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Questioning equality

 André Gounelle

Translation Louise Thunin


No one escapes inequality. Mother Nature makes us big and small, smart and foolish, strong and weak, beautiful and homely, healthy and sickly. She doesn’t spread agility, cleverness or sensitivity around equally. She makes a distinction between sexes and she gives us different hair, eye and skin colors. She is fundamentally unequal.


The dictatorship of inequality


Human societies are structurally hierarchical. We do not all occupy an identically important position. Some of us have more power, money or prestige and live better than others. The family we are born into, the circumstances and opportunitieses that allow us to acquire skills , our fortune, and any number of other factors, where luck and and chance often play a greater part than work and aptitudes, cause considerable disparities.

The Declaration of Human Rights of 1789, far from condemning existng social distinctions, recognizes their legitimacy when they correspond to « public utility » (article 1) and ratify « capacity », « virtues » and « talents » (article 6). Rather than establish equality, the Declaration justifies inequality on condition it has its source elsewhere than in inherited privilege. It does not forbid the supremacy of a few, but it requires this to be founded on personal qualities and contribution to society and not on birth or divine election.

Inequality is a dictatorship to the extent that it imposes itself on us and constrains us. This observation has fueled pleas for the defence of wrong causes ; it has nourished the arguments of the royalist adversaries of democracy, of the partisans of Western colonialism, of nazis whose goal was the extermination of so-called « inferior races » (Jews and Slavs). Others, on the contrary, have tried to right or to lessen imbalances, for example by establishing progressive income taxes, which attempt a slight redistribution of wealth, or by preventing the French Health System from practicing « two-speed » medicine, too unfavorable to those who cannot afford to pay.


The terrorism of equalitarianism


         Human beings, writes Tocqueville (1805-1859), « have an ardent, insatiable, eternal and invincible passion for equality », far superior to the one they have for freedom. They have great trouble accepting the dictatorship of inequality. Therefore, they are attracted by an exaggerated equalitarianism that confuses equality with uniformity and demands that we ignore, if not eliminate, whatever differentiates us from one another. Being equal comes down to being the same in everything. Thus, when a mayor attempted to estimate, according to first names, the number of Muslim students in his town school system, he was accused of disrespecting the principles of the Republic. My intention is not to defend him and I understand that a procedure which may end in discrimination is worrisome. Nonetheless, it remains true that there are differences of origin, culture and religion among the citizens of the same town. Ignoring these will not make them go away and researching them can provide the means for efficient action in the service of all concerned.

The Reign of Terror is a sinister illustration of the wrong turns that threaten equalitarianism. In 1793, the French revolutionaries (who called the guillotine « the scythe of equality ») sang :

We must shorten the giants

And make the short taller

All the same height:

There is true happiness.

This ditty reminds us of Procrustes, the ancient Greek bandit, who stretched out or shrank his victims to fit the size of his iron bedstead. We don’t reach happiness this way but rather horror. Beyond this excessiveness, universalism always carries with it it the temptation of totaliarianism. It tends to see particularities and differences as causes of inequality that need to be eliminated. Although generous in its principles, it becomes oppressive through its desire to even everything out. Yet human beings are not robots nor assembly-line manufactured objects with no distinctions. They have individuality and specifics that exclude absolute resemblance. They are neither interchangeable nor equivalent. Far from seeing in this misfortune or injustice, we must consider these disparities as positive. They make each of us a unique person ; they allow for the wealth of exchange and the vitalityof human communities. Popular wisdom porclaims death « the great equalizer. » This is true ; making everyone equal suppresses life and can only apply to inert things or beings.


Viable equality


         So then, how must we understand the term « equality » and the ideal it stands for ?

1- It does not mean that we are or should all be the same. It points to the way in which the State needs to behave towards us. The Republic establishes equality when it places the rich and the poor, the famous and the anonymous,   leaders and led, men and women, black and white, under the same laws. These laws are not to be enforced blindly but, as Paul Ricoeur says, they must « treat similar cases in similar ways. » Ever since Aristotle,  «  arithmetic » equality (which recognizes no differences between people and situations) and « proportional » (which treats each person by taking into account what he/she is). Arithmetic equality consists, for example, in putting all the children from the same neighborhood in the same class. Proportional equality would involve adapting the curriculum to the needs of those whose mother tongue is not French. Between these two methods, each of which has its drawbacks, compromise, practically speaking, is often sought.

2 It asserts the dignity of all human beings who, in spite of their social or physical differences, all have equal value as individuals and the right to equal respect. Even before republicans, the Puritans had emphasized this. They established a gradation of human activities : according to them, that of preacher was at the top of the ladder and that of farmhand was at the bottom. But they drew no conclusions about a personal hierarchy. The preacher and the farmhand were morally and spiritually equal. Socially, they have the right to the same praise and rewards if they do their work well, and to the same reprimands or sanctions if not. In the eyes of God it is not the nobility or the humbleness of the task that counts but the way in which one carries it out.

When the sans-culottes (during the French Revolution, N.T.) wrote to the representatives of the people, they signed : « Your equal in rights », equal not in wealth, in competence or in power but in dignity. The equality proclaimed by our French Republic is distinct from the unbearable dictatorship of inequality, just as it is from the frightening terrorism of equalitarianism. We must recognize its merit, even when one does wish, in reality, for greater enconomic equality (among others).



















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À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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