Collective Wisdom Contemplative Activism

Collective blind spot #3: the equality complex

This blog series has focused on three revolutionary ideas that have slowly turned into dogmas: the faith in the power of rationality and scientific inquiry, individualism, and equality. I am arguing that seeing these enlightenment concepts as “the truth” has created our most dangerous collective blind spots.

Equality is the most difficult of these ideas to question. Almost all of us owe a great deal political movements that used ideals of equality as a rallying cry. Most of us come from ancestral lines who were peasants and serfs or were enslaved. A central tactic in their arguments and battles for the rights we now have, was to point out the vast similarities between themselves and humans at vastly different positions in the social hierarchy. Arguments that we are equality have brought groups closer together but not to equality. It has been barely more than 100 years since women could vote, and non-white people have been denied the vote until very recently by people that called themselves democratic. It has been a historical eyeblink since anybody but Kings and nobles had a real say in any country on Earth. As activism based on ideology of equality has achieved these thngs, the ideal of equality has become very ingrained.

So our attachment to equality is understandable. Another principle that we hold deeply is open mindedness and the notion that truth can always be questioned. These principles, actually, made it easier, not that many generations ago, to question the extreme inequality between people. The right of Kings to rule was yesterday’s dogma.

In order to demonstrate that equality is something of a dogma, I will ask you to consider these statements:

Money is not a source of suffering, but an obsession with money is.

Achievement is not a source of suffering, but an obsession with achievement is.

Being good looking is not a source of suffering, but an obsession with being good looking is.

There are many things that do not cause suffering, but an obsession with anything is a source of suffering.

My experience is that most people would agree with these, but many get uncomfortable if I repeat:

equality is not a source of suffering, but the equality complex (an obsession with it) is.

This last statement is a quote from the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. It is the only statement of his (that I know of) that reliably seems to raise people’s defences. There are good reasons for that defensiveness, but still I want to ask if it is a sign of dogma. If we think dogma has costs, then we should look more deeply to see what those are.

Or perhaps I should say: when Thich Nhat Hanh says the above quote, people are puzzled, but when I repeat it, they often say: ”…but we can’t just accept massive inequality!”

Now one could say that it should be obvious I am not saying that we should accept massive inequality. If I said “I think being obsessed with looking good causes me suffering” would it be reasonable to conclude that I mean “I am happy to look terrible.” No.

But, of course, I am a white male Zen non-master, and am privileged in western society, which is privileged relative to the whole world. So some people that I have spoken to have reasonably suspected me of using Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote to preserve these privileges. As long as I am selfish (I have an ego) there will always be an element of that, I will be defensive and ignorant because not being conscious of how I am unfairly advantaged is the easiest way to keep my advantages. I think many white males would report that it would be nice if they could get through a day without being reminded of inequality in a way that makes them feel guilty, but if white males try, we can understand why other people don’t sympathise with us that much.

The reality of equality is, however, that few people anywhere have shown the total belief in equality required to give away enough of their money to be equal in financial privileges to others. Speaking collectively, though we may have high ideals, these are not supported by deep convictions about equality in the West, or as a society we would be making ambitious plans to share our wealth. Foreign aid is less than one percent of most rich countries’ GDP and whether our foreign aid is well spent is a hotly debated issue.

At this point we can say that our ideals are bulls**t and commence hating ourselves and maybe even humans, generally. But to do this misses the point of ideals. Ideals are representations of the way things could be that we hold close to our awareness, ideas are images “about” life, life itself will never be ideal. The amount of resentment and hatred in around ideas of equality reflects exactly the same intellectual

Some people think that, by accepting that we fall short of ideals, we opens the door to simply being nationalist or racist. But the door to these things has always been open – just not ‘officially’. As world politics shows, despite decades of being taboo, these ideas are still here, and growing lately in their potency.

On the other hand, if we claim to actually live up to our ideals of equality, those of us who want the West to reckon with its historical legacies of colonialism and violence are easily dismissed as hypocrites. We are better served by the combination of high ideals and compassion for both ourselves and others that ancient wisdom traditions advocate, but which is absent from our current public discourse. If we have an obsession with equality, this translates into a lack of compassion and an acrimony that is stiffling a discourse which has to include six billion people.

The global warming crisis is going to make the shallowness of our interest in equality abundantly clear. We have to admit that we have not shown equal concern for our children as we do for ourselves, much less for people in other countries. We westerners are going to continue to be asked if we will let in refugees from abroad, and our proclamations that we deeply believe in the equal worth of all human lives will be put to the test. So far, the results are not very heartening.

The most necessary step to prepare ourselves at the emotional level is to act more consistently with our high ideals of equality is to accept that all egoic people, which in practice means all people, have a tendency towards selfishness and group identity that means we care more about ourselves than others. Habits like drinking too much or shoplifting, or telling lies are always easier to work with when we are honest with ourselves about their existence. Proclamations of belief in equality do little to change our passion and pleasure-driven habits, and trying to hold onto or enforce these ideals with an iron grip turns into resentment, or an absurd twisting of the truth in order to escape guilt and shame. We can constantly be conscious of and try to transform our tendency to love ourselves more than our neighbour, but this tendency will not easily go away in white western males, or among The West as a whole as it relates to the rest of the world.

This is because of ego and power. Having power (as we usually define it) means that you don’t have to be equal if you don’t want to be. Having an ego means you don’t want to be equal.

None of this means that we shouldn’t aspire to fairness, we should. What it means is that, as long as there is power and selfishness, there will not be equality. If we expect their to be equality when there is not then we get hatred. When there is hatred, there is friction lies and no-communication, and all of these things get in the way of meaningful action.

So for purely pragmatic reasons, we will need to find a way to be less reactive when ideals of equality are violated. If the environmental movement hatefully says we must treat all others with complete equality, it risks undermining its own credibility, because only saints really achieve this. We have to be careful not to produce paralysis from fearful inaction, but also hateful action, both deepen an ecological disaster which is tragically unequal in its consequences. The climate crisis may be so brutal in the choices that it presents to the privileged and well-armed West that norms of equality and universalism themselves will be challenged. If we end up replacing these ideals themselves with a return to open chauvanism, that will be the greatest tragedy – but it is a real possibility that is not taken seriously mostly because it is too unpleasant to consider.

As hinted above, I feel that re-integrating what wisdom traditions such the major religions and indigenous traditions have to teach us about love is the best way of really understanding, or even moving beyond our current ideals of equality. Love operates in a much different way than moralistic judgements about equality, but one which is hard to intellectualise, which is why love has found itself out of place in our rationalistic world. It is, however, something that seems to create social change more effectively than does our current heavy moralism, as the work of the greatest peacemakers of the twentieth century showed. Future blog posts will discuss this point in the context of Art / Earth / Tech’s new initiative for contemplative activism.

Sunday salon

On Sunday 12th July, Dr Liam Kavanagh will be leading a discussion on this topic for our online Sunday Salon. Do join us.