Rethinking Equality

Awhile back, I wrote a short piece about equality and marriage. I noted that when the idea that all people are created equal was added to our political discourse, it brought some benefits to the common good. It helped to modify and even remove distinctions between peasant and lord, slave and master, and so forth–distinctions that were frequently abused and worked against justice by allowing those in power to escape its reach when it came to offenses against those under their authority. For example, the idea that a citizen should be able to bring a governor before a magistrate to seek justice was at one time quite novel, but it serves to help keep those who govern in line (while it lasts, anyway.)

But as I pointed out then, good things are often corrupted, and equality is no exception. As Western society became more and more impressed with this new hammer, it began to see every social problem as a nail, and tried to extend equality into every area of life—often to our detriment. For example, equality is harmful rather than helpful in the area of marriage; it exacerbates marital discord rather than resolving it. However, our sense of equality has overgrown its proper boundaries in many other respects as well. Over time, equality morphed from a political tool with a limited range of utility to an all-encompassing factual belief to which all human thought must be made to conform. When this happened, equality ceased to be our servant and instead became our god. Rather than a means to an end, it was treated as something valuable for its own sake which today claims unjust authority over the lives of everyone.

Half a century ago, C. S. Lewis wrote about this transformation in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, an excellent piece of illustrative fiction in which the demon Screwtape describes to an audience of devils the process whereby Hell has worked through modernity to remove from mankind every form of human excellence. Their efforts centered around encouraging the humans to use the word “democracy” as a kind of incantation—not as a term with a clear definition, but as a sound that invokes a particular set of feelings in both speaker and audience. Screwtape advises his underlings thusly:

You can use the word Democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of all human feelings. You can get get him to practise, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided. The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you.

Our colloquial language has changed a bit since Lewis wrote this in 1959. When contemporary Americans use democracy as an incantation, it is usually to generate certain feelings about our military adventurism in the Middle East. However, we do use the word equality in precisely the way Lewis describes. Lewis himself notes the close connection between his use of democracy and “the political ideal that men should be equally treated” which Screwtape sought to use to “make a stealthy transition in [human] minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on.”

Though our parlance might have changed in the interim, the function of this incantation has not. Very seldom does anyone consider exactly what they mean by equality—rarely do we question exactly what measurements or characteristics we suggest are equal (such as our standing before the law.) Instead, it is used to ward off both judgment and discernment by generating feelings of offended entitlement that cry either “I’m as good as you” or, as is perhaps just as common among the social justice warriors who most regularly abuse the word, “he’s as good as you.”

The success of the most poisonous philosophies and movements affecting modern society has hinged on using this magic word to banish from the minds of the unthinking many of the very important and very human distinctions on which civilization depends. The natural consequences of all this willful ignorance are becoming ever more dire as people are trained not to excel in life.

Socialists in their various incarnations use equality to ignore the practical distinctions between the industrious & the lazy and between those who create wealth & those who merely consume it. They chant their incantation of equality over both incomes and outcomes and expect society to fall into line. But if one cannot discern between the lazy and the industrious, then one can neither reward the latter nor train or otherwise discourage the former. Economic excellence and productivity is thereby discouraged and excluded. It should therefore be no surprise that the focus of our economy has shifted from rewarding the production of goods and services to rewarding the mere administration of them. This is not to say that administration is wrong or unnecessary, but rather that it’s sole value is in service to the productive by greasing the wheels of commerce.

Instead, the wealthiest of us are increasingly found among the bankers—those who administrate the wealth produced by others and skim off as much as they can get away with. The largest and most successful businesses tend to be the ones most able to influence the government administrators to provide them with special favors and opportunities. Meanwhile, as Lewis observed even 50 years ago, taxes and penalties meant to equalize the rich and poor are destroying the middle class—the very group of people most willing to make sacrifices so that their children would be better educated and more productive than they themselves were—the very class which Lewis notes through Screwtape, “gave to the humans the overwhelming majority of their scientists, physicians, philosophers, theologians, poets, artists, composers, architects, jurists, and administrators.”

Multiculturalism, another terribly destructive philosophy, makes frequent use of the equality incantation in order to to ignore the distinction between the barbaric and the civilized. The effect is analogous to socialism’s use of equality; it diminishes the potential for human excellence by removing the ability both to reward & encourage civilization and to discourage & punish barbarism. The most common and obvious consequences are found in our schools, where no aspect of American heritage can be spoken of with pride lest any other heritage encounter a corresponding criticism. We go out of our way to honor very troubled societies simply for not being us. This is not to suggest that we have no vices or that others have no virtues, but rather that refusing to distinguish between vices and virtues removes any sound basis for both critique and commendation.

This same idea bleeds into our current conversation on immigration. Any consideration that our nation may not be well-served by admitting people whose intention is to cling wholeheartedly to cultures possessed of dangerous barbaric elements is excluded. Any thought that welcoming such massive numbers of people with no root in the traditions of English common law and limited government that have served us so well could be detrimental to our nation is dismissed by another magic word: racism—a more provocative and ham-fisted version of the equality incantation meant to ward off legitimate criticism.

Feminism follows a slightly different pattern, for it does not obscure the contrast between a social virtue and a paired social vice. However, feminists do use the incantation of equality to ignore the very real and very important differences between men and women. Accordingly, men and women are both inhibited in their ability to pursue masculinity or femininity, for the feminist pretends that there is no such thing as either and expects society to do the same. Instead, they hold up confused ideals of an androgynye that is ultimately mythical, for there are no androgynous humans—only male humans and female humans.

The various social mechanics established to overcome this obvious reality have caused incalculable harm. In order to disestablish a mother’s unique relationship with her unborn child, feminists work feverishly to ensure the authorization and de-stigmatization of lethal violence against the very young at the growing cost of tens of millions of lives. In order to break down various gender roles which have served civilization well for millenia, they encourage men and women to base relationships around a selfishness glamoured by invocations of equality. To provide a relief valve for the predictable consequent unhappiness, feminists established no-fault divorce laws which allows any spouse (and through the biased family court system encourages wives) to walk out on marriage and family for any reason—or no reason at all. Feminism also walked hand in hand with the sexual revolution, which chanted equality in order to veil the moral distinctions between the chaste and the unchaste. The obvious result is that our society has refused to teach and laud the virtue of chastity lest the slut or the wanton feel ashamed, and so we force our children to wander unguided through an increasingly harmful sexual anarchy.

What then shall we do? In light of what has been done under its banner, America cannot proceed with its uncritical and hopelessly rose-tinted vision of an unbounded and undefined equality. At the same time, we do not want to lose the baby with the bathwater by rejecting equality as a very helpful political tool. The balance lies in removing equality from the realm of the vague and magical into the realm of the specific and practical—to cease being its servants and instead use it to serve us. A great example of this approach can be found in our Declaration of Independence. It affirms that all men are created equal, but immediately goes on to specify the meaning of this—“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Within these broad rights inherent in our humanity, we are indeed equal. Furthermore, this is not a humanity of our imaginations that is otherwise void and without form; it is a humanity defined by the context of the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. It is therefore not an equality that erases all human distinctions. Understanding the proper meaning, context, and limitations of the word deprives the incantation of equality of its power.

So do not mindlessly affirm unspecified equality between men and women; instead, affirm that though we are equally human, and equally necessary to civilization in our own ways, we tend to be very different in our sexualities, our preferences, our goals, and more. Affirm the humanity of the members of all cultures, but stop pretending that each culture is as good as the other or that their virtues and vices are exempt from judgment. Affirm the part of human nature that drives us to work, build, and freely pursue happiness, but stop pretending that everyone does this equally well or takes it equally seriously; stop perceiving unequal results as a symptom that something is wrong. The equalitarian priests and social justice warriors among us will inevitably try to undermine our new-found freedom from their god. But when they curse blasphemers with words like racist, sexist, classist, and the like, we need not supplicate before them until the curse is lifted, for there is nothing to fear. The more we understand the true nature and limits of equality, the more we know that their religion is mere superstition that has no hold on us.

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