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The Tides of History

October 21, 2013
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For the last century or so one of the themes of Western governance – interrupted, sometimes reversed, but ultimately progressing – has been equality. In the United States (whose history I know best) this theme is fairly easy to see. When the United States were formed only landholding men of the “correct” race could vote, often with additional stipulations attached. These days the requirements for voting are much broader – with a few exceptions any citizen over eighteen years of age can vote. Movements like women’s suffrage and Civil Rights are well-known but Native Americans, immigrants, and children have all also improved their legal status in less clear-cut ways. Native Americans now run their reservations as semi-separate entities from the states in which they are located (rather than having the government run the reservations without significant input from those who lived on them). Immigrants once had to gain citizenship to have access to any number of American opportunities and rights (and even then non-European immigrants might be barred from many opportunities) but now only the right to vote and freedom from deportation substantially distinguish citizens and legal non-citizens. Children have gained a variety of legal protections against parental abuse, including child labor laws. The extension of such equality has gained sufficient force that groups that feel oppressed now appeal directly to this idea of progressing equality without the once-lengthy attempts to prove that they are deserving of equality. The burden of proof has been shifted (correctly, I believe) from proving that people do deserve equality to demonstrating why they don’t.

The effects of this on society have been extremely complex and I will largely ignore them here. More important is this trend and its mythological or religious status. This trend, especially within American liberalism, approaches the status of divine law: the end goal of society is equality. However, equality is a religious belief.

I went to elementary school in a school that also housed the area’s special education unit. Throughout elementary school my peers and I had interactions with other children who suffered from various mental disabilities. These interactions were often quite positive (at some point in one of the later grades I remember being assigned a younger “buddy” with Down’s syndrome who I would visit in his class and talk to him to help him improve his language skills) but they prompted a very natural question: what is wrong with these kids? We were often told two answers: first, we were told the biological answers, the names of conditions and diseases that caused particular mental and sometimes physical affects in their victims. Second, we were told that while a particular child might have some obvious impairment, in the end there was some great balance in which we were equal. The way I always understood this balance was that every person was measured on thousands of different abilities and that when these were all tallied up everyone came out equal. This made a lot of sense for some of the children I knew – they were unable to master concepts anywhere near their grade level but they were loving and kind and you could believe that the credit for this compensated for low marks in other areas. However, the kids who not only could not add one and one consistently but would also melt down in screaming fits to get their own way troubled me more. What secret talent could they possibly be hiding that would make up for their mental difficulties and apparent moral failings?

The answer, of course, is that this “great balance” hypothesis is hogwash. It’s extremely vague (possibly deliberately) and extraordinarily subjective. Where does the grading scale come from? If I decide that no, skateboarding ability does not get weighted equally to mathematical aptitude, what source does one appeal to to overturn my decision? No human society has ever weighted skills like this – some skills and personality traits are deemed important and some aren’t. The grading system for the great balance is clearly religious – it is a philosophical stance (not a matter of tested utilitarian value) about the value of particular things that sets an agenda for one’s life. Other equality hypotheses have escaped this issue. The political thinker Thomas Hobbes proposed a brutal sort of equality: under the right circumstances any person could kill any other and so because every person carried the ultimate veto power every person must be part of the social contract of society. However, this equality does not extend to babies and some invalids who lack the power to kill anyone deliberately even under the most favorable of circumstances. Any standard that is based on clear, unassailable evidence must face a trial rather like Enki and Ninmah’s callous game (one of the earliest written repudiations of the great balance) in which we think of more and more damaged human beings until we come across one who lacks the key ability that would make him or her equal.

In fact, I strongly suspect that the modern humanist claim to equality is religious both in the sense that it is a foundational belief that cannot be arrived at through purely utilitarian principles and in the sense that it stems from a religion. Christianity makes a strong and shocking claim to the equality of all – Christ loves all, Christ died for all, Christ offers all new life and status as God’s children and that this matters so much that it makes all earthly grading systems worthless. While Christians in the modern era have frequently become far too cozy with secular power Christianity has continued to assert that Christ’s offer extends to the slave (and forces reconsideration of his status as such), that Christ cares as much for the faith of the wife as of the husband (and canonizes the saintly wife whose husband attempts to forcibly reverse her conversion), and that Christ cares for the lowly and marginalized with a special concern. This strand, beaten into Western thought, is purely religious: all are equal in God’s eyes. When we talk of souls no one has a more or less important one. I would be very surprised if modern humanism found the origins of its claim to equality anywhere else (no matter how far it has been stripped of Christian trappings since).

This brings us to the first problem with the tides of history. Like actual tides they may reverse. Many movements have claimed that history is on their side only to find that it was not. In 1970 many nations had become communist but few if any had then become capitalist again. Communists claimed that history was on their side and then suddenly it wasn’t. These days we tend to see the remnant of communism as doomed to extinction by the same sweep of history that these communists once claimed thrust them inevitably into power. In fact, history may be more generally cyclical than trending – the natural human tendency to oversimplify things may tend to push any solution so far that it becomes the new problem and is reversed with the reversal now becoming the oversimplified solution.

There are a few signs that the trend towards equality may reverse itself relatively soon (in historical terms). Previous moves towards equality generally involved large segments of the population – women or large minority groups. These days more and more equality movements focus on small, un-concentrated groups. (Concentration is important because a small, concentrated group focuses its encounters with others on the same set of outsiders. For instance, the Hmong people are not a very large ethnic group in the United States but many non-Hmong who deal with any Hmong individuals deal with a large community of Hmong people. For these people the question, “How do I deal with the Hmong?” is important on a regular basis.) Previously many equality movements dealt with conditions that were obviously inherent to a person (like being a woman or being African-American). These days many equality movements focus on groups that may be self-created (since this looks so much like a comment on gay rights I will note that I, as a professional biologist, believe that there is strong evidence for a genetic component to homosexuality). There is also the issue that toleration is a two-way street – I tolerate and accommodate my Indian colleagues’ religious vegetarianism and they tolerate and accommodate my strict Lenten fasting. However, some groups are not tolerant even when tolerated and this lack of reciprocal tolerance can destroy the whole structure fairly rapidly. There are some signs that several components of Western cultures are less tolerant of one another than they once were and this theoretically threatens to dissolve the whole structure.

For this reason I think we should worry about the philosophical underpinnings of equality. If these foundations are shaky they may be shaken apart – no grand historical imperative actually exists to safeguard them. Several streams of more utilitarian thought (including new atheism and libertarianism) appear to be on the rise and it is quite worth asking what would happen if their power grew enough to let them take on the sacred cow of equality. Perhaps a challenge to this doctrine would provoke a strong response but perhaps the strong responses have fallen so far out of favor that they can no longer be mustered to the battlefield with sufficient speed. As Christians, with a strong reason to believe that the denial of human equality is a serious matter, we should worry about any movement that undercuts the philosophy of human equality. (I suspect that most non-Christians will want to be on that boat as well.) As you have perhaps predicted by now the next articles will deal with some specifics.

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