Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Subsection: The Essay
All things being equal
The homogenising struggle for fairness has overshadowed the urge for excellence, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
‘It’s not fair,” complained the sister of the jailed Sydney jihadist. “Twenty-three years, that’s half of his life. It’s not fair to him, our community or our religion.”
In fact, it was entirely fair, under the law and assuming the man was guilty as charged. But she could hardly yell, “It’s not right,” since that would beg the question of how it can be right to want to kill innocent civilians but not right to punish people for plotting it. Rightness is something on which we no longer agree, even in principle. So she appealed intuitively to the last remaining principle that reliably unites us. Fairness, aka equality, is a necessary underpinning for civilisation but is it sufficient? Is equality everything?
We live in a world where the social values that have shaped history – duty, patriotism, piety (or God, king and country) – have come to seem terribly antiquated. Where our efforts to stretch democracy around multiculturalism have rendered any appeal to biblical principle similarly obsolete. Fairness is what remains, perhaps all that remains, of our shared moral compass.
Fairness is, of course, democracy’s undergarment; liberté, egalité, fraternité, all that. Although this suggests fairness is a relatively recent arrival on the political scene, it is also one of our most deeply held principles, as five minutes in any school playground shows.
Allan Ahlberg’s classic children’s poem, 1983, captures the child’s intuitive grasp of the fairness principle. “It isn’t fair on the football field / If their team scores a goal / It isn’t fair in a cricket match / Unless you bat and bowl … It isn’t fair when I give you a job, / It isn’t fair when I don’t / If I keep you in it isn’t fair / If you’re told to go out you won’t … / When your life reaches its end, Colin / Though I doubt if I’ll be there / I can picture the words on the gravestone now / They’ll say: IT IS NOT FAIR.”
Families with close siblings will be familiar with the “one cuts and the other chooses” precept. (The key to this principle is to find a halving so precise as to render the choice no-choice, a self-resolving consensus with a native wisdom that echoes Solomon’s over the baby – except there the halving was abjured.)
So it is no surprise that studies reveal the equality urge as a primate one. British biologist Sarah Brosnan found that capuchin monkeys refuse to co-operate when the rewards handed out within a group do not match deserts. The “animals compare their rewards with those of others and accept or reject rewards according to their relative value”.
They also stalk out of the game if one animal always wins, so that the game is perceived to be “unfair”.
Brosnan proposes that “individuals who have a sense of fairness are more likely to be successful in cooperative interactions”, making inequity-aversion an evolutionary trait. (Later studies with chimps did not entirely bear this out, although you could argue that’s why we dominate the world and they, who share 98 per cent of our genome, do not. Perhaps the fairness gene is in that unique 2 per cent.)
British economist Richard Layard – who argues all public policy is ultimately purposed to happiness enhancement – takes a similar line, saying that inequality, even more than poverty, is the greatest cause of human misery. We generally assume that the converse is also true: that equality will produce happiness. But does it?
Communism, which ought to shed some light here, is no real help since real-world communist societies are, if anything, more hierarchical than others, intensifying the misery of inequality with the hypocrisy of denial.
Plus, there’s this: communism strives only for material equality and at the cost, many would argue, of stifling opportunity. (Capitalism, you might say, inverts this; pursuing equality of opportunity at the cost of dramatic material inequality.)
What interests me, though, is where the equality principle, increasingly dominant in our society, is leading us.
Harrison Bergeron is a Kurt Vonnegut story set in a future where “everybody was finally equal”. There, the intelligent are forced to wear “mental handicap” devices that emit sharp noises every 20 seconds to stop them “taking unfair advantage of their brains” and dancers are weighted by birdshot or scrap-iron calibrated to the size of their talent.
The story is satirical, of course, but every time I see children’s basketball or soccer managers handing out gilt trophies to all – yes, all – members of all teams in a tournament, or a drama teacher handing out certificates of participation, which she must know go straight in the bin, I am reminded of it.
Has our fondness for equality gone too far? Not only because smart kids see straight through it and know they’re being patronised but also because there comes a point when fairness militates against excellence. For the human urge to excellence, history suggests, must also be hardwired. Excellence is something we desire in itself but most especially as a means to dominate our fellows – a means to hierarchy.
Psychological studies regularly show that faced with a choice between a greater reward that is nevertheless smaller than that of our peers, and a smaller reward that is greater than theirs, we’ll take the “greater than theirs” option every time. Beyond basic survival-level, status matters more to us than wealth. Indeed, such studies suggest, most wealth-seeking is really status-seeking in disguise.
As H.L. Mencken famously said, wealth is “any income that is at least $100 more a year than the income of one’s wife’s sister’s husband”.
So perhaps the truth is that equality and excellence are two competing human drives – the warp and weft, if you will, of our mental lives.
A spatial analogy suggests itself here, with equality as the horizontal axis (landscape format) and excellence as the vertical (or portrait). Architecturally, the equality axis is epitomised by the so-called “prairie houses” of the early 20th century. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and others, who saw them clearly as a part of democracy’s polemic, these consciously evoked the endless horizon and the wide-open plains of opportunity. The excellence drive, by contrast, is most strongly manifest in the relentless, yearning verticality of the medieval gothic.
In theological terms, this equality-excellence dichotomy parallels the distinction between the “immanent” and “transcendent” views of God.
The immanent god is the god of good works, of the here and now, of the world; the god of charity. The transcendent god, by contrast, surpasses physicality. This is the god of mysticism. It is traditional to see dichotomy here, as if the two views were mutually exclusive, but many thinkers understand them simply as different aspects of the deity, just as science sees the particle and the wave as different aspects of light.
Many ordinary situations can be understood as a tussle between these conflicting urges – the urge to even out the waves of existence, dampening both the peaks and the troughs, and the urge to heighten, to up the amplitude. Town planning, for example, must always choose between a levelling approach (regulating against the worst excesses by enforcing a degree of uniformity) or allowing the best, which also means tolerating the worst. Tokyo, for instance, takes this approach. Or consider the typical conundrum of a university senate, doling out funding between its faculties. In any university, the faculties range from the dusty and neglected to the glamorous and fashionable. There is never enough money to go around and the university is mindful that its future depends on its reputation for excellence. It also knows, however, that the dowdy disciplines of today are often the fashion disciplines of tomorrow and that (for that reason among others) their reservoirs of scholarship must be sustained.
Does the senate therefore favour the runt of its litter, with its shabby ’50s buildings and demoralised staff, attempting to level the field a little? Or does it reward existing successes by further funding those faculties (business, say, or law) that already luxuriate in a wealth of student fees, research endowments, government grants and well-paid, highly motivated staff? Riches to the rich.
In general, the progress of modern Western history since, say, the French Revolution, has effected a gradual yielding of the vertical to the horizontal. Witness the dissolution of empires, the growth of republicanism, current threats to the British House of Lords and so on. Witness also the corporate trend towards “flatter structures” and the rearrangement of knowledge.
Twentieth-century modernism saw itself as a socialist push. In some ways this was so (think Esperanto, secular humanism, prefab housing, the universal franchise and free polio vaccines). As a quintessential Enlightenment project, however, modernism clung to patriarchal top-downism. In retrospect, ideas such as the objectivity of knowledge and the omnipotence of the expert may be seen as nobility’s last gasp.
By contrast, post-modernism, drawn by the “French theorists” (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard and the boys) from the murk of neo-Marxism, ushered in a new epistemological and moral relativism, which had the effect of Balkanising truth, knowledge, goodness and power.
Just as the Soviet bloc crumbled into its constituent parts under pressure from po-mo bottom-upism, so did knowledge crumble. Post-modernism gives each of us our own truth, like an epistemological iPod encapsulating our subjective lived experience, and the blogosphere, that ultimate self-fest, is its perfect manifestation.
Amelia Watkins runs a typical blog. “Also, today i had a dream that Africa was invading and killing everyone and we were all gonna die. Then i woke up and was like ‘Okay, it was just a stupid nightmare. GO back to sleep, its only five’ and i went back to sleep. Then my nightmare started again and my friends got me killed. It sucked. Then today in class we talked about how North Korea wants to kill us. Brilliant. Whats with all the weapons of mass distruction(sic)? Couldnt we stick with swords and snowballs? That’s about it. I fell down the stairs again and then i fell into the washer (long story). Surprisingly, today has been a good day. Cya, Mia.” Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable for Watkins to publish whatever she feels about her life and for anyone so inclined to read it. To that extent the blogosphere is just a super-expanded village well. But what are the consequences of this Balkanisation of culture?
At its most trivial, the fact that we all have our own ringtones means that for the movies of the future, if such things exist, there will be no instantly recognised sound (as there was for Alfred Hitchcock) that instantly snaps the bad guy, and the audience, to attention.
That we can all now select and download our own TV programs when and as we choose is a great freedom but suddenly the old “did you see … last night?” staple of discussion around the water cooler is gone, casting us back on to that old staple of phatic communion, the weather.
Or take the church. The shift from mediaeval gothic, so otherworldly and aspirational, to the worldly, often flat-ceilinged churches of the classical Enlightenment, the 20th century’s free-form but usually centred churches, in which God takes his place within the congregation (not above it) as first among equals (to wit, Parramatta’s Cathedral) to the post-modern version that is indistinguishable from a suburban sports hall, tax office or greasy spoon.
All these exemplify the loss of our shared language. But more dangerous by far is the changing climate around climate change, where the idea that all opinions have equal weight means that some barmy toff such as Lord Monckton has only to say “all the scientists in the world are wrong: I for one don’t believe them”, to take half the population with him. As though climate change were something you can vote out of existence, a matter not of fact but belief. As though fact and belief were one and the same.
The mediaevals burnt people for claiming the right to opinion. Now it’s the opposite. Now, just suggesting that opinion is not everything is an elitist heresy likely to get you cyber-flogged.
This is blogville, where no one – not a climate expert, not even God – may raise himself above the rabble. Where the commitment to equality blinds us even to the possibility of something bigger than ourselves, rendering us eventually incapable of abstraction and sucking us instead into the backyard mud of subjectivism.
That is the danger and I believe it is real. But pendulums do swing, and never quite back to the same spot. So perhaps this is all just a next twist of the great helix. Perhaps the new Enlightenment, when it comes, will be like the old one, only a couple of chakras higher.
TWO DRAWINGS: By Simon Letch