I’ve been thinking a lot about some difficult subjects lately, and the one on my mind most prominently today is the concept of equality. In general, I dislike the word equality, because in my opinion it’s only a functional idea on paper. Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines the word equal as follows:
Equal: adjective \ ˈē-kwəl \ of the same measure, quantity, amount or number as another; identical in mathematical value or logical denotation; like in quality, nature, or status; like for each member of a group, class, or society.
We spend a lot of time talking about equality in today’s society, but I’m not sure everyone is talking about the same thing, for starters, and I’m almost certain that real, concrete equality isn’t something that can be achieved. This is probably the most inflammatory statement I’ve made publically in a long time, but it’s something I’ve wrestled with a lot over the years and I decided I needed to use this post as a springboard to help me work through my very jumbled thoughts. So to unpack what’s in my head…
The first statement is the more benign one, so I’ll start there. The reason I’m really not sure that everyone is talking about the same thing when they talk about equality is because I’ve heard so many variations of what “equal” means. Some just want things to be evened out a bit, while others want things to be exactly the same for absolutely everyone. There are always a lot of nuances to these huge concepts. If you polled everyone you knew you’d probably get a broad swath of responses to a question about the definition of equality, all of which are based in each person’s personal experiences or their exposure to discussions on the news and elsewhere.
As with so many discussions about big ideas and concepts, we have to start with a concrete definition similar to the one I listed above. What IS equality? Well, it’s the state of being equal. So based on the definition of equal, the word equality assumes that there is a quantifiable state of sameness. The
problem with this, then, is that no two people are exactly the same, so trying to assign sameness in this context doesn’t work. It completely falls flat. I know that most people, when they talk about equality, are talking about leveling the playing field; whether that refers to pay, access to healthcare or education, or similar issues. But even then, are they REALLY talking about equality? Exactly equal, quantifiable sameness? I don’t think so. Are they saying that the pizza delivery guy should make the same wage as a brain surgeon, or even that a teacher just starting out should make the same wage as a teacher with 15 or 20 years’ experience? No. So what is this “equality” actually referring to? I believe what most people are actually talking about is equity. Merriam Webster’s online dictionary again:
Equity: noun eq·ui·ty \ ˈe-kwə-tē \ justice according to natural law or right; specifically : freedom from bias or favoritism
Equity doesn’t assume we’re all exactly the same or that we all deserve to be crammed into a single state of uniformity, quantifiable sameness, regardless of our levels of motivation, interest, education, race, creed, sexual biases or orientation…The list goes on. I, for one, resist this sameness, this box of uniformity and conformity, because I find it irksome that someone else thinks they have the right to determine whether or not I’m the same as someone else, regardless of my actual state of being.
Please don’t get me wrong: I fully understand the other side of this argument. There are many groups who have, for a long time, been marginalized, belittled, persecuted, and even killed for being different. Most of the time, they didn’t choose to be who or what they are. These people are pushed out of places they have a right to inhabit simply because someone else thinks they are inferior. That is wrong. There is no question that this is unfair, inappropriate, and often downright cruel, and I in no way mean to make light of the fact that right now, this very second, someone is being beaten or even killed because someone else decided they weren’t worth the ground they walked on or the air they breathed. I personally find this thought to be sickening. No human being should be allowed to treat another human being in a way that causes them harm. Period. But then comes my “however.” Wait for it…
However, even in light of my previous paragraph it’s a misnomer to say that everyone is equal. We aren’t equal. We are unique creatures. Even genetically identical humans have their own quirks, foibles, preferences and characteristics that make them unique from one another. Unless we are all EXACTLY alike we can’t be equal, and so we can’t expect to be treated with quantifiable sameness.
Is it wrong that a woman with an advanced degree and years of experience is overlooked for a promotion that is given to a male with less education and experience, either because he is male or because she is female? Yes. It is wrong that she is paid less than her male counterparts of similar education and experience? Yes. Is it wrong that too often the police jump to conclusions about young men of color or of (to some) obvious ethnic and/or religious origins and that our prisons are overloaded with these individuals while others who should be incarcerated walk free? Yes. Is it wrong that deserving white students are turned down at colleges and universities all over the country in order to offer positions to less-qualified students to fulfill diversity mandates (either by law or school policy)? Yes. Is there a high potential for squashing motivation, productivity, innovation and creativity when an individual’s rights are superseded by those of others simply because someone else has decided that quantifiable sameness is the only way to approach education or business? Yes.
Instead of imposing the quantifiable sameness of equality on society, we should instead embrace equity. Equity allows for a certain amount of equality (access to resources like healthcare and education, opportunities to better oneself) while recognizing that not everyone wants or even has use for these things. There are people who are more motivated toward self-improvement through training and education who deserve access but are denied because others of low or no motivation are offered the opportunity first. I believe strongly that we as a society squander talent and potential by allowing this to happen. I believe that people should have to demonstrate a genuine interest and aptitude before being offered opportunities they may otherwise take only because those opportunities are a port in a storm, and not because they are a way to better themselves.
It is true that many people don’t know how to begin and/or aren’t raised to believe they can strive for something and achieve success, but that’s where those in positions of influence and decision-making, especially those in education and training, should step in. It is our job to recognize potential, to suss out levels of interest and motivation, and to work with employees and students to help them figure out the best ways to reach their potential. Some will be more motivated than others. Some will care and some won’t. Some will work hard to earn what they receive, and others will stand with their hands out, expecting to receive without trying because they believe they deserve the help, regardless of their situations, actual ability, or interest in achieving.
Please hear me: In these cases, I don’t advocate turning our backs on these individuals—indeed, I believe that most of them just need encouragement to find something they are passionate about, and assistance in learning how to achieve success. It’s our job as educators and trainers to help them find themselves. Some will reach for the stars, but some will always do the minimum and expect to be handed the fruits of someone else’s labor despite all efforts to help them improve themselves. You will never convince me that the second individual, the one who does the minimum and won’t do more (notice I didn’t say can’t, I said won’t), deserves to be considered the equal of the first individual, who works hard and achieves even a small measure of success. Should they have access the same opportunities? Absolutely. Do they both deserve exactly the same result despite the disparity in their efforts? No.
I wish I could find a way to convince people that all too often they are using the wrong word for what they’re seeking. I recognize that some truly are asking for quantifiable sameness, and I feel for them and the level of frustration they must deal with living in a society of individuals of differing talents, gifts, abilities, and levels of motivation and ambition. To the rest of you, please stop and think about what you mean when you use the word equal. Do you really mean quantifiable sameness, or do you mean something else?