Images of ‘equality’

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Kneeling ne’er spoiled silk stockings;

quit thy state;

All equal are within the Church’s gate.

— George Herbert, 1593-1633

Academics, politicians, journalists and the media invoke and celebrate the word “equality.” This is understandable; what often is puzzling is their meaning – simply, just what in this world are they talking about?

In my experience, too seldom do our public minds bother to define this term which has diverse meanings. On TV recently, I listened to a confident authority plainly unaware that his several uses of the word “equality” described different worlds. As I sat imagining Adams and Jefferson cringing, I resolved to comment.

The widespread confusion about this basic American slogan has relevance to our system of “public” schooling and its effects on the mind of the child. My references to equality will, of course, relate to human characteristics only, sparing the worlds of animals, mathematics and brute matter.

I see three principal meanings of human equality, the first being a primary attribute of any rational legal system; specifically, it is the uniform application of any existing law to all those persons to whom its words apply. Thus, if “every citizen of Minnesota who reaches 60” is by law to receive a $100 subsidy, so be it; no bureaucrat may cut me out of this benefit simply because I am already rich.

Of course, trouble can arise when, for no good reason, such a benefit (or burden) is written to exclude (or include) some human group, say members of the Chippewa tribe. A judicial vision of some substantive meaning for equality or merely the demand for rationality and fairness in law’s classifications may enter the scene.

There are certain distinctions that are forbidden to legislators, usually drawn from federal or state constitutions – most prominently the “equal protection” clause of the former. But, so long as a law avoids offending any such “higher” legal principal, the egalitarian precept is simply this: Whatever the terms of any rule of law, it is to be applied as written to those who fit its description.

The second meaning of “human equality” is an empirical claim about the world’s races, one intended to advance our appreciation of justice for all, but in fact, I will argue, with the opposite logic and effect. It is the claim of a vocal cadre of social scientists that the races of man – white, black, yellow – are in fact “equal” to one another in some respect that the particular commentator deems important.

Not surprisingly, for professional thinkers, that favorite and crucial quality of the person – hence of racial groups as a whole – is intelligence. Thus, we hear that, at conception, children of each race are on their way to being equally smart, whatever that is deemed to mean.

If, by test scores or other data, there seems to be a difference in acuity ’twixt one group and another, this is explainable in terms of prenatal conditions, family wealth, environment, schooling, etc. It is a plausible, if unprovable, notion. I will assume that these experts have guessed correctly; let race be unrelated to intelligence.

However, about this project to make the races equal, a warning as strong as I can make it! There is serious damage wrought the civic mind by this intellectualist enterprise, which, be it ever so well meant, would have it that blacks, whites and Asians are “equal” viewed as distinct groups. If it be a critical fact about humanity that these groups, each taken as a whole, are equal by this all-important criterion, what is it that we are saying about the significance of the very real and gross differences of intellect among us all as individuals?

If brains are king – humanity’s crucial trait – and that makes the races equal as clusters, what is the implication for the equality of the “common man”? What are we saying of the child who is conceived and born stupid – whatever his or her race?

The plain implication of this emphasis on equality of groups is calamitous. Individual persons are thereby rendered “unequal” and thus, inferior in the human quality that these experts would have count the most. Teachers who stress for their students that races are the same as intelligence are by obvious implication degrading the dignity of individuals of every race.

Ms. Goodheart may assure sweet but stupid Johnny that he is, nevertheless “equal” to his smarter classmates; but how can this be, if brains are the test? Even Johnny can see the problem; and the smarties can see their own superiority.

There is no natural equality of all mankind. We enter this world and remain, disparate and unequal in our material selves, intelligence and experience.

On then, to the third definition: Any claim of our factual equality must resort to the transcendental; else it is incoherent and can, as noted, be self-defeating. For the declarants of 1776, “created equal” was the expression of that reality. Whatever the seeming hypocrisy of the slavers among them, the concept was and remains clear. Eventually, it would help inspire the awakening of the Union to the supreme insult that is human bondage; sadly, it also has allowed later and current generations gradually to convert the term to a pliable instrument for political causes.

But there is something more specific, plain and simple to be identified by this word, a reality that we can honor in this life, one worth stressing to our own and all children. Patrick Brennan and I have long argued that human equality consists precisely – and only – in the capacity of every minimally rational person for normal self-perfection (and, thereby, access to the divine). It is realized in the individual’s response to daily moral problems and puzzles; specifically, it lies in our readiness to recognize them, if we can, and then to search for and undertake what one’s reason can best discern as a correct response.

Good intention and best effort are everyman’s reliable access to personal goodness and its ultimate laurel. For equality’s sake, this must hold true even though our ethical insight may differ from person to person, and some will make more honest mistakes that others. Self-perfection is secure from honest blunders; indeed, they advance it.

Again, equality rests upon our common moral freedom, and every human can exercise it in perverse fashion by rejecting the invitation to seek the good and, instead, pursuing his own pleasures and comfort, whatever the ultimate consequences to himself. As any public school teacher adapting to a purely secular environment may urge, “Follow your own star; find yourself; be free; set your own goals.”

In our society, what that teacher may  lack is the freedom, instead, to tell the student, “Look for the real good, the truly right way; then try to make it happen. Only in this way can you become the Judy or Joe you’ve been invited to be.”

Such pedagogy is risky. When a child hears from high authority that there is a real good that e or she ought to be seeking, it is all too easy for that young mind to wonder who or what made it so; the child is set adrift toward thoughts constitutionally forbidden to the public classroom. We have, it seems, denied our children unveiled consideration of the shared capacity that alone can make the fact of human equality an intelligible idea.