Here's why you get emotional talking to others about justice

Too often, we can only relate to people we identify with, but it's important to empathise with everyone to prevent injustice

Nicola Chan |

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If even babies know what injustice looks like, how come there's still so much of it in the world?

Did you know that babies only a few months old can already tell right from wrong? Studies have shown that very young children react more positively when they see examples of fair treatment than unfair treatment. 

So why then, are so many people still treated so unfairly throughout the world? 

Injustice, according to Dr Liz Jackson, an associate professor of the University of Hong Kong’s faculty of education, is when someone finds themself in a difficult situation through no fault of their own. For example, if someone is treated differently because of the way they look or where they come from.

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When people experience or learn about an injustice, many will feel pity or concern for the person who is suffering. It’s something that Jackson often sees in people who’ve witnessed some form of injustice.

“Some people may feel sad, hurt, or worried on behalf of [another] person,” she says.

This may seem like the right way to react, but what people aren’t always aware of is that they are more likely to feel compassion and empathy towards those they identify with, such as people of the same age or gender as them. 

It's important to show empathy to everyone, not just those who are like you.
Photo: Shutterstock

This has led to concerns that people might be biased when differentiating between justice and injustice.

“For example, If you’re only taking into account the needs of the people from your society or country, many would see that as unjust because justice is about considering everyone’s needs, not only the needs of the people you like,” Jackson explains.

She adds that this is why many philosophers believe it is crucial to “not react too emotionally to situations, but be more rational and think critically about what is right and wrong”.

Letting off the steam triggered by injustice is important, though. If handled in the right way, negative emotions can even become our fuel to fight social injustice.

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“Some philosophers say that expressing our anger [in response] to injustice can be a positive way of communicating that someone is hurt, shocked, and experiencing a bad situation that should be improved,” says Jackson.

Some psychologists also believe that anger can be healthy for society, and can help people to “react against injustice, work against it, and prevent it in the future,” she adds.

However, we should also stay mindful and not let anger get in the way of thinking rationally. 

“Rage can lead people to say things they don’t mean, which is not productive,” says Jackson. 

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People controlled by anger might be motivated to hurt others or seek revenge; either outcome is likely to result in a lose-lose situation, or create a vicious cycle in which more problems are created.

“Hurting someone does not necessarily stop them from hurting you,” says Jackson. “Instead, it can lead to more suffering: they might hurt you back, or you might feel guilty or ashamed of your actions later.”

So what can be done to prevent strong emotional reactions from clouding our judgement or causing more damage? Jackson suggests talking through how we feel with someone in a non-judgmental environment, where everyone feels calm and comfortable. 

Calm conversations with other people can help you empathise and learn their point of view.
Photo: Shutterstock

“Discussing the issue and explaining why it upsets you will help other people to see your perspective, and also give you a chance to see how they might view the issue in a different way,” she says. 

Given that empathy has its limitations, it is best to not assume the other person will feel the same way as you do, she adds, especially if they hold opinions very different to yours. 

Jackson stresses that the point of having a conversation about injustice “is not to say that one person is right or another is wrong”. Rather, it is to help us observe injustice more objectively and respond to it with caution.

Jackson is currently working on a book about the difficulties of understanding one’s emotions, which will be published next year.