Toxic Equality

Of late as a teacher of the classics of Western culture, I have begun to encounter students of varying ages who love to talk about the purported difference between “equality” and “equity.” The former concept, which has served our iteration of Western Culture for centuries now as a convenient place-holder for Grand Ideals that we know we don’t meet but that we are committed to always pursue, just isn’t enough anymore. Not for the rising generation raised on Be-Whatever-You-Want-to-Be films, feel good moralistic injunctions, angsty music, and the thought-eroding rat-race that is social media. Equality is no longer enough: now we desperately need Equity!

Equity. Once upon a time in the West this concept functioned as a way to recognize that there are times in a society when the formal, institutionalized standards of order, especially law, simply fail to encompass and justly manage particular types of circumstances (often crisis ones). Used in this sense, equity is a perfectly fine word, and a very needful concept in the toolbox of political philosophers (not necessarily the same thing as politicians) who get called upon to deal with the endlessly changing complexity of human life under the sun.

As I’ve tried to cross examine the words I’ve heard on this topic of “equity,” what has emerged is that the latter refers to a fairly radical concept of what used to be called “equality of outcomes.” What I’ve heard most often articulated by students in the grip of this new ideology of equity is the example of three people trying to look over a fence, but the three of them are of different heights so two of them have to be provided with special stools to allow them to see over the fence. Observe:

Newspeak (2021-style)

And that is why, as I have witnessed the arguments made, the classics need to be torn down as examples of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and whatever-other-ism is currently in fashion in academia.

For the classics are in a sense not premised on the idea that everyone can “see over the fence” in an absolutely “equal” way. The classics are based on the idea of natural distinctions and natural hierarchies that arise from them, which allows for much fruitful talk about qualities such as a spectrum running from non-excellence to mid-range to real excellence.

But to even talk this way, it seems, is “unequitable” when read from today’s standpoint of absolutely radicalized democracy. This illegitimate extension of democratic ideals often presents itself as being rooted in each person’s “lived experience” that no one else can understand since they don’t have the same kind, but only their own.1

And this is why it’s critical for those who hold this cynical, destructive view of culture to focus entirely on “historically marginalized voices” and to avoid at all costs ever “invalidating” anyone’s view. (Well, that is, except for the views of those who don’t hold to any of this silly stuff. Such people as that may be – must be! – reverse marginalized because their voices don’t actually have anything meaningful to contribute, since they’ve already spent thousands of years “oppressing” everyone else.)

I’m not entirely sure how to spell it all out, but it seems to be part of a broader cultural “Romantic” phenomenon, rejecting not just what is perceived as a cold, inhumane rationalism, but also a whole cluster of appropriations / receptions that are said to have led to enormous “inequity” of valuation. Look closely at the following modification of the above graphic to see where it all leads:

You see the point, I’m sure. Liberation.2 First, good old-fashioned equality, which measures everyone by an objective standard (here, a fence that is an objective part of everyone’s experience), comes to be seen as mere Sameness – and that is insufficiently respectful of diversity. In terms of the pictured baseball game, important questions are just simply not asked – questions such as “Why is the fence there? Is it part of the game itself?” and “Why are the three spectators outside the fence rather than in proper seating?” and “Why are we assuming its morally wrong for two shorter (er, differently-abled) people to be unable to see over a fence because their bodies haven’t grown sufficiently?”

Inquiring minds want to know, but then, the whole point of this emotion-producing graphic is precisely not to encourage inquiry. Inquiry is dangerous because it might expose the flaws in the analogy – and that will never do, for it would cause the loss of the (self)righteousness of the whole criticism.

Ah, but in comes Equity, which addresses the disgusting unfairness of the fact that somebody dared to build a fence over which not everyone without exception could see – so Equity solves the problem by providing “accommodations” for the “marginalized.” Everything is now ever-so much more fair because now everyone without exception can see over the fence! Justice at last!3

Well, no, not really. Even making it possible for everyone without exception to see over the fence just isn’t enough, for the mere fact that THE WALL is still there requires further justice-work to be accomplished.4 The only thing left to do, obviously, is to take down the fence itself, removing that which even made the original disparity of perception inherent in naturally differing heights seem like the blameworthy prejudice of some thoughtless construction manager.

So, then, Liberation is the real goal of today’s ideology of Equity. It all sounds very good, very proper, very respectful of diversity. But imagine that teachers are avidly propagating this ideology and that students are avidly learning it – and applying it in their school settings. Hear their incensed words: This is my art! You can’t judge it! Music Theory is ridiculous! Why can’t I just randomly play whatever notes I want, since it’s Who I Am? This literature book is boring! And you can’t tell me my opinion is wrong!

Of course this is all totally absurd if one understands education to be the process of one person, a master in a given Art, handing down to someone else not just their own personal experiences and opinions, but that Art itself, a definable discipline that has standards demarcating inferiority from mediocrity from excellence. To take the “fence” down around the baseball field is to decree that there is no boundary to how far the ball is allowed to travel – thus fundamentally altering the game of baseball (and also probably endangering those standing at the outermost periphery). But to take the “fence” down in an educational program is to demolish the very standards by which the Arts involved are being taught.

In other words, the educational quest for Equity, if not fought tooth-and-nail, will destroy education itself.

This stuff is so crazily toxic that I have decided just now to dub it “Toxic Equality.” 5 Toxic Equality, far from instantiating a real sense of respect for the amazing diversity God has built into the world, especially into His human image-bearers, represents the total destruction not just of rationality, but of the very ability to communicate with other people and thereby to define and seek a common good.

If we don’t fight this way of thinking tooth-and-nail, especially as it tries to make inroads through pop-culture into the hearts of young Christians, it will likely spell the end of real excellence in cultural activity for generations to come.

  1. For an excellent review of why this radicalized sort of democracy is illegitimate, see this piece by C.S. Lewis. []
  2. Another version of this graphic I’ve seen labels the third box “Justice” – which is very telling. []
  3. We’ll ignore for now the fact that the scenario on the right is, like the one on the Left, still a type of Sameness, because logic can’t be allowed to intrude overmuch into an emotion-inducing meme. []
  4. Again, we will deliberately ignore the fact that in the third box, “Liberation,” as in the first two, there exists a basic Sameness, for calling attention to this fact might show that the entire basis of the criticism lacks coherence. []
  5. Apologies if I didn’t actually make that phrase up; as far as I know it’s original to me – just part of my “lived experience!” []