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From neighbourliness to social justice


From neighbourliness to social justice

Building on the Benevolence Pivot to further celebrate and champion Universalism values.
This is a blog by Ruth Taylor and Tom Crompton
Ruth and Tom both work for the Common Cause Foundation.

Most people prioritize concern for their friends, family and community

At Common Cause Foundation, we draw attention to the love and concern that most of us express for our families, friends and communities – in other words, people with whom we are in frequent contact. The Schwartz model of values, which we draw on extensively, defines a group of Benevolence values which includes items such as “true friendship”, “helpfulness”, “honesty”, “forgiveness”, “loyalty”. Values in this group are held to be very important for people across almost all countries for which we have data. 

Following the Schwartz model, people’s values are structured – that is, there are compatibilities and tensions between different groups of values, and these relationships can be shown spatially on maps (see below). Values which are plotted close to one another on the map are more likely to be prioritised by someone at the same time, whereas those that are more distant from one another are less easily held to be simultaneously important. While this basic set of relationships between different value groups has been found to hold across many countries, in both the Global North and the Global South, there are important omissions – for example, to our knowledge the model has not been tested with indigenous communities.

schwartz spatial
Schwartz Value Map

For those many cultures in which the model seems to be useful as a way of exploring the relationships between people’s values, the group of Benevolence values is flanked (moving clockwise in the map below) by Tradition and Conformity values, and on the other side (moving anticlockwise) by Universalism values. 

This reflects the relative compatibility between these groups of values. Academic researchers use the rather unappealing term “bleedover” to describe this compatibility. Experiments – including ones we have run ourselves – find that by drawing attention (even implicitly) to values in one group, people come to attach greater importance to values in the adjacent groups. 

Schwartz defines Tradition values as “respect, commitment and acceptance of the customs and ideas that traditional culture or religion provide the self”, and Conformity values as “restraint of actions, inclination and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms”. It seems intuitive (from my cultural perspective at least) that values items such as “loyalty” (“faithful to my friends, group”) and “responsibility” (“dependable, reliable”) at the clockwise edge of the Benevolence group would be associated with Tradition and Conformity defined in these ways. 

On the opposite side of the Benevolence group, Schwartz defines Universalism values as “understanding, appreciation, tolerance and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature”. Here a person’s concern for their “in-group” bleeds out into wider concern for an “out-group”. One might imagine a continuum, from concern for my friends and family, my community, people more generally, and other species. 

In essence, this implies that those Benevolence values (concern for the welfare of our “in-group”) can pivot in one of two directions. In one direction a person’s sense of their “in-group” softens and enlarges; in the other it hardens and becomes more clearly defined with respect to “others”. 

We call this the Benevolence pivot. Benevolence values can pivot anticlockwise, towards Universalism values. In this case, a person’s sense of their “in group” enlarges and they are likely to express deepened concern for the wellbeing of people who are different to them, or other living beings. Or, alternatively, Benevolence values can pivot toward Tradition and Conformity values. In this case a person feels a heightened sense of the importance of delineating their “in-group” by asserting defining traditions and customs. Moving further clockwise, these Tradition and Conformity values bleed over into a feeling that one’s in-group must be protected from out-groups – and hence Security values. 

The Benevolence pivot, then, is potentially of great political significance. It provides a framework by which socially conservative politicians can build on the Benevolence values that most of us prioritise, into Tradition, Conformity and Security values. Socially liberal politicians, on the other hand, have the opportunity to build anticlockwise from Benevolence into Universalism values.

The Clockwise Pivot

Interest groups which work to deflect public expressions of concern about global social or environmental problems often work to drive public debate clockwise from Benevolence values. 

Consider press coverage or political debate arguing that migrants are likely to take local people’s jobs, local kids’ school places, or increase pressure on local health services, and that migrants present a threat to (for example) “British values”, customs and ways of life.

Such arguments have the effect of deepening an association between Benevolence and Tradition values, and driving a wedge between Benevolence and Universalism values. It is a short step from here into the Security group and heightened support for social order and national security to enforce these “ways of life”. 

Wielding an understanding of values in this way, a person’s concern for the welfare of members of their immediate community may actually become a means to undermine their concern for the welfare of other people, who they are now encouraged to see as part of an out-group, and a potential threat.

Clearly this is a move that’s seen in a great deal of contemporary political debate. For example, racism is fuelled by deliberate strategies to drive a wedge between white working class people and working class people of colour: two groups who may otherwise be expected to establish a strong sense of solidarity. Or climate action is opposed on the grounds that our communities will suffer economically if we take meaningful action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

A fisherman stands in yellow overalls by a harbour holding a rope in one hand and fish in the other. Next to his head reads the words ‘Gutted: Tony’s business has been ripped apart by the EU”. The right hand side of the image shows UKIP’s logo and the slogan “Only one party will stand up for you”.
A poster produced by the UK Independence Party, which campaigns against immigration, appeals to Benevolence values. It features a seemingly avuncular and artisanal fisherman, with coiled rope and one small fish, standing on an ancient quay. The image invokes family, community and traditional ways of life.

The anticlockwise pivot

People working for social and environmental justice aren’t usually very good at working in awareness of the connection between different groups of values. At their worst, social and environmental campaigns may retreat from connecting with either Benevolence or Universalism values, seeking to reframe social and environmental imperatives in terms of economics. Here communications connect with Power values on the opposite side of the values map: values which are actively antagonistic to social and environmental concern.

But even when social and environmental campaigns avoid this trap, they are often still not very effective at building upon the natural resonance between Benevolence and Universalism values. Rather, they often overlook Benevolence values and jump straight to Universalism values, asserting the moral imperative to address social and environmental injustices, while failing to build out from people’s concern for their friends, family and communities. 

Why should the move from Benevolence to Universalism values apparently prove to be so difficult for so many social and environmental campaigners? 

One explanation is that campaigners have come to mistrust Benevolence values precisely because these values have so often been successfully wielded by their political opponents. I remember, when working for mainstream environmental NGOs, the derision that was often reserved for people who campaigned about dog muck on pavements – as though anyone expressing concern about an issue as parochial as this couldn’t possibly be moved by ‘real’ environmental threats such as climate change. 

Here’s a second possible explanation. Most people, regardless of political orientation, tend to underestimate the importance that our fellow citizens place on Benevolence values. But this misperception is particularly pronounced among people who self-identify as socially liberal. If a typical environmental campaigner self-identifies as socially liberal, then he or she is also more likely to mistakenly believe that an ‘average person’ privileges concern about money and public image above community. Why, given this misperception, would such a campaigner seek to forge a connection between community and a global environmental threat?

Whatever the reason for this oversight, it is possible to “bridge” from Benevolence to Universalism values. Doing so can generate moving and resonant communications – testimony to the compatibility of these two value groups. See, for example, this powerful video produced by People Like Us and Mums 4 Refugees in Australia. The video begins by connecting with Benevolence values (the love and appreciation that most of us feel towards our mothers) and then pivots toward Universalism values (empathy for refugees and asylum seekers held in detention centres).


Keyboards have been worn out writing about the outpouring of community concern and neighbourliness that we are seeing during the coronavirus pandemic. 

How does this map onto the Benevolence and Universalism values groups?

A great deal of this compassionate response seems to be motivated by Benevolence values – care for our loved ones, the vulnerable in our communities, and the frontline workers who are working to protect us, our families and our friends. 

Covid-19 Face Mask Graffiti, Unsplash.

The point at which these Benevolence values have begun to “bleed over” into Universalism values is often the point where the debate – at least here in the UK – has become more contested. A xenophobic and nationalist government can only survive if it is successful in establishing and maintaining this split, and the UK government has risked a great deal of political capital in trying to hold these two groups of values apart. It is not a natural split – it requires an ongoing investment of energy by government spokespeople and sympathetic media in order to maintain it.

Consider, for example, the NHS’s reliance upon migrant staff. Here’s a point at which our Benevolence values (concern for those in our communities who are sick) become aligned with Universalism values (concern for the welfare of migrants). In a particularly conspicuous failure to read the public mood, the UK government tried to insist that migrants working for the NHS should have to continue to pay a surcharge in order to access the medical care that they were helping to provide to others. The government strived to hold Benevolence and Universalism values apart from one another, but on this occasion – unlike in so many other instances – it failed.

Black Lives Matter

Clearly, the success of the Black Lives Matter movement is attributable to the tireless work of many Black activists over many years. But given an understanding of the relationship between Benevolence and Universalism values, it seems possible that widespread public expressions of support for the Black Lives Matter movement could have been further strengthened at this time by the particular salience of Benevolence values under the coronavirus pandemic, which would have created a different context in which messages about racism were received. 

Black Lives Matter protest held in London in 2020, Unsplash.

People from all communities were provided an opportunity to make a connection (consciously or otherwise) between the concern for other people struggling under COVID (something that had preoccupied them for months during the pandemic) and concern for other people who are oppressed by structural racism.

Before the pandemic, the people comprising these two groups would be seen by many white people living in the UK as very different from one another. As a result of a worldview cultivated and upheld by both the media and structural racism, one group would be seen as an in-group – their family, friends and others like them struggling under “lockdown”; the other an out-group – people of colour often living elsewhere. But those perceived differences may have been eroded by a bleed-over between Benevolence and Universalism values, perhaps made more likely by the salience that Benevolence values have had in recent months.

Maintaining the shift

If recent months have marked a qualitative shift in people’s openness to experience emotionally the strong resonances between Benevolence and Universalism values, even in the face of divisive political debate and media coverage, how can this shift be maintained?

One lesson, surely, is for people, networks, and organisations working for social justice to begin to communicate more consciously in ways that deepen our emotional awareness of the resonances between Benevolence and Universalism values – taking communications of the kind produced by People Like Us and Mums 4 Refugees (above) as an example of how this can be achieved. It would be possible, for example, to build on the deepened relationship that many people experienced with their immediate family under “lockdown” in order to highlight the UK government’s inhumane refusal to allow child refugees in the UK to be reunited with their families. 

Campaigners for social justice would do well to embrace the potential to build on Benevolence values, and to develop a fluency in achieving this. The alternative is a capitulation. It would be to accept that their political opponents have captured these values. And that would be an admission of hopelessness. 

Common Cause Foundation will be running a morning workshop on the Benevolence Pivot at 9am BST on Thursday 27th August. Places are free. If you would like to participate, please book your place here.

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