The deep roots of inequality

My experiences going back and forth between UBC and the Downtown Eastside led me to conclude that poverty and other signs of social inequality and injustice have roots that are even more profound than the social justice or other discourses suggest. After a few years in my role, I began to think with more curiosity about the role of the Downtown Eastside in the larger “social ecosystem.” I began to wonder if mainstream approaches to the problems in the area might be addressing the wrong question. I began to wonder whether all the effort to effect change and all the money being spent on programs and services were not succeeding because there was some way in which the Downtown Eastside serves a useful purpose as it is. In other words, instead of asking the usual question, “What is wrong with the Downtown Eastside?” I began asking myself, “What is right about the Downtown Eastside?”

Then I came across the writings of Ernest Becker, an anthropologist who was a professor at Simon Fraser University at the time of his death in the mid-1970s. Becker wrote several books, among them a Pulitzer Prize-winning book called The Denial of Death and a book published posthumously called Escape from Evil. These two books offer provocative insights that unsettle the conventional discourse on social justice and have the potential to re-shape approaches to the problems affecting marginalized communities.

Becker’s analysis offers a different way of framing the perennial “problem” of how society should deal with “the disadvantaged” or more recently “vulnerable populations,” a term that Becker’s argument suggests is itself significant. Becker’s work calls us to look more deeply at the human condition and the roots of social inequality. The bare bones of Becker’s analysis are as follows. (For the complete argument see Becker 1973 and 1975).

Ernest Becker on the fear of death

Humans are unique among animals in that, as self-conscious beings, we know that we are destined to die. But most of us do not want to die or to even contemplate the prospect of our death. This is especially true in developed societies where the individual sense of self is an increasingly strong reference point and the ties of identification to families, neighbourhoods, ethnic or cultural groups, or other social entities are weakening.

Our awareness of our mortality provokes fear. We try to manage this fear in the same way we manage other uncomfortable thoughts or emotions. That is, we ignore, deny, and repress the fear. But these psychological coping mechanisms only go so far. The fear of death does not go away, even though it may not be at the forefront of our minds. The fear of death leaks out in a number of ways, including attempts to achieve substitute forms of immortality through projects such as works of art, children, charitable acts, scientific theories—various mechanisms by which we create a legacy. The fear of death gives rise to the need for self-esteem—we need to feel worthy of our lives continuing. In addition, Becker argues, this fear is at the root of the creation of culture—we make meaning through language, symbols, rituals, and traditions in order to reassure ourselves that our lives matter.

Another outcome of our fear of death is our tendency to scapegoat others, especially those we identify as “the other”—people who are significantly different from ourselves—and especially those who are deemed to be less worthy of life, e.g., those we consider misguided, dirty, bad, etc. Becker argues that scapegoating is a common social dynamic. It happened in primitive societies where the ritual sacrifice of animals or certain types of people had an obvious link to the fear of death. The sacrifice was a gift to the gods or ancestors that was directed to the flow of power, to keeping the life force moving. The sacrifice is also a bargain with death. That is, I take part in the sacrifice in the belief that these others will die in order that I may live. Further, if I and other members of my social group have the power to cause the death of others, then I have power over death, I can control death.

There are many examples of the scapegoating dynamic in modern times as well, including wars where a nation unites in opposition to a demonized external enemy. Scapegoating is most extreme when we project aspects of ourselves that we want to deny. When we project fears about our own animal nature, our weakness, or our mortality onto the other and come to see this other as dehumanized, dirty, or evil, it is easier to justify the sacrifice.

Becker argues that these strategies for coping with the fear of death have important, sometimes paradoxical consequences. For example, our need to inoculate ourselves against death and our granting of cultural power to material goods means that we accumulate material goods as symbols of our worthiness relative to others. Becker contends that, “(E)conomic equality is beyond the endurance of modern democratic man: the house, the car, the bank balance are his immortality symbols” (1975; 85). If everybody had the same material conditions, these symbols of our being better or more worthy of living than others would have no consoling power.

Even more problematic is the drive to gain self-esteem by fulfilling the heroic myth of one’s particular culture (where one demonstrates one’s ability to overcome death, either literally or symbolically). What might seem like laudable goals can lead to negative consequences, since heroic projects typically require either adversaries to be slain or victims to be saved. The good intentions and deeds of the hero are contaminated by the suffering experienced by the adversaries he/she has defeated or the “vulnerable” or “disadvantaged” people whose misfortune is a necessary precondition for the heroic project.

Becker’s work has been criticized on several grounds, e.g., that it rests on a dualistic ontology that is neither universal nor inevitable (Loy 2002), that its applicability to emerging post-modern expressions of selfhood is limited (Anderson 2002), and that it suffers from patriarchal biases (Mowrey 2002). But many of Becker’s insights have been substantiated empirically by social psychologists investigating what they have termed “Terror Management Theory” (e.g., see Pyszczynski, Solomon and Greenberg 2003). For example, in experimental situations that induce “mortality salience” (an awareness of mortality), subjects produce more negative judgments about other people who are perceived to be culturally different than when death anxieties are not stimulated.


Becker’s work provoked me to reflect on the reasons why the Downtown Eastside has accumulated so much symbolic power in the public discourse and why its problems remain unresolved. Becker’s analysis suggests that mainstream people need poor, sick, and marginalized “others.” Making these others into scapegoats assuages our fear of death by reassuring us that we are not as badly off or as unworthy as these others and so we will be less likely to fall victim to death. The use of the term “vulnerable populations” to describe marginalized people is itself evidence of this dynamic. It implies the patently false claim that people who do not fit into that category are not themselves vulnerable. The liberal heroic project to save “vulnerable populations” and the conservative heroic project to prove the moral inferiority of “these people” so their fate can be justified are both ways of distancing ourselves from people who are strange or vulnerable; they are ways of creating victims who either must be saved or sacrificed.

Becker’s analysis also sheds light on the social and cultural power of the academy. It is the home territory for some of the most iconic heroic projects of the modern era: the lone scientist works long hours in his lab methodically unlocking the secrets of the physical universe; the dedicated interdisciplinary teams of medical researchers strive to discover cures for the diseases that plague humankind so they can save the lives of millions; the gifted teacher ignites a passion for learning among the brightest minds of a generation.

It could perhaps be argued that there are no negative side-effects of the heroic projects of the academy. The enemy to be vanquished is not another person or social entity; the enemy is ignorance itself. But as David Orr, a professor, author, and environmental activist, has pointed out, many of the problems facing the planet are ones that were created by people with university degrees, e.g., pollution, climate change, and iatrogenic illnesses. So Becker’s cautionary warnings about the actual origins and impacts of heroic projects apply equally to the academic domain.

The social justice discourse argues that real change will only occur when the systemic forces that allow inequality are transformed. But this discourse does not take into account what lies underneath the abiding facts of inequality and social exclusion. Becker’s analysis suggests that sustained, systemic social change will not occur simply through programmatic interventions designed to change the external conditions of individuals who have been marginalized or political efforts to alter societal structures. Becker’s work reveals that some of the most significant roots of the kinds of problems evident in the Downtown Eastside are not “out there” among the “vulnerable populations” or even within hegemonic social and economic systems. The roots are very much “in here” within the minds and hearts of also-vulnerable groups who happen to hold social, cultural, and economic power.

This means that those of us with social power have to focus more attention on our own thoughts, fears, attitudes, beliefs, and reactions to others who make us uncomfortable. We need to acknowledge and manage more consciously the non-rational forces within ourselves, our institutions, and our communities. We need to face and manage the impulses we have that may be hard to acknowledge to others or ourselves. We need to pay more attention to cultural factors, e.g., the ways that meaning is created and shared and the heroic projects that we might be trying to fulfill. We need to meet “the other” in ways that reduce rather than reinforce distance and difference.

For more on the problem of social marginalization see the other articles in Being on the outside, part of the Reflections section.


Anderson, Walker Truell (2002) Death Denial and the Dissolution of the Modern Self. In Death Denial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Legacy of Ernest Becker Daniel Liechty (ed) Westport Connecticut: Praeger.

Becker, Ernest (copyrighted 1973) The Denial of Death New York: Free Press Paperback edition 1997; Simon and Schuster.

Becker, Ernest (copyrighted 1975) Escape from Evil New York: The Free Press Paperback edition 1976; Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

Loy, David R. (2002) Denial of No-Self: A Buddhist Appreciation (Appropriation) of Becker. In Death Denial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Legacy of Ernest Becker Daniel Liechty (ed) Westport Connecticut: Praeger.

Mowrey, Merlyn E. (2002) Religious Hero and the Escape from Evil: A Feminist Challenge to Ernest Becker’s Religious Mystification. In Death Denial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Legacy of Ernest Becker Daniel Liechty (ed) Westport Connecticut: Praeger.

Pyszczynski, Thomas A., Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg (2003) In the Wake of 9-11: The Psychology of Terror Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

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