Saturday, 7 September 2013

The Problem of Equality

Equality is a term we all hear bandied around with great frequency these days; a term that has been the catch-phrase of all those who fight for progress since the Bastille rang with the sound of "Liberté, égalité, fraternité!" Certainly, to be going against equality in any form is a great taboo, a line none dare cross. Yet what on earth does the term actually mean? The more the word is used as a means of making one's position unassailable, the more ambiguous the word becomes.

Equality is often claimed to mean the same opportunity for everyone. This definition, however, can be taken in two very different ways: with the emphasis on 'opportunity', this definition can be read as stating that all should have the same opportunity to pursue whatever field houses their interests. With the emphasis on 'same', however, this means that all must have the same, i.e. qualitatively identical, opportunity. This is a far more radical claim, and, indeed, a dangerous claim. Sadly, this is what the term 'equality' is usually used to denote.

Why is this bad? Let me give a practical example or so, before returning to the realm of abstraction. It is quite common today to hear the claim that everyone's opinion is equally valid. Now, here we have that dangerous word 'equal' again. What people mean when they make this claim is that everyone's opinion (usually theirs specifically) is just as important, and should be given just as much weight, as any other opinion you might come across. But consider this (purely fictional) scenario. In a dilemma about whether a particular car is a safe buy, I ask two of my friends to inspect it with me. Now, one of my friends is a mechanic, the other an English teacher. In regards to the current shape of the car I'm considering buying, I'm obviously going to give more weight to my mechanic friend than to my friend who is an English teacher (perhaps I will trust the opinion of the latter more with regards to colour, or size of the car, or something of the like). The point here is that one opinion on a given question is not necessarily as good as the next, because it may be a more informed opinion.

A second example (really an extension of the first) is found in preschool. I don't attend preschool, nor in fact have I ever attended it, but it is a stereotype that in preschool, kindergarten, and the like it is quite common to be told that 'there is no right answer', because 'everyone's opinion is equally valid'. No right answer?? Of course there's a right answer, for God's sake! Not necessarily in every case, but in the area of education people often learn facts, and with facts there is a right answer. So, while it is true that everyone's suggestion is equally valid, in the sense that everyone has the right to come up with an answer to a given question, some of those suggestions are just plain wrong. And that's not a bad thing. In fact it's a good thing. If nothing is ever wrong, there's no point in improving; a challenge only exists when one might not succeed.

Back to the realm of abstraction. What this radical idea of equality does is it mistakenly takes equality to mean everyone must have the same situation. Yes, this can be used to pull up those who are, in a sense, and for lack of a better phrase, lagging behind. This can also be used to pull down those who are ahead, however, and it is here that danger lies. As the Irish writer Iris Murdoch said, "The cry of equality pulls everyone down". Why? Because we feel it 'unfair' that someone else should have something that in our position we can't or don't have, for whatever reason, and so we pull them down, back into line.

Equality is about giving everybody the freedom to pursue what is good, and what is of interest to them in their own way. What is right for one situation is not for another. Now, I'm not talking about anything in particular, but we can see parallels in the fight over 'marriage equality'. The word 'equality' doesn't factor here, because same-sex unions are already equal under the law. The only problem is, it's not called marriage. This is akin to me and my friend who is Filipino being equal under the law, but me not being Filipino. A controversial example, perhaps, but where's the fun in placid examples?

So this is equality. Those who are supposed to have 'natural talent', whatever that means, are judged more harshly because 'it's easier for them'. Those who struggle are judged more leniently, because 'it's harder for them, poor dears'. That is not equality, not in a true sense. Unfortunately that is equality in the sense we have it today. Those who are good must suffer, and those who are not are exalted.

Orwell was right: "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

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