It’s only been a few centuries since the idea of equality became a staple of Western political conversations. In that time, it has brought about some substantial benefits. We no longer divide our citizens into peasant and lord or master and slave, for example. Those with power and authority can be brought before a judge and answer to the same law as those they govern. It’s a concept that would be quite novel in many times and places, but it has been effective when it comes to curbing abuses of authority (while it lasts, at any rate.) It’s no wonder that equality has become a powerful political concept. Appealing to it has great potential to spur action and provoke change.
Nevertheless, such power has a tendency to corrupt even good ideas, and equality is no exception. As the West became more and more impressed with this new hammer it acquired, we began to see every social problem as a nail. As time passed, we sought to extend equality and enforce it within every area of life—often to our own detriment. Eventually, we changed it from a political tool with specific and defined purposes to a broad, factual belief to which all human thought and behavior must be made to conform.
When this happened, equality ceased to be our servant and instead became our god. Rather than a means to an end, we deemed it valuable for its own sake, and today it claims unjust authority over our lives.
‘Equality,’ the Modern Incantation
C. S. Lewis wrote about this transformation half a century ago in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In it, the demon Screwtape discusses Hell’s efforts at undermining every form of human excellence through modernity. He wants the humans to use the word “democracy” as a kind of incantation—not as a term with a clear definition, but as a sound that invokes a particular set of feelings in both speaker and audience. Screwtape advises his underlings accordingly:
You can use the word Democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of all human feelings. You can get get him to practise, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided. The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you.
Our everyday language has changed a bit since 1959. Nowadays, when Americans use democracy as an incantation, it is usually to generate certain feelings about our military adventurism in the Middle East. However, we do use equality in precisely the way Lewis describes. In the same paragraph, Lewis himself connects democracy with “the political ideal that men should be equally treated” which Screwtape uses to “make a stealthy transition in [human] minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on.”
Regardless of how the magic word has changed, the practical function of the incantation has not. Although the word is shouted far and wide, we seldom consider what we actually mean by equality. Neither do we question exactly what measurements or characteristics we suggest are equal. Sometimes we mean our standing before the law, other times we mean our virtues, still other times we mean our genders, but we never bother to specify because the specifics have become unimportant to us.
By and large, invocations of equality are merely used to ward off good judgment by generating feelings of offended entitlement that cry either “I’m as good as you” or, perhaps just as common among the social-justice warriors who most regularly abuse the word, “He’s as good as you.” No excellence can be acknowledged lest others feel ashamed or left out.
Overemphasizing Equality Erases Distinctions We Need
Some of our most poisonous philosophies have only managed to afflict America under the aegis of this kind of equality. No matter what our differences may be, we are told that these differences make no difference because we are all equal. Yet civilization hinges on the being able to recognize and judge certain differences. When we willfully fail to do so, the natural consequences are dire.
Socialists, for example, proclaim an idealistic equality of rich, poor, and everyone in between as their rationale for equalizing wealth and income among them in fact. They chant equality over incomes and outcomes and expect society to fall in line. But a broad equality that purports to cover every aspect of economics ignores the very important distinction between the industrious and the lazy—between those who produce wealth and those who merely consume it.
Unfortunately, a society that is either blind to this difference or dismisses it as unimportant is fundamentally incapable of either discouraging laziness or rewarding and training a strong work ethic. It cannot encourage economic excellence among its citizens because it flattens the difference between excellence and inferiority. Equality instead demands the redistribution of wealth among lazy and industrious alike. Accordingly, such a society rewards the administration of wealth rather than its production, for only administration can achieve this venerated equality.
This is precisely how our own economy has shifted over the years. Administration does have a legitimate role to play, in that it aids the productive by greasing the wheels of commerce; but we do not treat it as a mere supporting role. The wealthiest of us are increasingly found among the bankers—those who administrate the wealth others have produced and skim off as much as they can.
Likewise, the largest and most successful businesses tend to be the ones who are better at influencing government administrators to provide them special favors and opportunities. Meanwhile, as Lewis observed over 50 years ago, taxes and penalties meant to equalize rich and poor are destroying the middle class. These were precisely the people most willing to make sacrifices so their children would be better-educated and more productive than they were themselves—the class which, Lewis notes, “gave to the humans the overwhelming majority of their scientists, physicians, philosophers, theologians, poets, artists, composers, architects, jurists, and administrators.”
Equality-Mongering Diminishes Human Excellence
Multiculturalism is another philosophy which diminishes human excellence by making frequent use of the magic word. In this case, that feeling of “I’m as good as you” is used to blind us to the distinction between the barbaric and the civilized.
The most common and obvious examples are found in our schools, where no aspect of American heritage can be spoken of with pride lest any of those of other heritage feel bad. We go out of our way to honor very troubled societies simply for not being us. To be sure, we have our vices and other cultures possess their virtues. Nevertheless, refusing to distinguish between vice and virtue renders us unable to commend the civilized or condemn the barbaric—both amongst ourselves and others.
This same blindness afflicts our current conversation on immigration. We refuse to consider that our nation may not be made better off by admitting people who fully intend to cling to their own culture’s barbarisms. Any thought that we are made worse off by welcoming droves of people with no root in traditions that have served us well—English common law, limited government, the rule of law—is dismissed by another magic word: racism. Like equality, racism is used more for the emotional reaction it provokes than for its actual meaning. More often than not, it is merely another provocative and ham-fisted incantation meant to ward off legitimate criticism.
But perhaps the most destructive philosophy that abuses equality is feminism. Here equality is invoked to obscure the differences between men and women. Human excellence is once again inhibited because men are discouraged from pursuing masculinity and women from pursuing femininity. After all, feminists chant equality in order to pretend that masculinity and femininity are both a kind of cultural illusion. Instead, they hold up confused ideals of an androgynye—a person that is neither male nor female (or perhaps both.) Yet such creatures do not exist. There are no androgynous humans—only male humans and female humans.
Using Equality to Hide Moral Bankruptcy
The laws, customs, and other social mechanics feminists have foisted on us to hide the obvious differences between men and women have caused incalculable harm. A mother, for example, has a unique relationship with her unborn child, but feminists try to erase that difference. They work feverishly to make sure mothers can terminate that relationship, along with her child, for any reason—at a growing cost of tens of millions of lives. They then go a step further to make sure such a blood-soaked choice bears no social stigma.
Likewise, to break down distinct gender roles which have served civilization well for millennia, feminists encourage men and women to base relationships around a peculiar selfishness glamoured by equality. True love—giving yourself for the sake of another—is considered perverse, while living for yourself no matter what it does to your family is considered a virtue.
To provide a relief valve for the predictable unhappiness that follows, feminists sought no-fault divorce laws. These allow any spouse (and through the biased family court system especially encourages wives) to walk out on marriage and family for any reason at all. Feminism also walked hand in hand with the sexual revolution, which chanted equality in order to veil the moral distinctions between the chaste and the unchaste. The obvious result is that our society has refused to teach the virtue of chastity lest the slut feel ashamed. As a result, we force our children to wander an increasingly harmful sexual anarchy without guidance.
Here’s the Pivotal Question
What then shall we do? America cannot proceed with its uncritical vision of an unbounded and undefined equality—not when we consider the cost. At the same time, we do not want to lose the baby with the bathwater by rejecting equality altogether. It has been a very helpful political tool, after all. How, then, can we once more make it our servant rather than our master?
The balance lies in removing equality from the realm of the vague and magical into the realm of the specific and practical. Whenever anyone says that people, cultures, or anything else are equal, they need to be able to answer a simple question: Equal in what sense?
A great example of this approach can be found in our Declaration of Independence. It affirms that all men are created equal, but immediately goes on to specify the exact meaning of this—“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Within these broad rights inherent in our humanity, we are indeed equal.
Furthermore, while people imagine humanity in all sorts of peculiar ways (genderless, amoral, etc.), the Declaration defines humanity by the context of the laws of nature and of nature’s God. It is therefore not an equality that erases all distinctions, along with any sense of excellence. Accordingly, those behaviors, customs, attitudes, and individuals that violate the natural law are not in every way equal to those that conform to it. Understanding the proper meaning, context, and limitations of the word deprives the incantation of equality of its power.
So do not mindlessly affirm unspecified equality between men and women; instead, affirm that though we are equally human and equally necessary to civilization in our own ways, we tend to be very different in our sexualities, preferences, goals, and more. Affirm the humanity of the members of all cultures, but stop pretending that each culture is as good as the other or that cultural virtues and vices are exempt from judgment. Affirm the part of human nature that drives us to work, build, and freely pursue happiness, but stop pretending that everyone does this equally well or takes it equally seriously; stop perceiving unequal results as a symptom that something is wrong.
Most importantly of all, we have to realize that this kind of linguistic magic has no power of its own—only what we grant to it. The equalitarians and social justice warriors among us will inevitably try to undermine our new-found freedom from their god. When they curse blasphemers with words like racist, sexist, classist, and the like, we need not cower before them until the curse is lifted, for there is nothing to fear. The more we understand the true nature and limits of equality, the more we know that their superstition has no hold on us.