left to right: Thomas Beatie is a transgender man who became pregnant and gave birth in 2008; Rachel Dolezal is a white woman who identifies as “trans-racial;” “Nano” identifies as a cat; and Paul Wolscht identifies as a 6-year-old girl
Equality is a fussy concept. Outside the realm of the legal system, which demands that law be applied the same way regardless of sex, race, or religion, the area of equality’s application has always been controversial. Essential questions remain unanswered: In what circumstances should we limit inequality? Can or should it be abolished?
In the past, equality’s enemy was monarchic-ecclesiastical order and privilege, against which Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill waged war. To Marx and Engels, the enemy was capitalism and private ownership of the means of production. These two enemies of equality have been dead for a long time. We live in a world devoid of privileges, monarchic-ecclesiastical order has been replaced by democracy, while business regulations and the taxation system make the yearning for unbridled capitalism a matter of individual fantasy.
Yet equality is undergoing a new renaissance, demanding that all the remaining distinctions be considered as belonging to the unjust ancien régime. Everything, including sex and race, that until about 30 or 40 years ago was considered natural is said to be a “social construct.” Today’s world, we are told, is “fluid,” and, therefore, requires new legal and social arrangements.
Transgenderism, according to which being a man or a woman is nothing other than a dress for one’s psyche, is equality’s ultimate fantasy. It is an attempt to conquer nature by modern science and democratic means. In this new egalitarian order, the old “hard” totalitarian regimes are replaced by “soft” regimes that achieve their aims not primarily with police-state tactics but with coercive propaganda that generates fear of expulsion from the consensus of the majority.
But the new regime is not always as soft as it may seem.The 2017 Canadian gender identity Bill C-16, mandating the use of new pronouns, or the United Kingdom’s 2006 “Racial and Religious Hatred Act,” tells you everything you need to know—penalties and sometimes even imprisonment for not aligning your psyche to egalitarian reality are real. We can expect more and more similar regulations soon. The intention of such regulations is to transform each minority’s whim into sociopolitical fact.
above: Emile Ratelband, Dutch television personality (Wikimedia Commons)
The examples of Emile Ratelband, a 69-year-old Dutchman who petitioned a court to shave off 20 years of his age because he feels 49, or Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who pretended for decades that she was black, belong to a category of people with troubled minds whose whims, a generation ago, would not have been taken seriously. Today, the problem that such individuals create for the rest of us is that they demand that their subjective mental reality be reflected in our political and social institutions, and their demands are met with widespread sympathy.
It was not enough for Dolezal to work on behalf of American blacks. In her mind she was black. However, a personal sense of identity can run into empirical obstacles among those who still possess common sense and have not undergone alternative-reality training. When Dolezal’s imposture was discovered, the black community—hardly a bunch of well-to-do whiners—stripped her of her blackness, which was another way of saying that racial differences are real. Once you are born white you cannot become black by an act of your will—any more than Michael Jackson could become white. When you claim you are not what you were born as, you have committed a fraud.
In part because the number of those with a troubled sense of identity has multiplied (especially in our new digital public square), Western social and political reality itself has become fraudulent. Thus we invent new words, which act like lenses that make you see everyone as they see themselves—as equal. We all are scared—scared of losing our jobs, or of having our reputations shattered by accusations of homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, sexual harassment, Islamophobia, or transphobia. These are the new “deadly sins” with which the social activists, like the Old Testament prophets, castigate and threaten us.
After 9/11, when George W. Bush famously said that “Islam is [a religion of] peace,” he got caught in the paradox created by egalitarian Newspeak. Since religions, according to the partisans of equality, are by definition equal, there cannot be anything in one of them that would make its members kill others; and if they do so en masse, this has nothing to do with religion per se but is a manifestation of extremism (which the terrorists got from “somewhere else.”) This is one way in which equality (of religions) can be maintained in the face of the brutal facts which contradict it.
What the phobia mongers insist upon is that those who suffer from the abovementioned phobias are anti-egalitarian. Being sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic, etc., is to allow the possibility that people can indeed be unequal (in various respects). Accordingly, a fight against sexism, racism, homophobia, etc., is a de facto fight for more equality, in an otherwise egalitarian society.
All institutions in the Western world—mass media, schools, universities, federal and private agencies, political and social institutions, and even churches—have already undergone profound transformations under the pressure of this idea of equality. But what is more shocking than surprising is that as equality expanded its reach, those who might have opposed it could do nothing at all. Opposition is limited to a group of a few individuals, scattered all over the world, whose voice, on account of being so different from majority opinion, often sounds paranoid, while the rest of the Western population seems to see equality as benign, as something working toward greater social good.
Social activism on behalf of equality is the only form of “good” with any credibility these days, at least in the mediasphere. The old metaphysical notion of “evil”—a dark power in human nature—has disappeared. Evil is now social, hence the corollary, which has made deep inroads into ordinary language, that there are no evil people, only wrong actions that are the outcome of wretched social institutions. Prisons, formerly institutions where the criminal had to atone for his crimes, have been transformed into reintegration centers, and prison cells (especially in Scandinavian countries) look more like luxurious hotel rooms rather than a place in which you would never dream of spending a night.
What is worth reflecting on is our prisons’ similarity to the Japanese prison system. There the criminal is taught to understand that he violated collective norms. Japanese collectivism, which has always been part of its culture, and the Japanese understanding of themselves, their relationship to the country, nation, and the state, is something alien to the Western mind and its individualist tradition. If there is an explanation of this strange convergence between West and East, it needs to be sought in the idea of liberalism itself. John Stuart Mill’s writings are peppered with the word “evil,” which he uses with unprecedented frequency to designate obstacles to equality’s progress. The growth of the power of the democratic collective (which takes away freedom from the individual) is a consequence of the socialization of Mill’s notion of evil.
above: replica of a portrait of John Stuart Mill, by George Frederic Watts, oil on canvas, 1873 (National Portrait Gallery)
One way to understand what happened is to realize that the expansion of equality led to endowing a greater number of individuals with political power which, in turn, has enhanced the greater power of the collective over the individual. Dissent from the prevailing opinions of the collective is evil because it is perceived as anti-social.
The critics of equality have gained the reputation of being “fascists”—not because they are violent, not because they harm those whose lifestyles they reject, but because they resist the collectivization of those who remain free individuals. In contrast to those who see it as a path to a more just society, equality’s opponents see its expansion as a path to democratic totalitarianism.
Oblivious to this danger (or perhaps secretly embracing it), those who are immersed within the pseudo-reality created by our post-Orwellian Newspeak are not unlike the old revolutionaries. To obfuscate reality, each year comrade-citizens of the communist order would celebrate International Worker’s Day on May 1st with marches to commemorate the victory over the capitalists—their former oppressors. Our reality is not so different. For years, Gay Pride parades have become fashionable rituals in our cities. However, such spectacles can hardly pass for demonstrations in the name of liberation of all subjugated classes. More recently, we have witnessed something more inclusive—the “March for Equality” (a new phenomenon which swept European countries this year).
During the hard totalitarian era, it was only after the so-called “excesses” of the revolutions destroyed lives of millions of people that the partisans of more just societies realized that they were living in a place from which freedom had evaporated. The communist takeover in Russia quickly resulted in dissident literary works such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940), and, later, George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). These novels were attempts to understand what happened. Each author assumed that totalitarianism is intricately bound up with the use of brutal force. It was a correct observation for the time. After all, how can one make millions of people bow to the same idea?
above: book covers for Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (E. P. Dutton), Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (Scribner), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin Classics) and Animal Farm (Mariner Books)
Terms such as “Big Brother” and “Thought Police” became associated with police-state brutality, and have become an integral part of our common parlance to explain conformity of views under Communism. A much earlier work by Anatole France, The Gods Will Have Blood (Les dieux ont soif, 1912), which deals with the Great Fear of the French Revolution, pointed in the same direction—fear of death is indispensable in making people obey (something Koestler later picked up on). However, fear does not make people permanently docile. Docility requires constant injection of ideology, which the great majority must come to accept as their own desire. The idea of equality awakened collective desire better than anything else.
For the new political system to work, it was necessary to transform the old man into something he had never been before—equal to others. Words took on a magical power. “Citizen” replaced the word “subject;” and, as if by the touch of a magic wand, past social hierarchies dissolved. Similarly, the Soviet term “comrade” implied equality of citizens, but only for those who took up arms against the evil hierarchical past. Those who did not participate in the first phase of the revolution could join the fight by becoming members of the Communist Party. In both cases, it was the march toward “equality” that consigned social hierarchies to the Dustbin of History. Such totalitarianism, however, was different from the one we are in the process of creating.
In contrast to hard totalitarian regimes, in democracy, there is no Big Brother who is watching us, or a Thought Police which supervises our thoughts. We, the people, are watching ourselves, compelled by public opinion and the fear of being a social outcasts. The only thing required of us is undergoing all kinds of training—in school, college, at work—the aim of which is to ensure that no one can even think of discriminating. And, if you happen to experience a relapse, you should not worry—next year, to reinforce your commitment to anti-phobias, you will just have to take the same test again.
In 1958, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World Revisited, in which he revisited the ideas from his 1932 novel. The book is composed of several chapters devoted largely to different forms of propaganda. The decades that elapsed between the publication of Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited, and the experience of communism, fascism, and Nazism, made Huxley reflect on several forms of brainwashing which totalitarian regimes use to achieve their objectives. From the perspective of 1958, all of them appeared to Huxley as vulgar and primitive, and above all transparent to people who have eyes to see.
above: book cover for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Brave New World Revisited (Vintage Canada)
What is, and always was, less transparent is democratic propaganda, which developed hand-in-hand with the subliminal sales techniques of the business world. If the hard totalitarian world of Soviet Russia or Maoist China employed its propaganda to encourage the worship of Big Brother, in our democracy, propaganda assumes the form of worship of equality itself. Given the current state of democratic regimes (growing social chaos and lawlessness), equality has become little more than makeup which hides democracy’s shortcomings.
If there is any way of stopping the Western world from further deterioration, we first must state very clearly that we accept democracy only as an electoral procedure (if we accept it at all!). In every other realm, we should return to the idea that we make our decisions based on criteria that suit the nature of our chosen enterprise. If, for example, the purpose of education is to achieve the highest possible intellectual performance in a given discipline, we cannot eliminate tests, exams, and other competitive criteria, and replace them with essays about ourselves and our “diverse” experience. Those who care about their immortal souls should worry about sin and the good life, not about sexism in the Church because there are no women priests.
Similarly, as racist as some people may be, they would surely prefer the black Dr. Ben Carson to operate on their brain than a less-skilled white. The same applies—or should—to all professions and walks of life. Excellence and professionalism matter greatly everywhere, except in democracy. Plato’s Socrates forcefully argued this point when he noted, in Book VIII of The Republic, that democracies sacrifice merit and natural ability to the gods of an imaginary equality.
Mill, by far the greatest lover of democracy and equality in the 19th century, was by today’s standards only very moderately attached to the idea of equality. He too wanted society to be more just and saw democratization as the only means to achieve greater equality. However, Mill was a realist. For example, he favored expansion of suffrage, but only among those who achieved a certain level of education; he was for private schooling, but conceived a scheme that would ensure education for all children so that at some point they might be eligible to vote. Suffrage should not, in his view, be extended to those receiving charity support for extended periods of time; nor should there be a right to vote for prisoners, that is, those who had violated the law. Mill was also for education for the poor, but thought that even the poor should contribute toward their children’s education in proportion to their income.
Today, Mill’s proposals would be considered discriminatory, but Mill knew that everything had a price tag. To him a just society was one that always considers what end is more beneficial, not whether it is consistent with the idea of equality. Equality to Mill was like a vanishing point on the horizon, unlikely to be reached but dictating the direction in which society should march. In this respect, he was hardly an egalitarian ideologue. In his wildest dreams of expanding democracy, he never thought that democracy should override excellence in the name of equality.
This is not so today. Rights, entitlements, and benefits, are the new social norms. In America, getting into the best colleges is now possible even for those who can’t pass the SAT, since the test is now often optional. Dispensing trophies to the losers in sporting competitions is another egalitarian phenomenon. Absurd examples like these can be multiplied ad infinitum. And other than the barely audible protests of a few conservatively-minded people, there is hardly any opposition to the culture of entitlement. Even the thought of protest, let alone saying such things out loud, fills most of us with dread. If there is a way of making this absurd reality crumble, we must get rid of fear.