“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
This quote is practically religion in the United States. Many historians consider it to be the most significant and enduring of all texts of the American Revolution.
So what if I told you it was false? And that our insistence on its truth is part of the problem we are living today.
Think about it. All men (and by men, I mean people) are NOT created equal.
People are actually very UNEQUAL. Beyond the very basics, they are born with different natural abilities, strengths and weaknesses, personalities and dispositions. Some people are born with profound physical and mental disabilities, some are born with less obvious, but equally debilitating disabilities, which could include anything from drug addiction (think crack babies) to autism to old-fashioned simplemindedness. Some people have remarkable talents and abilities. Some people are outgoing, some are shy.
Beyond that, some people are born into very comfortable circumstances and some are born into very challenging ones. Those circumstances can either exacerbate or ameliorate the natural physical, physiological and psychological tendencies the person was born with.
If you are a parent, I think you know what I mean when I say “Fair does not mean equal.” It’s usually pretty easy to see the differences between your children. If you have more than one child, you probably find ways to compensate for the differences among your children to make sure they all have an equal shot at a successful, independent life. One child may have a math tutor, another may have asthma medicine. You mete out resources to your children in ways that are fair, but not necessarily equal.
When Jefferson wrote “that all men are created equal,” the idea was that, despite their differences, all men should be treated equally before the law and carry equal status vis a vis the ownership of property. (Once upon a time, property could only be owned by men of certain “status.”). It is a kind of leveling principle to help make things more fair and to guarantee that no special privileges or exceptions were granted based on wealth or status.
But coupled with the great American Myth of the Rugged Individual, this enduring American myth of equality has transcended its original meaning to become a sound byte that justifies a survival-of-the fittest attitude about individuals’ economic status. That is to say, in America we believe that all men are created equal. Therefore, all men have an equal opportunity to become rich. Therefore, if you’re not rich, that’s your fault. And if you’re poor, well, you’re just not trying hard enough.
But, in fact, without a systemic leveling of the playing field that is a large part of what government’s role should be in a Democratic society, the inherent inequality among people just leads to an increasing polarization of society, in which only the rich can afford good schools, health care and the like, in a self-perpetuating cycle.
Are we ready to start owning up to reality and talking about inequality and injustice? About what is fair rather than what is equal? Are we willing to start talking about a kind of compassionate pragmatism that recognizes that all people are not equal and some people need more help than others just to be able to live a decent existence?