Wednesday, July 1, 2009

All Men Are Created Equal, Aren't They?

There is a poem that I use frequently when I am teaching composition classes. Fairly simplistic in its stylistics, it nonetheless carries a powerhouse message. The title of the poem is "Equality." But before the poem, a word about equality.

"All Men are Created Equal." A cornerstone of modern American life. But just how true is it? If we mean by this statement that all humans share the same biological makeup, even there the statement won't hold true. Some people carry genetic material that others don't; some people are missing genetic material that others possess. So if it is not a physical equality, what do we mean by the statement? Perhaps we mean that all men have equal opportunities. And again the statement does not hold true. An accident of birth can circumscribe your opportunities. Where you live can circumscribe your opportunities. Your sex and your skin color can circumscribe your opportunities.

We only sort of understand the meaning of the statement, and ascribe to it high and lofty ideals. And that same statement that we have idealized is also responsible for some of mankind's baser actions. We are so in love with the idea of all people being fully equal that we cannot stand the thought that some people might be more than equal: they might be, to paraphrase the line from Animal Farm, more equal than others. Sometimes we only look with envy at those who have more than we do, whatever that more is. Other times we are not only envious but up in arms that anyone has come to be "better" than we.

Yes, there are good and necessary reasons for providing equal opportunity in some areas for all people. But there are other areas in which we will all never be equal, nor should we be. When a person is endowed with skills or a "spark" that doesn't appear in all the rest of us, that, too, is a gift of God. Instead of envy and a miffed feeling that that person has something we don't/can't have, we ought instead to be giving thanks. Where would the beauty be if Beethoven or Mozart had been looked at as people who needed to be forcefully equalized? Gaze at the magnificent and beautiful structures that exist around the world and ask if those dreamers and doers responsible for them should have been equalized. Gasp at the athletes who seem to pull the impossible out of their hats on a regular basis. Pick up any book that you could not have not written and ask if that author's ability to do what we cannot should have been forbidden. Creativity in all its manifestations argues against our all being equal in every way.

Robert W. Service (1874 - 1958)

The Elders of the Tribe were grouped
And squatted in the Council Cave;
They seemed to be extremely pooped,
And some were grim, but all were grave:
The subject of their big To-do
Was axe-man Chow, the son of Choo.

Then up spoke Tribal Wiseman Waw:
"Brothers, today I talk to grieve:
As an upholder of the Law
You know how deeply we believe
In Liberty, Fraternity,
And likewise Equality.

"A chipper of the flint am I;
I make the weapons that you use,
And though to hunt I never try,
To bow to hunters I refuse:
But stalwart Chow, the son of Choo
Is equal to us any two.

"He is the warrior supreme,
The Super-caveman, one might say;
The pride of youth, the maiden's dream,
And in the chase the first to slay.
Where we are stunted he is tall:
In short, a menace to us all.

"He struts with throwing stone and spear;
And is he not the first to wear
Around his waist with bully leer
The pelt of wolf and baby bear!
Admitting that he made the kill
Why should he so exploit his skill?

"Comrades, grave counsel we must take,
And as he struts with jest and jibe,
Let us act swiftly lest he make
Himself Dictator of our Tribe:
The Gods have built him on their plan:
Let us reduce him to a man."

And so they seized him in the night,
And on the sacrificial stone
The axe-men of the Tribe did smite,
Until one limb he ceased to own.
There! They had equalized the odds,
Foiling unfairness of the Gods.

So Chow has lost his throwing arm,
And goes around like every one;
No longer does he threaten harm,
And tribal justice has been done.
For men are equal, let us seek
To grade the Strong down to the weak


Allen said...

Always easier to yell that something is unfair then to admit you can't do something or that you won't/don't do something.

efrex said...

Very nice. Similar to the poem, I recall a short story about a totalitarian society where equality was imposed by government/technological fiat: smart people wore headphones that generated random noise at different times to keep them from thinking too much, athletes wore ankle weights, etc.

The difficulty lies in the conflict between individual and societal needs; indeed "equality" only has meaning in a societal context. The notion of "equality" underlies political/social movements from capitalism to communism and liberalism to conservatism. It's a fascinating topic, and one covered by religious, political, and philosophical thinkers alike.

R' Yosef Soloveitchik gave a great talk where he discussed the nature of individuality, and described the apparent paradox of individuality/ uniqueness and equality (insert Monty Python "We're all individuals!" reference as needed). Indeed, he considers individuality to be the true tzelem elokim, and analogizes people to sifrei torah: all have the same writing, the same letters, yet each bears a unique imprint of its sofer. I'm not doing it justice, but it makes for an incredibly powerful piece. The original talk is available online in Yiddish, and there's a very expanded English recreation given in a series by R' Aharon Rakeffet:
* Part 1
* Part 2
* Part 3
* Part 4

ProfK said...

The short story you are referring to is "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut. I usually pair it with this poem for class purposes.

Thanks for the links to the talk. I remember attending a lecture in which the speaker, in all seriousness, made the point that it is individualism that is killing yiddishkeit, that it is far more important to consider yourself as a part just like any other part. I was not a happy camper and then someone in the audience asked "How do you explain gedolim then? How can there be an illui?" And then he asked the speaker "How did you come to dare to publish a book--that is not being a cog in the wheel."

efrex said...

Thanks for the title! It's been quite some time since I read the piece, and I'm impressed with myself that I remembered it.

Judaism, as a universal and adaptable life program, has to deal with the balance between individual and communal needs. There are certainly elements of both individualism and collectivism within Jewish thought, and balancing the two is a significant dilemma.

Rae said...

I wonder what all those people who yell about everybody's being equal would do if we also abolished anything produced by those "unequal" people? We'd be back living in tents and grunting to each other.

It was not "equal" people who thought of and persevered in bringing to light all the inventions that we have today. It was not "equal" people who made the great scientific and medical discoveries that are key to the lives we live today.

If I have to choose between strict and universal equality and thinkers and dreamers who move us forward in what we have and what we can do, then no, I guess I'm not for that equality.