moral-licensing and the case of Lithuania

During the weekend I got acquainted with one very interesting sociological concept that has left me thinking and analysing my own culture for a while. It is called moral-licensing or self-licensing.

Wikipedia gives a suitable  definition:

“a term used in social psychology and marketing to describe the subconscious phenomenon whereby increased confidence and security in one’s self-image or self-concept tends to make that individual worry less about the consequences of subsequent immoral behaviour and, therefore, more likely to make immoral choices and act immorally.”

I easier words it occurs when a person does something positive, for example, jogging for 30 minutes, and then goes on to eat a whole pizza with a huge glass of soda as a compensation. In the person’s mind the exercise discounts the negative action. In other way it may be the “black token friend syndrome”, where a generally racist person hides behind the fact that he/she has one black friend to justify the racist comments (I cannot be racist, my best friend is black…).

I found out about the name of this phenomenon that I am very familiar with while surfing through channels on the TV and accidentally stopping at CNN where Malcolm Gladwell was speaking about the concept. Soon I found his podcast “Revisionist History” (highly recommended!) where he further explained the matter and gave some examples. Those included the former Australian PM Gillard and a famous 19th British painter Elizabeth Thompson Butler.

Now I want to give my own examples from Lithuania, as it is the situation I know best (or I think that I do). Lithuania for me is very well known for its two main problems – racism and homo/transphobia. However, behind both these cases there is moral-licensing.

Lithuanians in general (obviously not speaking for the whole nation) are not the friendliest people towards foreigners, be it Polish neighbours or Syrian refugees. I mean the first mentioning of our country’s name in 1009 is marked by Lithuanian men almost killing a German… Nevertheless, in Lithuania there are some foreigners living peacefully. I may call them “golden-star token foreigners”. They are fully integrated, most of them fluent in Lithuanian, with full-time jobs and a clean porch. Lithuanians love these people! Greet them on the street, write positive stories on the newspapers, and overall are happy with their presence. Yet, this seems to give way to the flood of racist and hateful comments towards foreigners that do not fit the “example” – refugees, because they are Muslim; blacks, simply because their black, and so on… I have read many articles and comments about the unwillingness to let anyone that is not Christian or white into our country, but look “we are not bad, my good neighbour is from Pakistan”.

And, of course, my favourite topic of LGBT+ community. The general hate towards these beautiful people in my country is something that truly breaks my heart and bring shame upon me. Yet, we also have some “golden-star token gays and transgenders”. There are several celebrities – singers, actors, designers, models – that happen to be homosexual or transgender. They are open about their identity, they are not afraid to speak out and people listen to them, people seem to accept their identity without saying it’s only a “lifestyle” or something “immoral”. And having these people on the TV seems to give way to numerous restrictions on liberties, rights of assembly and association. I am not even talking about someone who is even further away from the gender-binary than a transgender person. They are criticised even by the token gold-stars, who in those cases hide behind their identities to justify the hate.

Moral-licensing is a very dangerous matter. The society may seem to be opening up to new ideas and identities through the acceptance of these few individuals, but more often than not after accepting a few the remaining group is forgotten and discriminated even more. Malcom Gladwell said in an interview that is very difficult to know whether the person is a pioneer or a token.

I believe that those “token” people can help others to get into the system from within. As they already have the “golden ticket” they can in a way be the voice and the game changer who brings more representation and more understanding. I would love to see more of that.


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