Functional Inequality

This is one of a series of posts i’ve been writing around ‘An Imperfect Humanity‘. They are reflective and self developmental explorations of how one charts a path through often difficult moral and ethical dimensions of working in a global space. Sometimes decisions of whether to stand on the sidelines and comment, or try to change through engagement. For me, they are part of a path try tying to find some type of wisdom through reflection and #WorkingOutLoud.

Functional Inequality

© Julian Stodd

From this height, flying at maybe ten thousand feet, everything is reduced to context: clusters of houses, indistinguishable individually, form towns and villages, occasionally merging into dense cities. Fields are speckled in shades of green and brown, patterns broken up by the occasional concentrations of greenhouses, serried reflecting glass, or sewage works, their circular settling tanks distinguishable even at this height.

In the absence of individuality: everyone is equal. From this height, the litter doesn’t show, the poverty, the bigotry, the hatred and intolerance, neither love nor war. From this height, everyone is is equally insignificant.

It’s only when we descend, through the blanketing clouds, to the street that things change, that inequality emerges.

Equality is not homogeneity: it’s not about everyone being the same and having the same. It’s not some patchwork hell of identical viewpoints and vapid conversations. No, equality is about arguments and style, about rights and freedoms, about permission to be yourself, warts and all. And be treated the same as everyone else. It’s not a permission to impose your view, but it’s most certainly a position to hold one. And to live by it.

Frankfurt (‘On Inequality’, 2014) proposes a view that there is no moral imperative for equality, no strident need for you to have what i have, but rather a need for us both to have enough, according to our needs. His hypothesis is that equality is not gauged in relation to the success or assets of others, but rather the access and amenity of that to which we do have access. Under this view, we can each have different amounts of ‘stuff’, but still be equal, if we both have enough. It’s an interesting view, and removing the moral imperative for equality may be a good thing: any sense that to be equal some people have to lose may be a self fulfilling barrier to success, or indeed may be inherently unequal or unfair in itself.

In some senses, i disagree with Frankfurt in his stance on this: is there a moral imperative to equality? Maybe not, although there may be a moral imperative to strive for it. To promote and support equality in every aspect of our lives. Maybe it’s a matter of how we view morality: deterministic or observed. I don’t believe that our ethical stance or moral view is deterministic: our view may be that we are honest, but if we behave dishonestly, it’s in our actions that we will be judged. Similarly, i may talk about equality, but if i do not act in accordance with that expressed view, can i be deemed moral? Is that the difference between a perfect life and a lived one?

I’ve been reflecting on this whilst working in Saudi Arabia: a country with a poor record on human rights and intolerant of difference. Homosexuality is illegal in the Kingdom, something i find morally abhorrent: how can it be right not to treat everyone as equal? So to engage with such a culture, does that make me immoral, or compromise my ethical stance? In the judgement, maybe, but is there something about engagement too?

In my view of culture, it’s created in the moment, through our actions: by engaging, we change those interactions and hence drive change. One could argue that disengagement is still engagement, but to engage is not necessarily to condone. We can engage with difference and respect, whilst still disagreeing. Indeed, one argument would run that engagement builds us a greater platform of commonality for subsequent debate, debate being the foundation of change as both individuals and societies make sense of the new world. By normalising the conversation, we may be striving for equality.

Or is that moral back-pedalling and post hoc rationalisation? Is the argument of engagement simply a moral crutch?

When Frankfurt dismisses the moral component of inequality, it’s primarily equality of resource that he is talking about: money, food, medicine, housing and, to an extent, opportunity. Not specifically racial or sexual equality, which may create a nuance. I can see a strong moral component for equality of self: a right to determine how we live and love, who we are. I could subscribe to the model of ‘how much do we need’ when it comes to money or food: but when it comes to ‘equality’ on gender or racial terms, there is no such thing as ‘nearly equal’, simply ‘unequal, in the judgement’. To be unequal, to be dispossessed of self determination, simply on the basis of skin colour, disability, gender or sexuality must surely be immoral?

Which is the rub: it’s immoral by my notion of morality. But my view of morality is not universal. We are separated around the globe by more than just distance: our ethical and moral frameworks are globally differentiated too. When i engage in Saudi Arabia, i engage from my position on equality, whilst others engage from theirs: if i fail to recognise that authenticity of their position, even if i strongly contest it’s validity or fairness, then i can’t engage. And if i can’t engage, can i effect change? This is a morally imperfect space, but may come down to a functional view of equality: what do i have to do now to engage? Is it better to engage, or to confront? Or can you do both?

Polarising opinion result in dogmatic habits, although may be morally satisfying or valid. However, i suspect it doesn’t deliver change. Because we all think we are right: epiphany is unlikely.

Morality can only be judged in action, and equality only achieved through engagement. We can think ourselves into a comfortable position, but it may be that we have to get into the fight to achieve real change. And maybe the fight is based on foundations of engagement.

Historically we can see how fluid views of equality are: we are in no sense engaging from a position of historical strength. Perhaps, it’s essentially on our stance for engagement. If inequality is immoral, we have a duty to engage. A moral imperative to do so. Engagement does not mean to condone: building commonality may just give us the platform for engagement. The platform upon which we build our common values, or learn to accept our differences.

Whatever our religions or politics tell us, the world is functionally unequal: our moral duty is surely to engage in the debate, however we choose to do that. Perhaps ultimately it comes down to the way we choose to engage: on a platform of common interest, or a platform of entrenched dissent. Maybe both are equally valid, but i would argue that neither holds the moral high ground. They are choices of execution, not validity.

This post was first published on Medium: a space where I sometimes work on ideas that are not yet fully formed, or which may be peripheral to my core writing.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Equality, Humility, Inclusivity, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Functional Inequality

  1. Celena says:

    Interesting. I find the same challenges in my life.

  2. pisackson says:

    Julian, you’ve put your finger on a major difficulty in the world today which in some ways highlights the kind of geopolitical transition we are going through. In the west the notion of equality became a dogma before anyone even tried to understand it. And this happened only recently, in the later stages of the industrial revolution when overtly colonial and racist systems were officially abandoned With a little reflection, we should know that dogmas that are undefined are far more dangerous than dogmas that have been clearly elaborated. Why? Because the dogma will be used selectively to further some selfish interest, with no possibility of analysis or intelligent perspective. This can easily be illustrated in politics where the one nation that adheres most strongly to the undefined dogma of equality — the US — can create havoc, threaten and even prosecute war wherever it likes on the pretext of imposing equality or correcting inequality but not even notice it where it is most obvious (e.g. Saudi Arabia).

    What we are seeing is a cultural, political and — alas — military resistance everywhere in the world to the ill-defined “let’s be equal our way” mentality of the western powers that exploit the most simplistic dogmas of western society. That’s natural because, as you say, “We are separated around the globe by more than just distance: our ethical and moral frameworks are globally differentiated too.”

    Thank you for initiating this nuanced debate or rather — at least I hope — dialogue. Dialogue may lead to understanding; debate aims at victory for one side or the other and tends to aggravate already existing polarization.

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