Tag Archives: ideals

Egalitarianism; A Practice in Self-Scrutiny

Genuine self-scrutiny is a personal virtue that is much easier preached than practiced.  Usually the furthest most of us are willing to go is a relativistic acknowledgment that differing opinions exist and that, all things considering, we would be willing to change our minds if these alternative viewpoints were to persuade us sufficiently.  But, in my opinion, this sort of tacit relativism isn’t much in the way of self-scrutiny.  To self-scrutinize is to actively challenge the values and ideals we hold dear to our person–to dare to shake the foundation holding up our most cherished beliefs, and test if the structure on which we house our beliefs is sturdy enough to withstand a direct attack.  In contrast, the aforementioned acknowledgment that differing (and potentially equally valid) views exist to our own is a very passive stance, as it strictly relies on an external source to come along and challenge our own position(s), with no actual self-scrutiny being involved in the process.

Up to this point, this very post can be rightfully characterized among the passive variant; i.e. it’s me (an external source) attempting to challenge you to question the manner by which you view the world around you.  Although there are occasionally posts on this blog in which I sincerely try to adopt opposing stances to my own, the truth is that I do this primarily to better strengthen my own position by being able to effectively understand what I’m arguing against.  This, too, is not self-scrutiny.  And it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.

To truly self-scrutinize I would have to pick a position–a value, an ideal–by which I orientate my worldview around, and mercilessly strip it to its bone.  The frustrating part of such a mental exercise is the inevitability of having to rely on generalizations of my own opinions in order to be able to paraphrase them thoroughly enough, without getting trapped in a game over petty semantics.  The important thing to remember is that the points I will be arguing over with myself in this post are admittedly stripped of their nuances regarding some obvious exceptions and caveats, so as to not lose focus of addressing the underlying principles that are being discussed.  Consider that a disclaimer for the more pedantic-minded among my readers (you know who you are).

First, it would be helpful if I stated a value by which I orientate my worldview around, prior to trying to poke holes in it.  Above most else, as long as I can remember, I have always valued the egalitarian approach to most facets of human interaction.  I truly do believe that the most effective, and just, and fair means for society to function is for its sociopolitical and judiciary elements to strive for as equitable an approach to administering its societal role as possible.  In this view, I also recognized that this can more realistically be considered an ideal for society to endeavor towards rather than an all-encompassing absolute–nonetheless, I still see it as a valuable ideal for modern society to be striving towards, even if we must acknowledge that its perfect implementation may forever be out of our grasps.

Additionally, I should clarify that I do not necessarily claim this personal value of mine to be derived from anything higher than my own personal preferences to how I think society ought to be.  Yes, it is subjective, because it is subject to my desires and interests, however I would argue that this is true of just about any alternative/opposing viewpoint that may be brought up.  Furthermore, the merits and benefits I believe to be implicit in my personal preference of an egalitarian society (though admittedly subjective) are, in my opinion, independently verifiable outside of just my own internal desires.  In short, I value egalitarianism on account that, because I have no just and tangible means by which to sift through who merits to occupy which position in the social hierarchy, I consider it important that (if nothing else, at least on the basic application of our political and judicial proceedings), we hold all members of society to an equal standard.  Moreover, not that it matters to determining the validity of the egalitarian viewpoint, but I’m convinced that the majority of the people reading this will have little trouble agreeing with the benefits of such a worldview (though probably more in principle, while leaving room on disagreement on the most practical means by which to apply said principle in a social framework).

Now, the immediate issue I see arising with this stance of mine is the objection that genuine egalitarianism can easily lead to outright conformity–especially enforced conformity–as a society built on the model of complete equality might find it difficult to function unless it actively sets out to maintain the equality it’s seeking to establish.

It is a harsh fact that large-scale human interaction is not naturally egalitarian; meaning that left to their own devices there is little in historical evidence to suggest that a society of people will not diversify themselves into a multi-layered hierarchy; thereby instinctively creating the social disparity that the egalitarian mindset is aiming to combat.  The most obvious response would be to insist that egalitarianism simply means that the basic functions of society (i.e. the laws) have to be applied equally, and that as long as measures are upheld in society, the system can self-correct to its default setting.  Yet, this outlook is only convincing as long as one is inclined to have faith in the sincerity of the application of the law, in terms of holding all in society to an equal standard.  This also brings us to the issue of who is to be the arbiter warranted with upholding the principles of an egalitarian system.  The judicial system?  The policymakers?  The public at large?  And does this then bestow on these individuals a set of authority (i.e. power and privilege) that thereby creates a disparity which in itself violates the very premise of a truly egalitarian model?

“In a democratic society, the authority rests with the people in the society to ultimately decide on who is to be the arbiter(s) to ensure that equality is being upheld in said society on the people’s behalf.”

But maintaining social equality by means of representative democracy brings us to the issue of having those in the minority opinion be subject to the whims of the majority.  And is this not also in itself a violation of what an egalitarian society ought to be striving for?

When we play out the potential pitfalls of every one of these concerns what we end up with is the realization that, in practice, egalitarianism seems to only function when applied on a selective basis.  Complete equality, across the board, on all matters, has the serious consequence of either ending up in a social gridlock (rendering all manners of progress on any issue impossible), or coercion (negating the benignity that is ideally associated with egalitarianism).

I’ve heard it said how in this sort of a discussion it is important to differentiate between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity; that the latter is the truly worthwhile goal an egalitarian ought to be striving for in order to ensure a just and fair society.  I’m not sure this does much to address the primary issue at hand.

If there exists no disparity in opportunity, but we reserve room for an inequity in outcome, than will it not be the case that you will still end up with a select number of individuals occupying a higher role in the social hierarchy than others?  And once the foundation is laid for such a development, is it not just as likely that those who end up occupying a higher role could put in place measures that will be of interest to themselves alone; or even at the expense of those who fall into lower social roles?  Meaning that even though in this model all opportunity was equally available at first, the caveat that different people can have different outcomes–fall into more favorable and less favorable social conditions–fails to safeguard against the potential dilemma of having those who manage to rise high enough manipulating matters in society to their advantage; thereby stifling the outcome and opportunity potentials of future generations.  If the rebuttal is that in a truly egalitarian society measures would be in place to prevent this, we fall back to the question of who exactly is to be the arbiter warranted with upholding the principles of an egalitarian system?  Thus bringing us full-circle to the line of inquiry mentioned in the preceding paragraphs; hence, making an equality of outcome vs an equality of opportunity distinction does little to nothing to resolve the issues being discussed here.

All these objections are ones that, even as someone who considers himself an egalitarian, I can sympathize with.  Mainly because I don’t have any way to refute them without appealing to a personal intuition that these concerns are not endemic to an egalitarian model and that it’s ultimately feasible to avoid such potential pitfalls when we leave room within the social system to be amendable to debate and revision.  However, I have to also admit that I’m not always entirely sure of this myself.

This problem brings me directly to the confrontation of what should be valued more in society:  the complete equality of all people, or the value of the autonomous individual?  And whether creating such a dichotomy is necessary, or a balance can be struck in satisfying the interests of both entities?

The threat that removing all disparity that exists between all individuals might lead to a stifling of the distinct individuality of people is something I believe is worth worrying over.  What good is a world where equality is triumphant but reigns on the merits of absolute sameness?  Not to mention, what will happen to the human ingenuity all of us in modern life depend on for our survival as a society?  The prospect of attaining personal achievement is necessitated by one’s ability to stand out above the fold, and create something unique and distinct from that which is common.  The possibility that this drive will be held in suspect in a completely egalitarian world, in the name of preemptively combating all forms of perceived inequality, no matter how unpleasant it might be to my core values to acknowledge, is not something I can dismiss simply because it’s inconvenient to my worldview.  Essentially, I believe that it would be unwise to simply brush off the point that a world safeguarded to the point where no one falls, is also potentially a world where no one rises.

When I started writing this post I had a standard set of points I knew I would raise to fulfill my interest of demonstrating a genuine attempt at unrestrained self-scrutiny.  I know that some readers might wonder why I’m not doing more to combat the objections I’ve raised here against my own egalitarian perspective, and the simple truth is that it’s because I understand my desire for egalitarianism to be practical and feasible rests almost entirely on the fact that I want both of those things to be true, as it would validate my presupposed worldview, by fiat.  Nonetheless, I do understand that reality does not depend on my personal whims and wishes.  In all honesty, having actually reasoned out the premises here, I’m left wondering why, if for the sake of practicality we will undoubtedly always be forced to be to some extent selective with our approach to egalitarianism, we (myself included) even bother calling it egalitarianism at all?  Perhaps there is a term out there that more honestly fits what most of us mean when we strive to uphold what we refer to as egalitarian principles.  That, however, is a wholly separate discussion to my intentions here.  My goal was to hold my own views and values to the fire and see where it ends up.  In that goal, I think I’ve succeeded…what results from it will take a bit more thinking on my part to figure out.

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Graham Greene’s The Quiet American & the Dangers of Ideology

When it comes to examining the world around us, most people find it impossible not to let their ideals of how the world should be influence their view of how the world actually is.  To the individual, the ideals s/he project onto the world are not just some arbitrary concepts, but the very mode by which a person’s identity can be defined; it is in this mindset that ideologies are created.  And once one’s ideology–one’s ideals–become a personal cause, the greatest difficulty confronting the individual will not be finding the means by which to further this cause, but maintaining the sketchy line between one’s greater identity and one’s circumscribed ideology separate; to keep the former from fully succumbing to the latter.

Set in the backdrop of 1950s war afflicted Vietnam, the prominent theme that runs through Graham Greene’s war novel The Quiet American, is the omen of letting one’s ideals of life take precedents over life itself.  This message is explored through the contrasting characters of Thomas Fowler and Alden Pyle.  The former (Fowler) is a cynical, middle-aged British reporter, who views his role in the warring country as staunchly nonaligned with any side or ideology, stating, “It has been an article of my creed.  The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved” (page 28).  Pyle, on the other hand, is an impressionable, idealistic young American, enchanted with the romantic idea that it is his duty to help spread democracy to the oppressed parts of the world. [I should note that at the time the book was published, 1955, the conflict in Vietnam was still predominantly a struggle between the French (who had up to then held the country as a colony), and the Vietnamese Communists looking to end France’s colonial rule and establish an independent (communist) state; during all of this, America’s official role in the region was still much subtler than what it would become in the 1960s and 70s.]

Throughout the plot, Fowler refers to Pyle as innocent, to describe the way the young man viewed the world and the childlike affect this has on him:

I was to see many times that look of pain and disappointment touch his eyes and mouth when reality didn’t match the romantic ideals he cherished, or when someone he loved or admired dropped below the impossible standard he had set.

Characters like Pyle are not complicated or hard to explain.  He is someone who has been educated to venerate and see the absolute nobility in the notions he has come to value.  In the book, ideas of freedom and democracy are as tangible to the young American, as any object or person.  Unsurprisingly, this puts him at odds with the pessimistic Fowler, who scoffs at the youngster, “I laugh at anyone who spends so much time writing about what doesn’t exist–mental concepts” (page 94).  He is a reporter, first and foremost, and his job is to observe and report the unfiltered facts of the situation.  At times, the reader is left wondering how much of Fowler’s cynicism stems from having observed and reported on so much despair in the world, that the promises of hope offered up by any ideology seem too hollow in light of life’s suffering to even bothering considering.  This sentiment is best captured when Fowler and Pyle are stuck in hostile territory, and the two engage in a heated discussion about Pyle’s idealistic convictions; the exchange begins with Fowler stating:

“Sometimes the Viets have a better success with the megaphone than a bazooka.  I don’t blame them.  They don’t believe in anything either.  You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested.”

“They don’t want Communism.”

“They want enough rice,” [Fowler says].  “They don’t want to be shot at.  They want one day to be much the same as another.  They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want […] If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles wearing their pointed hats” (pages 94-95).

Fowler understands that Pyle’s hopes and dreams for the Vietnamese people come from benign intentions (page 133), but he has little patience in humoring the idea that the underlying motivation of the idealists behind all the virtues the young man treasures is little more than naive armchair philosophizing.  Nonetheless, Pyle holds to his belief that his principles are of benefit for the people, in contrast to the alternatives being offered:

“They’ll be forced to believe what they are told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.”

“Thought’s a luxury.  Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?”

“You talk as if the whole country were peasant. What about the educated?  Are they going to be happy?”

“Oh no,” [Fowler says], “we’ve brought them up in our ideas.  We’ve taught them dangerous games, and that’s why we are waiting here, hoping we don’t get our throats cut […]  Isms and ocracies.  Give me facts” (page 95).

To the reader, a great bit of irony comes from the fact that Fowler’s own anti-ideology stance, sounds much like an ideology in and of itself; a staunch conviction to remain untainted by the stains of ideals.  Fowler himself appears to notice this problem, and quickly amends, “I don’t take sides.  I’ll be still reporting whoever wins” (page 96).  Pyle is unconvinced of the sincerity in Fowler’s words, and pointedly remarks how his apathy to which side (i.e. ideology) wins the war, conflicts with his statements about individual value:

“Do you want everybody to be made in the same mould?  You’re arguing for the sake of arguing.  You’re an intellectual.  You stand for the importance of the individual as much as I do” (page 97).

To which Fowler bitingly responds:

“Don’t go on in the East with that parrot cry about a threat to the individual soul.  Here you’d find yourself on the wrong side–it’s they who stand for the individual and we just stand for Private 23987, unit in the global strategy” (page 97).

Fowler’s point is that the idea of military endeavors standing in as the great defenders of the individual, when military personal are by necessity trained to eschew their individuality for the sake of becoming a monolithic unit, is a highly facetious proposition.  Furthermore, one can deduce from Fowler’s tone that he views the individual to be an entity that exists in the moment, for the moment; thus ideologies (and the ideals they are founded on), which perpetually aim to always establish a desired state of existence for some future condition, are innately antithetical to the interests of the individual.

Despite his animosity with Pyle’s idealistic views, Fowler does not consider the American to be the cause of this problem he has with ideological thinking, but a consequence of it.  And as a consequence, Pyle is doomed to give the necessary sacrifice to the cause he chose to allow to define him as a person:

“They killed him because he was too innocent to live.  He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved.  He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about, and you gave him money and York Harding’s books on the East and said, ‘Go ahead.  Win the East for Democracy.’  he never saw anything he hadn’t heard in a lecture-hall, and his writers and his lecturers made a fool of him.  When he saw a dead body he couldn’t even see the wounds.  A Red menace, a soldier of democracy” (pages 31-32).

It is easy to philosophize about the world, create values and meaning safely within the confines of one’s head, but it’s when one sets out to make such mental concepts a reality, that it becomes clear how reality is not contingent on the romantic musings you have constructed from your desk.  Yet, ideologies aren’t really dependent on reality either, they are based on further mental constructs, limited solely by one’s conception of possibilities; aimed at what situation can be achieved, not what the situation currently is.  And if it weren’t for our conviction that reality is negotiable, would humanity ever have accomplished as much as it did?  Did we not, in our brief history as a species, constantly redefine and reevaluate what is possible–what is attainable in reality?  Ideals are dangerous in the way they can consume a person’s self-identity, but without ideals would we have no prospect for betterment as a whole?  It may be true that reality simply is what it is, and not what we want it to be, but if we can convince enough people to believe otherwise–to subscribe to the ideals and values we wish to promote–does it really matter what reality is anyway?  The strict definition becomes relative and redundant–for most of us.

Bibliography

Greene, Graham.  The Quiet American.  Penguin Books:  New York, 1955 (1973 reprint).