Thursday, January 5, 2012

On Equality

In recent months I’ve been giving the word ‘equality’ a hard time. I’m taking a closer look at it here today, since it’s central to our sense of what’s morally right and wrong. When we think of fairness, equality is never far from our thoughts. Why?

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.


Debra said...

Quite a few years ago, I started paying closely paying attention to one of my most difficult woman patients.
She was... very very irritating.
And she was desperately obsessed with fairness.
Really, I am not at all convinced that we are hard wired for fairness.
I think that WE HAVE CONVINCED OURSELVES that we are hard wired for fairness, and that is another kettle of fish (is that what we say ??).
Apparently, when Albert Camus received the Nobel prize for literature, he made the comment that if he had to choose between... his mother and justice, he would choose his mother...
Let's do a little substitution act here...
What would you choose if you had to choose between your mother and equality ?
I think my point is so obvious that I don't need to spell it out.
Needless to say, Albert Camus got a lot of flak for that comment in the country which produced the French Revolution.
According to our local telegenic prime time philosopher, Sartre would have chosen justice.
But, as my husband finely points out...
Sartre's mother was not living in Algeria either...

Toby said...

I don't understand. Are you saying mothering has absolutely nothing to do with fairness? Are you saying that fairness is irrelevant to humans and/or mothers? Are you saying motherhood is the opposite of justice, or equality? Because that would be ridiculous.

When I say "wired", I use the word in the context of everything else I say in this post, and elsewhere, as you know. This post is not the only thing I have ever written, it emerges from my work. On that, take this sentence, for example (from this post):

"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."

"emerges from and grows through" "on the whole and over time". I am not saying—and I had hoped this was obvious—that fairness is the only thing that concerns humans, but one of them. Are you seriously suggesting it is not?

How on earth could anyone choose between their mother and equality? Do you mean, 'between your mother and fairness'? What would that mean? Can that question make sense?

Not only are all mothers not wonderful Apple Pie creatures, some commit infanticide, abuse their children, physically and psychologically, and even in fairly 'normal' households it is not a given that every child will want to remains attached to their mother's apron strings forever. It's complex out there. Camus was most definitely not talking for everyone on earth. Should we, in your view, all have an equal attitude to our mothers, say, just like Camus? Or are we all equal in that way, as evidenced by that anecdote, which 'disproves' the examples in this post?

This has been quite a tetchy response from me, not because I am bothered that the world isn't 'fair' (that's not the issue at all), but because you appear not to have considered what I wrote. Yours seems to me to be a 'shoot from the hip' reaction to something I put a lot of thought into. Sometimes that's fine of course, this time it has rattled me. I cannot relate your response to what I thought I said. It's as if you ignored 99% of my meaning, zeroed in on one out-of-context aspect of what others might think when grappling with these ideas, and rejected that in a tone which suggests you are addressing the arguments I laid out. Straw man, in other words.

Debra said...

Toby, I am sorry I made you angry.
My response was not as well thought out as your post.
Camus, as a literary icon, was asked to comment on the situation in Algeria during the colonial war. He was asked to make blanket statements about ideas, and take a political stance when his mother was in the country itself. Salon talk, Toby. There's lots of it on the Internet, on the radio, everywhere. But that concrete situation shows that there are times when we are made to choose between our idea(l)s and individual people.
Your answer, from my point of view, illustrates the problem itself.
I said "choose between your mother, and justice".
Your mother, whatever you may imagine about her at this time IS A FLESH AND BLOOD PERSON, she is not "motherhood", and justice is... NOT A FLESH AND BLOOD PERSON, it is an idea.
Are ideas as real to you as flesh and blood people ?
I HOPE that they are not as real to me, but I'm not really sure.
Toby, I was not accusing you of saying that fairness was the only thing we wanted either. Nowhere in my response do I suggest that. I mentioned that my patient was obsessed with fairness, but I did not say that that was the ONLY thing she talked about.
But I also believe that there is an historical context, and there are REASONS why we are so interested in fairness, and these reasons are not necessarily related to any IMPERATIVE for fairness.
If I had to espouse an ideal, I think that I would espouse the one that each and every man is WORTHY of respect and consideration, and of being listened to politely, wherever he comes from, whatever he looks like, however much money he makes, etc. But I also believe that this respect does not HAVE to go hand in hand with the idea that EVERYONE has to be able to become the president of General Motors, or own a country house, and make tons of money, for example.
This respect that I am talking about is not equivalent to the possibility of being a self made man.
And since it is not equivalent, it is indeed possible to become/be a self made man, have tons of money, a country house, for example and NOT BE TREATED WITH THIS RESPECT.
Just as it is possible for the poor man with nothing to be treated with no respect. (I see fewer and fewer people being treated with this kind of respect these days, in fact.)
The Ancien Regime corresponded to a cosmogony where each and every animal, including man, was in a RELATIVE place with respect to others, and had duties/obligations/privileges from within this hierarchy. This kind of social structure lessens the need and the drive for competition, and when you lessen the drive for competition, you don't have to be so obsessed about fairness, in my opinion.
The push for equality opens up the door for merciless competition, doesn't it ?
And with the best of intentions, we still have a system where we perceive flagrant inequality, and where MUTUAL RESPECT seems to have disappeared.
I STILL believe that we took a wrong turn many many many systems ago, in thinking that we could create POLITICAL and social systems that would guarantee our individual self worth IN OUR OWN INDIVIDUAL EYES.
I still don't believe that anybody can count on the social body for perceiving his OWN worth.
What's a straw man ?
I don't understand this expression.
There are serious implications in our quarrel here, Toby.
Concrete situation number 1 : your kid has done something totally illegal, and should go to jail for it, under current law. You know this. What are you going to do ? Turn your kid in ?
That's choosing between justice and a person, isn't it ?
Those are very hard choices, aren't they ?
(There are some people who will turn their kid in...)
How much do they have to do with what you think about parenting, about motherhood, etc ?
Those choices are ones grounded in emotions, and loyalties, no ?
And they go far beyond what you consciously think about your mother/kid, too, don't they ?

Toby said...

Thanks for a gentler and more considered response, but it still seems to me that you haven't clocked the subtlety of my position.

Choosing between society's idea of my child's act, and my idea of it, would change from situation to situation. It's complex out there. There is also infanticide. And matricide, patricide. Family loyalty is not some rosy absolute. If my child had brutally tortured and murdered many innocents because of some mental problem I think I'd have a lot of sympathy with society's anger. If my child had protested against racial discrimination in the 1950s, perhaps I'd be far more on my child's side. But that would depend on what type of person I was, etc.

There is only information. Choosing between flesh and blood and ideal happens, but only rarely, and when we make stark choices like that they tear us up. We want to be fair, typically. Whose idea of fair we subscribe to, and how we adhere to that submission, changes over time, from person to person, case to case, era to era. But, as I said, there is only information. Flesh and blood is information too, and ideas shape our attitudes to flesh and blood, as flesh and blood shape our attitudes to ideas. I've seen footage of a mother in famine-wrecked Africa not visibly concerned by the death of yet another of her children. My reaction was more emotional, even though a TV separated me from the event. It is my ideas about life, dignity and prosperity that excited my flesh and blood reaction to a TV representation of a flesh and blood event. I'm not saying my or the mother's reaction was better or worse, only that ideas are as embedded in nature and humanity as flesh and blood. It's all information in the end. Be wary of dichotomies. ;-)

I note the ideal you would espouse is very much about fairness at root. As to people making tons of money, it is not its fairness or unfairness that concerns me, it is the long term systemic effects of wide income disparity as evidenced by the data in "The Spirit Level". And, as I say in the post, I don't know what fairness is. We muddle through. But what seems clear is that humans are bothered by fairness, are very concerned with it, and there is evidence which suggests we are wired (to use that red flag word again) to be so sensitized. We will not all turn out, in the complex forming-fires of ongoing reality, to be equally sensitized to fairness (thank goodness!), but history and prehistory both show it is a big issue for us. There is evidence other primates, having mirror neurons in their brains too, are also concerned with fairness. Elephants as well. Morality does not begin with humans.

I agree with setting up systems to encourage in an open way more cooperation and less greed-based competition. But that is about fairness too. I am not at all for nannying everyone to be nice. I am an anarchist at heart and love Goethe's response when asked what type of government is best, "One which teaches us to govern ourselves." Maturity in other words, political, spiritual, emotional. Maturity is what social freedom should encourage and allow in my humble opinion.

A 'straw man' ('strawman' perhaps) is purporting to defeat someone's argument by setting up a position not present in that person's argument, and destroying that instead. In this case it was an unintended side-effect of your shooting from the hip, not a cynical attempt by you to floor me. I was aware of that, am aware of that, but being human, I need to release my tetchiness sometimes. Who knows, maybe one day I'll have grown beyond that. Time will tell.

Debra said...

What you call "fairness", Toby, I call identification.
It means recognizing our COMMON HUMANITY, what we share with another human being.
But for me, that is not the same thing as fairness.
Fairness is an equation for me, the result of an equation way of looking at the world.
Since we agree that the world is very complex, I think that choosing between flesh and blood people and ideals happens perhaps all the time, if we stop to consider the implications of our daily actions, which inevitably reflect conscious and unconscious choices we make.
It seems to me that you are arguing here from a purely rational standpoint, from the point of view of consciousness/the ego (I am using "ego" in the Freudian sense, and it is not an insult to talk about the ego, not in my book...).
Be wary of how you interpret what you see on T.V.
You may know that in death penalty trials, juries are incensed when they don't see criminals expressing VISIBLE REMORSE, for example.
But, we don't show emotion on command, and it is not because we are not showing emotion in such a way as a person in another culture will interpret it in a particular way, that we don't deeply feel certain things.
I don't like the "information" word, Toby.
Just this morning, I listened to a radio presenter talking about the new icon of interactivity.
He said that the OLD word was "communion".
So.... we have replaced the "communion" word with the NEW, NEW SEEN ON T.V., spiffy word "interactivity".
Not for me. Our civilization's desperate writhings to break free from its Judeo Christian heritage despair me.
No "information" for me. And... words that I don't like, I tend to avoid using them. Whenever possible.
Sorry. (In France, the "NEWS" word is "informations"... That's pretty interesting, isn't it ? Why are we so obsessed with... THE NEWS ?)
Those devil words. They are EVERYWHERE...
I told my husband at lunch today that we need to be talking less, and throwing them around less....

Toby said...

You actually think I was judging that mother for showing no remorse? She was exhausted, starving, at the end of her strength. She didn't have the energy to cry, and lived in a situation I can only begin to imagine. I was describing myself as manipulable because of ideas, that ideas are powerful enough to shape and manipulate. And I was saying that that is neither good nor bad. We are talking past each other.

"[Identity] means recognizing our COMMON HUMANITY"

"Fairness is an equation for me, the result of an equation way of looking at the world."

What's the difference? How can we recognize things in common without equating, or comparing? More profoundly, how do we get to a developmental point where we can, or ought to, recognize we have things in common, without being separate egos 'isolated' from one another, unique, yet together in some social grouping which requires compromise and morality, i.e., fairness? How do we get to comparison or equation without evolution and 'progress' (from early life on earth), or change? This is not an issue sheep grapple with, for example. And how do we now, today, 'avoid' fairness in pursuit of something better (fairness is bad, right?), i.e., comparison and recognition of our common humanity? Are you looking for something better? Worse? Anything at all? You appear to me to be seeking something more than just having fun, since you get emotional about the process, as do I. I mean, you obviously care. You care about what is happening to society. You spend energy discussing, get hurt, recover, learn, teach. If fairness is not part of that, I'm Jimmy Rogers.

I don't understand what you are against here, except your own interpretation of various words, interpretations particular to you (I see no important distinction, regarding fairness, between comparison and equation).