Equality Not Uniformity


Today is Blog Action Day. This is the day when all of us blog writers attack a single subject from the various perspectives of our blog themes. This year, the topic is inequality. Generally, we equate inequality with injustice, lack of fairness, and discrimination. I would like to step back for a moment and see if I can come at this sidewise.

I was deeply impacted as a teenager by a short story that Kurt Vonnegut wrote, entitled Harrison Bergeron. To this day, I think of this story whenever I contemplate what makes us equal – or not. Let me share the opening paragraph to give you an idea:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

The plot revolves around two dancers who are forced to dance with weights attached to their bodies, so that they will not over-excel at their craft and, in so doing, they remain equal to others who do not have their gift. Their story is a powerful metaphor for any system where we blindly insist that equality requires uniformity. The story always serves to remind me that – before we talk about being equal – we need a context.

As someone prone to social activism, I recognize that what I want in my life is very different from the scenario detailed in this story. I actually love that we are all so different. I can not imagine that I would ever want to raise myself up by pulling someone else down. I know people who do seek this kind of equality. They are of the “if I can’t have it, you shouldn’t be able to have it either” variety. These people are in a constant competition, imagining that every benefit earned by one person should also be gifted to them. This is the “equality” that Kurt Vonnegut derided so successfully in his story.

However, there is another approach to equality. For example, I expect my unique set of skills to be appreciated and respected by those who share my life. I actively seek equality of opportunity, whether it be in education, job opportunity, access to healthcare, or even the opportunity to provide my family with healthy and safe food. I seek equality of pay, and equality of unbiased assessment in my work. I do believe that equal opportunity requires us to have a baseline safety net for all our citizens. Note that I do not believe that our current monetary system is one where work of equal value is ascribed equal income …. Another area where we need work.

The justice I seek is one of equality of consideration before courts of law. My concept of fairness means that my differences are valued, not condemned. Like the phrase usually attributed to Albert Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

These kinds of equality are worth working towards. It is not about the things I can’t do that you can. It is about the appreciation and respect I get for simply being myself. It is “Namaste.” The piece of the Divine that resides in me recognizes and acknowledges the piece of the Divine that resides in you. If we could live that one word, the kind of inequality I fight against would no longer exist.