The Case Against Equality
Posted on 20 May 2016
I can hear you thinking, “Oh, she’s going to talk about equity.” At least those of you who know me may be thinking that. I will be touching on equity. I’m mostly concerned with how people engage with the concept of equality, such that it becomes tyrannical in its own right.
In Australia we have a concept known as “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. The syndrome describes the situation as like looking out over a field of poppies and if one or two stands taller than the others, those plants have their flowers chopped off so their stems stand at the same height as the other plants who are allowed to flower. When someone works hard and succeeds or has a natural talent for something, others will knock them down “to size”, so we can all feel comfortable with ourselves. In this country the syndrome is directed more frequently at academics and people in the arts, but not so much toward sports heroes.
Intrinsic equality is the scale that can never be fully balanced or satisfied. It’s where equality is used as part of the status game. We are taught to value certain intrinsic characteristics such as body-build, intellect, singing ability, etc then when we don’t feel we measure up, some of us might try to knock others down. This isn’t to ensure everyone’s well being. It’s to even up the status score. It may well be wrong that our society values tall people over shorter people, but it’s not the fault of the tall person that they were born that way. They do not deserve our punishment for that point of difference. Rather we need to educate people to show more respect of one another regardless of height. If any individual is deeply insecure, there may never be anything that can be done that will make them feel equal. In fact they may only feel “equal” when they are dominating. Of course kicking “down” (rather than “up”) in this equation is even more deplorable.
We have more hope of creating extrinsic equality: where everyone has equal access to money, housing, clean water, medical treatment, education, etc. Creating that sort of equality and that sort of general security would go a long way toward giving people the space to resolve issues to do with intrinsic equality. But even extrinsic equality has its balance problems. This is where equity is more valuable. Croatian author Slavenka Drakulic writes about how under Yugoslavian communists the people in her country: men and women, were meant to be treated equally. The results were that giving women feminine hygiene products was seen as somehow giving them more than the men. Clearly the wrong measure was being used.
What we want is a world where everyone has opportunities to participate, everyone shares skills and resources, everyone is treated respectfully, and everyone has what they need to flourish. Some people will need more for this to be possible, such as those who need wheelchairs. Some will need less such as an acrobatic artist may need less than a sculptor to create something of beauty. This will still happen primarily within a range of equality, but it won’t be about sameness since everyone’s needs are unique.
I believe a range of equality will only work when we eliminate both poverty and excessive wealth. I know some will want to only fix the poverty, and feel that will be good enough. Excessive wealth still creates a power imbalance. Respectful treatment goes missing in this equation. I believe those who seek and hold a disproportionate amount of wealth need to be treated for their own form of addiction and emotional disconnection. We are no longer talking about tall poppies here, but mental disorder. You may compassionately treat an alcoholic, but you still take away the alcohol. These people can be treated compassionately as well, but they need to reconnect with the rest of humanity and have limits put on their wealth and power.
I completely agree with Louis CK here, “The only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to see if you have as much as them.” This is a meaningful equality. This is an equality that is connected to compassion not petty squabbling. Let’s give everyone a chance to bloom.
Peace and kindness,