My daughter asked me: 'Mom, what does equality mean?' I was naïve enough to think that I could give a simple answer, albeit with a little googling in secret, so that she wouldn't think I was a total nincompoop.
But the more I googled, the more I realized that the meaning of equality is so slippery and complex that it completely boggled my mind. I took solace in realizing that it had also boggled, or at least occupied the minds of numerous philosophers for the past several millennia. So I have resigned myself to the fact that it would take more time than I have left on this earth to truly wrap my head around the concept.
It reminds me of the story of the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, such as the tail or the trunk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement.
I felt like that, a person groping in the dark, sometimes thinking that equality was the tail, sometimes thinking that it was the trunk, and disagreeing with what I had previously thought equality meant.
It isn't easy to see the full elephant, to see the full meaning of equality. It would take a lot more googling and a lot more brain activity before the whole elephant emerges. But for now, let me bless you with the fruits of my exploration.
It all started with those Greek guys. Yeah, I am talking about Aristotle, Socrates and Plato. They were really on to something, saying that equality was to be applied to things that are 'alike'. You cannot proclaim that a slave and a king are 'equal' because they are not 'alike'. Nor are women and men for that matter. They just don't belong in the same category. So my advice: take those guys with a grain of salt, or they'll mess with your mind.
Then came the Middle Ages, a huge step backwards for equality under Christian rule and the royalty. Jesus himself was very egalitarian, but the Catholic church, which he and his followers founded, became very absolutist. The Greek heritage of rationalism and at least a modicum of democracy were lost and only recovered during the Enlightenment. During the Renaissance the more advanced thinking of Antiquity was reborn.
During the Enlightenment years, along came troublemakers like John Locke, David Hume and Thomas Hobbes, who really got serious about the concept of equality. They made things complicated by saying that everybody was born equal. That was a problem, because if we are all equal and free to do what we want, what's to prevent us from infringing on each other's equality and freedom? Enter the necessity for the 'Leviathan' (government), to keep things from descending into anarchy. And to keep things…. you guessed it: equal.
Compared to earlier times, the Enlightenment created a culture of much higher intolerance for extreme inequality. People had reached a higher level of moral consciousness. Many groups still weren't worthy of being considered equal, though. Women, slaves, blacks, Jews, etc. It took a long time before they were included in the equation.
But we are getting there. All the hiccups of modern society should be seen in a relative light. We have no stomach for unequal treatment of minorities, of the disabled, of children. Our circle of inclusion is expanding to include more and more groups which is a good thing, no?
I realize that I am approaching this delicate, intricate subject with a sledgehammer, or at least with a cleaver to cut through the layers upon layers of complexity. What I am trying to get at, is why the core concept of equality is so important. I believe that we all have an instinctive sense that equality is the basis for a decent life. It is linked to notions of liberty, justice and fairness. In fact, it is so essential to humanity, that many people would rather die than live with what they see as extreme inequality.
Everyone has a sense of justice and equality because our disposition is to seek balance. We have two sides to our nature, we have day and night, life and death, youth and old age, summer and winter.
So, real-life experience is perhaps the best way to get at the truth about equality. To be treated unequally goes against the grain of human nature, which will then rebel. Philosophers have spent a great deal of time theorizing about the nature of equality, but in the end, it boils down to the fact that the quest for equality is part of being human.
I believe that we are all born with a sense of equality and if we do not experience it in life, there is always going to be a desire to recreate it, like an itch that you want to scratch until it's gone.