept is something we need to apply to social justice. First let’s agree that as a movement, we have goals, which in general are just lunch on a grander scale. (Actually some of us have days where “lunch” becomes a serious goal, but let’s leave that aside.) Some of these goals are major, system-wide changes. We would like the rate of sexual assault of women to be as low as that of men. We would like the murder rate for transpeople to be as low as the murder rate for cispeople. We would like the incarceration rate for men of colour to be the same as for white men in the USA. We would like our media to celebrate diversity of appearances rather than enforcing a beauty heirarchy. We would like mental health to be taken as seriously in our community as physical health. And so on, ad infinitum.
I wish I could bring you good news on these goals but I can’t. I can only reiterate something most of us already know, but sometimes forget: If these things are going to happen in our societies we are going to have to give up something to get them. And these things are a lot harder to achieve than lunch is.
It is surprisingly easy to forget this truth, because we like to think that the world is going in the right direction of its own volition. You hear people say “the tide is turning” and “things will get better”. You hear them ascribe intent to the universe where there is no intent. We have to stop using the passive voice. If the tide is turning it is because somebody turned it. If things get better it is because somebody made it happen. The world is not on some kind of totally inevitable slide towards awesomeness that we just need to sit back and watch happen. The things we want to happen will not materialise out of nowhere.
Many of these problems need to be addressed at a regulatory level because they persist due to “coordination failures”. That is, we are stuck at a bad place because a single individual cannot make a big difference, and we can’t commit to work together on our own. That’s why we have government at all, to step in and help us get to the better outcome. (I’m not saying the government really does this, it clearly doesn’t do this a lot of the time, but it does some of the time and that’s it’s real job.)
We have good evidence that government could, if it wanted to and was sensible about implementation, actually change things. If you would like to know more about this, there’s a great speech by Professor Esther Duflo here on gender equality and development. Her research shows that introducing quotas for women in local government in India eradicates unconscious bias against women as leaders. Another great example: simply telling young girls that on the math test they are about to take, girls perform as well as boys on average, makes girls perform as well as boys on average.
I do not have such neat examples for how to fix problems that face trans people and fat people and PoC and disabled people. But that is probably due to my ignorance and not due to their nonexistence.
Now these policies are costly to implement in many cases, and they cost a lot more than lunch. As Esther points out, policies favouring women in development are more costly than gender-blind programs that give the same impact but for both genders. Often, the mere fact that these policies will disrupt the status quo or require re-training and follow-up mean they have costs. Also, we are going to have to fight hard to get them implemented because people are ignorant of their own biases, and because people with power don’t like to give it away. That fight is going to cost us too. These policies will be a net benefit overall in the vast majority of cases, but too often we confuse a “net benefit” proposition with a “no cost” proposition. When we confuse them, we get lulled into complacency and think we won’t have to fight for what we want. We can’t afford that.
But not all our goals are big, system wide, total overhaul goals. We also have what I’ll call “marginal goals”. While the system-wide problems persist, we can still work within the status quo to change things on the margin. So for example, we would like to live in a world where people recognise the persistent struggles of oppressed peoples instead of dismissing them. We would like to live in a world where the default response to a person complaining of systematic erasure is not “I don’t believe you, prove it!” but “That’s awful, would you like to talk about it?”. We would like to live in a world where there is justice for Trayvon Martin and where Mark Aguhar will be remembered. We would like to live in a world where, if a white person is told they are being racist, they say “I hadn’t considered that, I’m sorry, I’ll try to educate myself” not “Why did you call me a mean word? You’re so meaaaan! How are you any better than a racist if you are so mean?!?!”
In as far as we ourselves have some forms of privilege, these are things we can achieve by changing our own behaviour. White people, we’ve all been that white person, and the only way for us to get rid of that kind of white person is to check ourselves and check our people when they start mouthing off. Men, same goes for you. And cis people. And thin people. And able-bodied, mentally healthy people. And so on. If you want to consider yourself an “ally”, it is going to cost you. As well it should. Nothing is free, and as an ally you are less downtrodden than the people you are aiming to help, so you can afford to expend your energy and effort here better than they(we) can.
Because yes, it takes effort. Yes, it gets tiring. Yes, if you commit to listen every time someone tells of their oppression you will be committing a lot of time that you might wish you could spend talking about your favourite TV show. Yes, if you promise to check yourself and examine your privilege you are in for a long struggle. If you commit to this path you are in for a lot of painful realisations. Personally I shudder to remember that I once defended “The Blind Side” to a non-white friend. I’m sure she shudders to recall the time and energy she spent convincing me it was problematic, when she certainly had no obligation to do so. But she did it and I was willing to listen and together, we made me less racist than I had been before.
Changing your own behaviour takes time and effort and determination and unrelenting self-awareness. It takes up your energy. That is how you know you are doing anything at all. If your activism is always easy, and if it’s always fun for you, if you never have to give up anything, you might not really be doing that much. Nothing is free, not even lunch, and social progress at the margins is no exception to this rule.
Of course, you are not called upon to compromise your mental or physical health in this struggle. I do not recommend that you use up all your emotional and psychological resources on this fight, you have to take care of yourself – and self-care is a form of activism and resistance in a world that is trying to erase you. I also want to make it clear that it’s not the job of marginalised people to expend their effort educating others on their own marginalisation. Marginalised people are already expending effort just to survive under oppression.
But most of us have some form of privilege, and it is particularly in that area that we need to do some extra work. So while I don’t consider it my duty to explain feminism to men, as a white person I do need to educate and school other white people on anti-racism whenever I can. Here’s the secret: marginalised people don’t give a shit who identifies as an “ally” – it’s all about who actually speaks up and defends people against oppression. Talk is cheap. And you know what they say about the relative importance of actions and words. I’m not suggesting that you should put yourself in constant pain, but if you’re never or rarely expending effort or experiencing discomfort, then that is a warning sign.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, not in social justice and not anywhere. I know most of you know this. But we all have privilege, and sometimes that means we forget it. Sometimes, we all need a reminder that the moment you find yourself thinking “But we’re discussing sci-fi right now, why does Angie keep bringing up racism?” is the moment where you need to choose the more painful option for you. Because that uncomfortable moment where you have to give up your fun conversation and have a sad, serious discussion, is the moment where you can actually change something. Even if it’s just at the margin.