Equality v. Individual

Warning: This is a political post, and I’m still attempting to form my POV

Last fall, I voted for Hillary Clinton because I like her, and I was disappointed by the outcome for two reasons:

  • Character: As the US moves away from traditional pillars of civic teaching (i.e., churches, community groups, bowling clubs), I think it’s even more important for the president to be a role model
  • Judgement: His tweets, executive orders and cabinet picks (especially Steve Bannon) show a lack of critical thinking. This makes be concerned about the economy & war

There’s been a series protests since then (the Women’s March, The Airport Protests, Google Protest, etc). My younger self definitely would have gone, but I’ve been baffled by my current self. Why do I not feel compelled to participate? 

First Thought: A bit of self-loathing

I’m lazy. Passive. A thinker, not a doer.

Second Thought: More critical

I didn’t get the objective of the Women’s March. A rally in October would have made sense before the election. A protest against a specific, anti-female executive order would make sense. But a protest the day after the inauguration with no clear goal… not sure. People never learn through criticism, so why would the Trump administration be an exception?

On the other hand, I got the Airport protests against the Immigration Executive order. I was on a flight to Barcelona, but if I had been in San Francisco, I may have gone. And, if I were still working at Google, I would have gone to the campus protest. It had a clear objective, was timely and needed a backlash.

Third Thought: It’s more than that..

Protest signs don’t allow for nuance; there’s only so much space on a poster. If I’m to boil down what I’ve read online, this seems to be the takeaway from the protests:

Everyone is equal OR you’re a xenophobic, racist monster

I’d love to say everyone is equal and experience no cognitive dissonance, but I can’t, at least not in current discourse underway in the United States.

In the book, Sapiens, Harari argues:

Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.

There is a natural contradiction if you believe in both equality & individualism. And, if I’m to be honest, my actions lean more towards individualism, even though equality sounds more noble and liberal. I might not be purposefully excluding people, but I do by default through what Eula Biss coined “opportunity hoarding.”

I’ve taken a bigger share of the “resource pie,” in the U.S., which leaves less for others. This can take different forms: from taking more AP classes in high school, to taking jobs that pay more than the national average, to living in an apartment in the Mission, a historically Hispanic neighborhood, because I can pay more.

It makes me feel guilty, which Harari argues is natural:

If tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, a human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs and be riven by incompatible values. It’s such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.

But rather than allowing ourselves to live in this uncomfortable grey where our lives fall short of our ideals, we’ve created a term called Meritocracy to reconcile equality and individualism.

The School of Life defines it as such:

One of the few ambitions shared by politicians across the political spectrum is that of creating a fully meritocratic society, that is, a society in which all those who make it to the top do so only because of their own talents and abilities (rather than thanks to unfair privilege: upper-class parents, a friendship with the boss etc.).

It sounds nice, but it’s easy to poke holes in the meritocratic system…

  • Are teachers less valuable to society than business people?
  • Does the SAT test for the most important abilities (re., circling an antonym)?
  • Can education be the great equalizer if the top universities are expensive & selective?

Just because there’s a set path for success (do well in high school, get into a good college, go into one of xyz professions), is it the right one? Does it actually better our society?

The School of Life argues it’s more than that. There’s actually a dark side too:

But there is, inevitably, a darker side to the idea of meritocracy: for if we truly believe that we’ve created (or could even one day create) a world where the successful truly merited all their success, it necessarily follows that we have to hold the failures exclusively responsible for their failures. In a meritocratic age, an element of justice enters into the distribution of wealth, but also of poverty. Low status comes to seem not merely regrettable, but also deserved.

Alain de Botton refers to this phenomenon as “status anxiety.” In earlier centuries, you were born a peasant, not because of your abilities, but because of the lottery of birth. Now if you’re poor, it’s because you’re “inferior.”

As a solution, he argues that we separate one’s wealth from his/her moral value:

To free ourselves from some of the more punishing side-effects of a meritocratic worldview, it would be wise to cease investing something as haphazardly distributed as jobs and money with moral connotations – and to retain a little of the old-fashioned, modest belief in a distinction between what someone earns and what their souls are like.

I think this same rule can be applied to today’s political climate.

What if we were more modest? What if we reflected more on how we fall short of the ideals we are rallying for? What if we even tried something a lot less radical and sexy, like being a bit more kind, a bit more equal and bit less selfish?

I wonder what that world would look like…

Photo: Source


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