The standard literature on this topic distinguishes between equality and diversity, asserting the two notions are not mutually exclusive:
Equality is about ‘creating a fairer society, where everyone can participate and has the opportunity to fulfil their potential’ (DoH, 2004).
Diversity literally means difference. When it is used as a contrast or addition to equality, it is about recognising individual as well as group differences, treating people as individuals, and placing positive value on diversity in the community and in the workforce.
Equality means treating people in a way that is appropriate for their needs. For example, if Michael Flanders wanted to board the plane, it would be no good saying to him, “you have the same stairs as everybody else”. What is needed is a way of getting on the plane that will suit everybody’s needs without showing them up and treating them in a way that is worse than other people.
Equality is all about making sure everyone is treated fairly and given the same life opportunities. It is not about treating everyone the same as they may have different needs to achieve the same outcomes.
Diversity is about recognising and valuing individual differences and raising awareness about them.
And so on. Is this a sound argument? Or perhaps, asked in a better way, is this a constructive position to hold?
In “The Spirit Level” authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett present reams of data which show, very clearly, that all sorts of measures, from inventiveness to mental health to crime, tend to suffer in countries which have wide income gaps; where income distribution is grossly unequal. And as I have cited here before, recent science suggests the human brain is ‘wired’ for fairness. So, for the moment, equating equality with fairness seems, well, fair enough, at least at the level of income (though I’ll conclude this post with two quotes from “The Spirit Level” which expand on this, and demonstrate just how important fairness is to us). More importantly perhaps, it is plain that fairness is simply a big deal to homo sapiens sapiens. For example, as parents we know our children are different, but we try to treat them equally, or fairly.
But fair to whom, and how? To absolutely everyone and everything on the planet, equally? If we take the example of a man in a wheelchair told to use the stairs to board a plane because everyone else does, it seems obvious such handling of that man’s needs is discriminatory. But is airline travel fair from the environment’s point of view? And what is a fair amount of luggage? If rich people are accustomed to traveling with 100 pounds of luggage per person, should the poor pay for this ‘need’ by being allowed less luggage allowance, so that the plane can take off safely, with as many passengers on board as possible, so that the airline can make a ‘fair’ profit? Or am I being unnecessarily awkward?
If we don’t contemplate the practical implications of implementing an idea, we are not confronting the devilish detail. For when we seek equal opportunities, no matter how well we argue our case philosophically, or poetically, we have to translate our words into actions, make them ‘real.’ It is when we start to do this that complexity breaks in. Always have a plan, a backup plan, and a backup for that backup (if time permits!), but the more people we try to please, the less likely it is we can stick to any plan, no matter how well thought through, and the less likely it is that everyone will think the implementation of that plan fair. If we can’t please all the people all the time, can we really hope for a system which delivers truly equal opportunities to absolutely everyone? I don’t think we can, but what sort of a ‘problem’ is this?
Recognising we can’t please all the people all the time, we recognise too that muddling through is all we’ve got. This applies to equal opportunities as it applies to capitalism, schooling, factory work, civil engineering, and so on. It’s complex out there. All sorts of ‘random’ stuff happens that throws spanners in cogs every minute of every day in an endless variety of ways. Yesterday my daughter bought the wrong type of monthly train ticket, which meant my wife and I having to buy the correct one that evening for her next journey to school, then driving to the nearest BVG office (in Steglitz) next morning, to hand in the incorrect ticket for a refund. Steglitz is enjoying a spate of roadworks at the moment, and too many cars have to drive through the borough anyway, so there was lots of traffic, honking of horns, screeching wheels and angry drivers. I would not have wanted to be headed for a meeting. Maybe someone was, was very late, and lost their job through no ‘fault’ of their own. Shit happens. It doesn’t matter how much we want equal opportunities, nor how good our institutions and laws and other systems ‘ensuring’ them are; life’s complexity gets in the way. Equal opportunities can be desired and aimed for, but never delivered. We muddle through.
Even when it comes to something as ‘simple’ as getting everyone who wants to fly onto an airplane, what would this require in practice (I’m not even going to look at purchasing power or environmental health)? What about mentally handicapped people on long flights, screaming, groaning, etc? Even a screaming baby can make a twelve hour flight an ordeal for some passengers. My own daughter, under two years old, screamed non-stop for about six hours when we drove to Toronto from New Jersey. The only thing that would have appeased her would have been to not make that journey. Had we been on an airplane it would have been an even worse experience. How about obese people who don’t fit into economy-sized seats, which are narrow so that poorer passengers can afford the tickets? Should poor obese people pay more? Should we be charged by our size? Should we insist on less obesity? If yes, how? These are irritating questions, but when we strive for fairness, they are exactly the kinds of issues we are confronted with. As David Graeber points out, one person’s rights are another person’s obligations. The right to free speech requires sometimes being obliged to ‘endure’ speech we passionately disagree with. In practice, democracy means sometimes having to go along with things we dislike, maybe deeply.
There can be no lasting balance (change is the only constant), but, seeing as fairness (whatever that really is) is obviously a big deal for us humans, tending towards more fairness is ‘better’ for humans than tending away from it (see “The Spirit Level” for evidence). But again, within which system? Representative democracy? Direct democracy? Technocracy? A resourced-based economy? And how do we test, or experiment with, whole, living societies? We can’t, and yet when you think about it, that’s all we’re ever doing. No one really knows.
When it comes to a fairer society, we are wise to remember that if getting all people who want it on airplanes is difficult, getting all of society to cooperate with our ideas of how it should be is orders of magnitude more so. For naïve idealists like me, contemplating the devilish details is therefore very healthy. While we might indeed celebrate diversity and fight for ‘equality’ without being too conflicted, it is complexity—not diversity in the sense suggested by the above quotes (though diversity and complexity are obviously profoundly related)—which makes the latter so damned elusive. I dimly recall Jacque Fresco saying that the more justice you seek, the more disappointed you’ll be. What happens is what happens, not what ought to. We don’t get to control that. Winds blow down trees crushing families in cars, and that’s that. We are then tasked with dealing with it. Humans flip out, fail, fight wars when negotiation might have been wiser, compromise when proud defiance might have been wiser, and so on. Tragedy will always be with us, and we deal with each horror and upset as we do, not as we ought. And like I say, we are as much a part of nature as weather, and ‘control’—both of self and not-self—is as much an idea as fairness. I’m quite sure we understand neither control nor fairness. As absolutes I’m convinced they don’t ‘exist,’ but as sufficiencies we tend towards and are guided by, I’m equally convinced they are powerful ideas indeed.
As we slowly reorient ourselves into a new relationship with opposites, with Cartesian Dualism and binary thinking, we also, by extension, ‘redesign’ (or re-define) society. As biosocial pressures such as technological unemployment and the end of growth work on us, change how we think, force us from our addictive comfort zones, so we will come to muddle through in new ways, develop new relationships with what is permissible, valuable, acceptable. Part of this, I predict, will be more globalization (internet-, not corporate-based I hope), part will be re-localization. Whatever emerges in coming decades, it will be the highly complex adaptions and reactions to the consequences of the biosocial pressures I just mentioned (and others of course), reactions to those reactions, and so on, that nudge and shuffle us, jointly and separately, wherever it is our jostling, arguing, competing, cooperating and doing take us. And while we cannot know in advance any ‘final’ detail, nor can there be an ‘outcome,’ I feel confident that more appeals to fairness—more intelligent and wiser attempts at fairer systems and institutions—will be both required and desired, despite and in the face of life’s complexity. It’s been this way since forever, of course. What makes me put fingers to keyboard is the depth of the changes required, and the global nature of the challenge. My reading is that both are unprecedented in scale and implication. If we do well, there’s no telling what new wonders we might create. If we fail to adapt wisely, we might well go the way of the dodo, and at least civilization is threatened. But such is true for all species confronted with fundamentally existential challenges. No living system has any special right to survive forever. All are generated and sustained (or crushed) by the momentum they co-evolve alongside and within, generating change as they adapt, or fail to adapt, to change.
Finally, those two promised quotes from “The Spirit Level”:
In 2004, World Bank economists Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey reported the results of a remarkable experiment. They took 321 high-caste and 321 low-caste 11 to 12 years old boys from scattered rural villages in India, and set them the task of solving mazes. First, the boys did the puzzles without being aware of each other's caste. Under this condition the low-caste boys did just as well with the mazes as the high-caste boys, indeed slightly better.
Then, the experiment was repeated, but this time each boy was asked to confirm an announcement of his name, village, father’s and grandfather’s name, and caste. After this public announcement of caste, the boys did more mazes, and this time there was a large caste gap in how well they did—the performance of the low-caste boys dropped significantly.
Jane Elliot, an American schoolteacher, conducted an experiment with her students in 1968, in an effort to teach them about racial inequality and injustice. She told them that scientists had shown that people with blue eyes were more intelligent and more likely to succeed than people with brown eyes, who were lazy and stupid. She divided her class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed groups, and gave the blue-eyed group extra privileges, praise and attention. The blue-eyed group quickly asserted its superiority over the brown-eyed children, treating them contemptuously, and the school performance improved. The brown-eyed group just as quickly adopted a submissive timidity, and their marks declined. After a few days, Elliot told the children had got the information mixed up and that actually it was brown eyes that indicated superiority. The classroom situation rapidly reversed.
In conclusion, I’d say human nature, that hoary old chestnut, as it emerges from and grows through its supporting environments—social and ecological (to separate for argument what is not separate)—means we cannot help but want, on the whole and over time, equality as is relates to fairness. That’s out of our control. This has been true of us since hunter gatherer times, and remains true today. Simple things like shunning and conformity are powerful evidence of this drive, which Jeremy Rifkin calls the drive to belong. Equally, we can never deliver truly equal opportunities or societal fairness because life is simply too complex, and control of all variables to ensure or fix in place desired outcomes is flat out impossible. And while morality is important to me, it is not moral considerations which motivate my thinking, but rather pragmatic (that from a confessed idealist who believes matter is what we can see of spirit!). Equally (to overuse that beat upon word), it is not neatness or squeaky clean cities and societies I seek (mess is beautiful), but wise-as-possible adaptions to change. Maturity, if you like. A tall order for sure, but them’s the breaks.