Unfortunately we live in a universe where equality is an even trickier and more complex goal than freedom. By its very nature, equality is ridden with yet greater inherent contradictions, with yet more intricate paradoxes. Negative rights (“freedom from”) are less complicated than positive rights and entitlements (“freedom to”). It is easier to draw consistent lines for what people may not do to one another (physical abuse, theft, imprisonment, enslavement, and so forth) than for what we are obliged to do for one another (help in times of need, secure basic subsistence, provide education, healthcare, and so forth). But we have also noted that any real measure of freedom must be seen in light of the lived experience of humans and non-human animals, and as such it cannot be reduced to a libertarian defense of negative freedoms. My freedom depends on the inner workings of your thoughts and emotions, and vice versa.
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications.
Furthermore, we have noted a second paradox of freedom: while freedom is cast in terms of our emancipation from commonly held negative emotions which we all avoid during our everyday lives, it is also apparent that said negative emotions regulate our behaviors in ways making society possible in the first place. Without emotions of guilt and shame, it is difficult to see how we could make societal life function at all. And only highly functional societies can be expected to develop greater freedom. So freedom within a society always has to build upon un-freedom, upon an increasingly intimate form of self-organizing control. It is as though we were climbing a ladder with the goal of reaching above the ladder itself. But then what would we hold on to?
We have to wrestle with freedom as a common good, as something emanating from our everyday interactions with one another, with our environment and our “selves”. Freedom flows not only from institutions, but also from intimate and personal relationships.
Your freedom does not begin where my freedom ends; that’s an illusion based upon the underlying assumption that human beings are sealed containers, that we are individuals, indivisible atoms. But in a behavioral-scientific sense, it is clear we are more than individuals, that we are “dividuals” or “transindividuals”, as described in The Listening Society. Hence, your freedom begins not at my imagined outward border, but at the center of my heart.
Once you understand this, you can also see that equality is part and parcel of freedom’s development as equality determines the nature and quality of our relations. So let’s talk about the paradoxes of equality, and then march quickly to resolve them. I am offering an anatomy of equality and its evolution.
The Four Paradoxes of Equality
Let me go through four fundamental paradoxes of “equality” that make the issue an eternally insolvable problem.
The first paradox of equality is that humans are not equals. As I labored to describe in The Listening Society, there are great developmental differences between us, with some people advancing to higher stages of adult psychological development than others: some have more complex thinking, more universal values, more refined relationships to life and existence.
The same holds true in terms of other characteristics: some are healthier and stronger, some have more balanced personalities, some are more industrious and have greater endurance and tolerance of stress, some have higher IQ, some are more sociable, some are better looking—and some have the opposite traits. At a superficial level, this could have us think that equality in a deeper sense is not possible as our differences and variations of endowments will always manifest in our lives and our relationships. But such a defeatist stance will not serve us well; it is, after all, quite apparent that different societies have different levels of equality, and hence that equality can develop. Rather, we must venture deeper into an understanding of equality to resolve this paradox.
A limited version of the value of equality is the idea of “meritocracy”, or the “equality of opportunity”. According to this ideal, the aim of pursuing equality is one of removing all obstacles for people to achieve what the traits of their character would “naturally” let them “deserve”. You may remember Martin Luther King’s echoing voice: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That may be a good starting point for equality, but it is certainly not the endpoint. The Martin Luther Kings of today and of the future must ask for much more. They must be much more analytically stringent and radical.
Let’s say for a moment that we really achieved a society in which people are truly “judged by the content of their character”. This would mean that people with more competitive traits would gain more recognition, power, resources—and ultimately happiness—than their more miserably endowed fellow citizens. And there would really be no excuses in a perfect meritocracy. You got every opportunity, and you still ended up getting the short end of the stick. You’re a bloody loser and you know it. You can’t blame anyone but yourself. And everybody else blames you as well. You are not judged by distinctions of class, gender or race, but you are still judged. And the entitled feel even more exalted, yet more deserving. Drawn to its logical conclusion, King’s vision—so often held almost as a religious tenet of modernity—reveals an inescapably cruel and cynical side.
It’s a meagre vision for society because it ignores the fact that people are not equals. Any deeper equality is not possible unless we address this issue.
To a large extent, equality is about recognition, and you are recognized not only despite your race/gender/class, but also because of your abilities to produce things other people want (products, services, elicited emotions). And people will only give you recognition if they are unable to take it from you, i.e. if there is a power balance in place. Cows “give” us milk but receive no recognition because they are powerless in our bovine-oppressive society.
The meritocratic vision of equality still builds upon outdated, religious (I am tempted to say Protestant) ideas: that you have a soul, and that “God” doles out rewards depending on how pretty you are on the inside. With King, we have—perhaps unsurprisingly—smuggled in a good dose of Luther and Calvin.
In reality, of course, no such God exists. And there is no fate that rewards good character according to a universal measure; no law of Karma, at least not in the traditional sense. People don’t “deserve” anything in any deeper, cosmic sense.
As the ladder of life is strung—as society is “stratified” into higher and lower strata—people simply end up in different social positions as the result of cold, mechanical processes, some of which originate within each of us and from our own choices and actions, and some of which originate from structures lying far beyond our control. There is really no solid border between the inequality that comes from beyond ourselves, and the one that comes from within (from our psyches, personal traits and behaviors).
Naturally, not all inequality is always a bad thing, but up to a certain point—a rather high threshold—inequality is painful to people and detrimental to societies, whether it originates from people’s inner traits or from unfair collective structures.
We are called, then, to look for an intimately lived and felt equality; one that in turn shapes our relationships in the direction of mutual respect and solidarity, caring, even love. Such equality must ultimately be based upon social recognition, that people’s value and quality are genuinely appreciated and honored by others. This and similar arguments have been made by many sociologists in recent years, most notably perhaps by the social theorist Axel Honneth.[i] This line of thought goes back as far as Hegel (in The Phenomenology of Spirit), who viewed the struggle for recognition as a primary driver in history, and it has been theorized not only on the Left, and not only by sociologists—in 2018 none other than Francis Fukuyama published a book titled Identity, which also looks closely at the primacy of recognition in society.
But this striving for a de facto equality of recognition, espoused by Honneth and others, lands us in yet another paradox, largely missed by the theorists of recognition. It is, if possible, an even more caustic one.
All humans desire recognition—civic, social, economic, emotional and sexual. We want to be recognized as worthy citizens, as real people, as competent contributors, as good friends and family members, and as gendered and sexual beings.
But—and this is the paradox that defenders of recognition tend to miss —we only want recognition from those who we ourselves value, from those who we ourselves “recognize” as equals or superiors, from the ones we respect, admire or desire.
We don’t want to be admired by the ones we look down upon, but by the ones we look up to. We don’t want to be members of a community we don’t respect. We don’t want to have our taste and lifestyle venerated by those we deem to have poor taste and ignoble lifestyles. We don’t want to be validated as beautiful and desirable by those we deem ugly and repulsive. In short, we desire recognition from the recognized. And it goes farther than that—we even want only the recognition of those who in turn are recognized by others we in turn recognize. Recognition is a networked tagging game; a game of performances and displays. Recognition reproduces recognition. Disdain reproduces disdain.
And the eliciting of respect and recognition is not a volitional act on behalf of the beholder. Admiration, attraction and respect are things that occur automatically, as a result of our emotional, social and cultural wiring. We can’t help ourselves but to admire the gifted, to desire the beautiful, to clamor for the glamorous, to respect the powerful, to be dazzled by the smooth and the cool. And conversely, alas, we cannot help but feel disdain for those we perceive as stupid, ugly, delinquent, weird or immoral—disdain for the people who don’t elicit positive emotional responses in us or otherwise don’t provide things we value.
Sure, on a theoretical and impersonal level, we can extend our solidarity to the wretched, with citizenship and the vote and human rights. But we won’t choose them as friends; we won’t enter long-lasting and productive professional partnerships with them; we won’t invite them to our parties; we won’t miss them; we won’t marry them; we won’t truly love them.
That innocent wish we so often hail as universally human: “I just want to be respected, loved and desired”, has an inescapable dark side, whispering under its breath: “I merely want to be respected, loved and desired… by the ones I respect, love and desire”. And we often respect, love and desire someone simply because other people seem to.
Ours is a tragic universe, where universal love cannot be the simple answer. Any attempt to be genuinely loving of the unloved will prove unsustainable. Even if you let one alcoholic beggar live at your house, you will pay a significant price for doing so, and you will have to exclude the next beggar who comes knocking. And the exchange between you and the beggar will be an act of charity rather than a genuine and mutual offering of respect. The whole thing is set up to create large groups of the unwanted, the disrespected, the untouchable.
This cruel mechanism of social reality lays its verdict on all of us; as noted earlier, we are all winners and losers, in different contexts and to different extents. We all know both sides, and we all know the intense pain of rejection, of withheld recognition and cold indifference. And we all know, perhaps apart from the unconditional love of mothers for their children, that all that matters in life, at the most sensitive and intimate level, can be taken away from us. Hence, we cannot give our care and recognition freely.
If we play our cards wrong, if we convene with the lonely, the failures, the nerds, with those who cannot offer us new and productive outlets for life, this will not only create limited rewards for us; it will spill over and affect how others judge our status and standing in society.
Hence, we stay clear of those who have little recognition, in turn offering them no recognition so that we can gain the recognition we so desire. The wounds of the lonely and the despised are as frightening and contagious as leprosy.
Last, but not least, there is the disturbing tendency of humans to envy those who gain the kinds of recognition we ourselves long for. This creates another paradox of equality.
We withhold our recognition for reasons of envy. Such envy can show up for different reasons: that we feel competition for the scarce resource of attention and recognition, that we are invested in another story about reality (why should the footballer be recognized when great poets like “myself” are ignored; why should brilliant Marxists be admired when in truth libertarian economics are the best; why should great intellectuals be honored when “I” am so much kinder and more spiritual?)—or that we feel someone’s recognition was acquired through undue privileges, that “the fight was fixed”. Or simply that we find someone morally undeserving: why should such a wretched person be so lucky?
The strange and ubiquitous hunger of the human soul, the hunger for recognition, makes the fair and even distribution of recognition yet more acrimonious. Envy is an often underestimated force of human societies and interactions, and as discussed earlier, it generally goes unnoticed by the envier himself. It leads us to give unhelpful and unsolicited advice, to slander and diminish the gifts and beauties of one another. It works as a subtle but pervasive counterforce to human dignity and equality. It gets in the way of any struggle for deeper equality.
I have thus offered four paradoxical natures of equality: first, that we are not de facto equal; second, that even a perfect meritocracy with no structural discrimination reproduces an exacerbated felt inequality; third, that all equality is based upon viscerally felt and embodied recognition, but that we will only seek the recognition of the recognized, and thus only offer true recognition to limited segments of our social surroundings—and last, the strange and subtle presence of envy.
This might all look rather hopeless. Yet, equality varies over societies and epochs. Equality can be developed; it can evolve. At the most universal level, equality is deepened when the games of life are developed.
Recognition cannot be forced to be given, nor can it be redistributed like material wealth, nor can it be force-fed to the starving. But, again, the fact that equality is paradoxical, and perhaps cannot be “achieved” in any absolute sense, doesn’t mean it cannot develop and grow.
Deeply felt equality is an emergent property of society’s self-organization, of its power relations, of people’s opportunities, of second chances given, of freely available information, of education and feedback processes governing people’s lives, of people’s degree of emotional and social intelligence, of people’s physical stature, and so forth. And the depth of our equality affects all aspects of society—just as inequality harms every aspect of society and ultimately limits our freedom.
The issue is not, then, to “achieve” equality, but to tackle its paradoxes more intelligently; to work around them with wide and deep-reaching measures.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.
[i]. Honneth, A., 1992/1996. Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Oxford: Polity Press.
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