Category Archives: Culture

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!” []

A Plea for “Politics As Unusual”

As we are rapidly nearing the opening phase of our next quadrennial verbal civil war (a.k.a., “the most important election of our lifetime – again”), I want to preempt the fighting with a few general considerations:

1) As image-bearers of a speaking God, we are speakers and our relations with others necessarily take the form of speaking. But a key difference between animal noises and human speech is that the latter is able to communicate complex ideas and needs that often require a much more sophisticated mode of judgment than animals are capable of.

This judgment is rendered by the mind – but not just any mind. To make sophisticated judgments about complex ideas and needs, a mind must be formed such that its thoughts are disciplined, ordered, and aimed at truth, not merely winning. It is unfortunate that “politics” in our modern context deeply confuses winning with truth, but Christians of all people ought to know that the two are not always conjoined.

Sum: Political speech deals with complex ideas and practices; uncareful speech based on
poorly-ordered thoughts is little better than animal noises.

2) As image-bearers of a God who is Himself a fellowship of equals, we are never just individuals, but are always part of a community. Thus, our thoughts and actions ought never to be based primarily on our individual concerns.

The purpose of speech between humans is to navigate the tossing sea of complex ideas and needs with a view to preserving the whole ship, not just our own personal lives or the limited number of other lives with whom we feel most comfortable dealing. In other words, though this seems quite counter-intuitive, politics is about more than party loyalty. It may turn out that preserving the ship requires going this way and not that way, but someone who does not understand, or who has no patience with, the art of navigation has no business contributing his “two cents” to a discussion about how to preserve the ship. Mere factional chattering on social media is not “political” talk at all, and is just a gigantic waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Sum: Political speech is about the common good, not just the good of our own circle of interests. Political speech ought to be based on the belief that one’s party has the best vision of the common good, not on the belief that The Other Party must be destroyed.

3) Passion is inherently immoderate and unstable. Animals are passionate about what they want, and it is this that makes us talk about “nature red in tooth and claw.” But human beings, being speakers of complex ideas and needs, should never be only passionate about what they want. Human speech about important matters must never be merely a mode of communicating human passions, for politics, the art of living together in a society, is never solely about passions. We are not undirected Darwinian animals involved in a “second place is the first loser” struggle for survival; we are, in Aristotle’s words, political animals aiming at much more than mere survival. Someone who does not understand this difference, or who thinks and acts as if political is a mere synonym for passionate ought not to speak at all in a public forum, for such speaking is little better than the inarticulate grunting of a beast.

4) Fourth, we all need to seriously and soberly consider the question: What precisely is social about “social media”? Any one of us may say anything we like with any degree of feeling in our own living rooms, but a social media platform is not a private living room – not even because it tells you that space you are writing on is “your wall.” Actually, it’s Facebook’s wall, and we all gave up our right to “free speech” (considered as an absolute lack of external restrictions) when we agreed to Facebook’s often restrictive terms of service. Facebook is Zuckerberg’s mega-sized, mega-crowded living room, not one’s own living room, so no, oneself doesn’t get to say absolutely anything anytime. It would be worth spending some time pondering what the real meaning of “social” is, including that seemingly outmoded ideal known as “social graces.” Remember that we are not made to be like grunting animals, and our passions shouldn’t be the arbiter of our words. If others are (acting like) grunting animals in a political discussion, what is gained by we ourselves joining them in that base activity?

5) Lastly, and most importantly, though it sounds like a cliché to say it, no matter who gets into office and what policies they implement, God is the one on the throne and His purposes cannot be thwarted by any man or woman. We Christians today have a rather large blind spot in terms of having only recently seen very radical cultural reversals that make us unthinkingly pine after “the good old days” when (as we inaccurately style it) the “Judaeo-Christian worldview” ran everything.

After 1600 years of mostly Christian cultural hegemony, it just doesn’t feel right to us that we should suddenly be on the radical defensive, and that “the Christian Nation” par excellence should be going the way of the dinosaur. We must vote to Save Christian America! We must fight tooth-and-nail to turn back the tide! We must fight for Truth, Justice, and the Biblical-American Way!”

Well, maybe. Political quietism shouldn’t be acceptable to us, because even the Jews in captivity prayed for the peace of the city and longed to return home, and the Apostle Paul often invoked his rights as a Roman citizen to not be treated in a certain way simply because he announced unpopular religious ideas. There is a legitimate place for political activism rooted in our religious convictions, and we dare not simply lay down our swords and die.

But the City of God only ever overlaps earthly cultural and political realities, never identifying itself with any. We may fight to the last metaphorical drop of our blood and still lose the political battle. Things may get very uncomfortable for us if that happens. But it has happened before, and the Gospel prevailed in the end. What impressed most thoughtful Romans in the time of the martyrs was less what the Christians said, but how they died. Nobody could die like a Christian could, and the more of them who died, the more the Gospel worked its way like leaven through the Empire.

We shouldn’t want our nation to wither and die in a whirlwind of secularist tyranny and idiocy. We can and should fight as we are able and as God moves us. But we mustn’t ever confuse the fortunes of America with the fortunes of the City of God. It sounds like a cliché, but as I watch the Christian political landscape take a predictably factional, tribal, largely passion-driven shape every four years, I don’t think it is. Like everyone else who has ever lived, we Christians are a forgetful people, prone ever to misreading the knowable past and present, and so to immoderately fearing the unknowable future.