In recent years, some people have noted the increasing importance of metaphor in public discourse, and the way changes over time to these metaphors (whether deliberately imposed or not) affect discourse, politics, and human experience. This is, like many but not all politically-oriented problems, something that happens on both sides of the aisle, as a natural consequence of political rhetoric (since politics is about, among other things, expressing complicated issues in simplified terms so people can make decisions without being paralyzed by their own ignorance). I’d like to focus for the moment on two terms that have undergone such a shift in meaning as to become almost trivial: tolerance and equality.
Both of these concepts have been held up as cornerstones of liberal democracy for a couple centuries, and rightly so. Liberal democracy is founded upon the universality of human rights—the “for all” is just as significant as the “liberty and justice.” The existence of such rights is great in and of itself, but it’s meaningless if it’s reserved for some arbitrarily chosen group of people. Rights are only rights as long as we can effectively take them for granted (not that we should) regardless of our socioeconomic status, race, gender, country of residence, religion or lack thereof, etc.; if there is a possibility of arbitrary abridging of these rights, they are more accurately described as privileges. Moral values must be universally applicable, as I’ve said, but they also must be universally applied. From these ideas are born the concepts of equality and tolerance.
In the case of equality, there has been a transition over the last few decades from equal respect and opportunity to a sort of enforced, end-result sameness. The idea that “all men are created equal” has been taken out of the context of inviolable natural rights and placed in a bubble of thick-headed literalism, wherein the constructs of fairness and impartiality are applied in deeply flawed ways. This manifests itself in the obvious political and social ways, namely affirmative action, and this is certainly something I’ll get to in future posts (the steadfast pursuit of affirmative action policies has been one of my main quarrels with the Democratic party, as thoroughly as I tend to align myself with progressive/liberal points of view), but it is also present in a more abstract sense: the equality of ideas.
(More below the fold.)
The “All Ideas Are Created Equal” Fallacy
One of the tactics of the Intelligent Design movement, to use a current and particularly relevant example, has been to cast the debate on science education in terms of equality and fairness, concepts that the vast majority of people are loathe to oppose. The idea being propagated is not so much that all men are created equal, though, as it is that all ideas are created equal. The falsity of this statement is obvious to anyone who stops to consider it, but the strategy has been surprisingly successful precisely because people don’t stop to think about it. Equality as a term and a concept has, in many arenas, been so utterly drained of substance that it only exists as an empty signifier. Because most of us have learned that it’s a Good Thing to think of all people as having the same inviolable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (and property, if you’re feeling especially Lockean), we automatically take ‘equality’ as a broader concept to be a Good Thing, no matter what the context may be.
When this is extrapolated into the realm of ideas, though, damage is done. All ideas are not created equal; some of them are uninformed, irrational, inconsistent, and just plain stupid. This is not only true of pseudoscientific posturing—it’s also relevant to broader questions of culture, morality, and religion. Where neoconservatives often cultivate an ignorant xenophobia regarding other cultures and religions, many liberals have adopted an irresponsible and misguided view of equality, wherein any difference that can possibly be lumped under the heading of cultural relativity is forgiven out of a respect for cultural difference.
Such a view, however, is not compatible with the ideas of natural human rights that are at the heart of our concept of equality. If a given culture is engaging, say, in a brutal and systematic oppression of women, we cannot reasonably forgive this is a mere cultural difference, as if it were worthy of notice but ultimately just a matter of different societies and different views. The only way we could reasonably forgive such a thing would be if there were some rationally coherent and defensible definition of personhood such that women aren’t people and could therefore be deprived of the natural rights we hold to be self-evident. To my knowledge, no one has ever offered a consistent definition of personhood or humanity that would lead to this view; therefore, there are conclusions that we can accept as universal (at least until someone produces a valid argument to the contrary), such as that women have the same natural rights as men. If we take this to be the case, which I suspect anyone reading this does, then we can find no possible justification for ignoring the oppression of women simply because of notions of cultural relativism. Yes, these things vary from culture to culture, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no element of absolute, at least as far as human reason is concerned. Dismissing these differences as mere cultural relativity is a serious mistake.
This is, I suppose, where tolerance comes into play. Tolerance as a moral value refers to tolerance of people despite personal differences. If my neighbor is of a different race/gender/religion/sexual orientation/political persuasion than me, I ought to tolerate him/her, because he/she is still, underneath these differences, a human being. Again, the issue comes back to natural rights; I tolerate my neighbor despite our differences, because he/she has the exact same inviolable rights as I do, even if he/she is gay or Mexican or Catholic or what have you. The line between ‘good’ tolerance and ‘bad’ or ‘misguided’ tolerance is perhaps a bit flimsier than the line between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ conceptions of equality I talked about above, but it’s still there. The crux of it is this: ideas don’t have rights. Human progress can be accurately represented as a dialectical process, wherein ideas clash against one another, and the better one comes out on top. (Unfortunately this has historically tended to result in people clashing against one another too, but that doesn’t devalue the dialectic, and hopefully it’s something we’ll eventually grow out of.) We don’t abandon our neighbors to natural selection, because we hold human life to be intrinsically valuable; bad ideas, however, should be allowed to die, in favor of better ideas.
Tolerance of people is noble and universally good, as is equality in the sense of recognizing the inalienable natural rights of all human beings. When these concepts are removed from their human context and applied in shortsighted and shallow ways to ideas, it is both a perversion of good moral concepts and a disservice to human ideas and reason. We have an obligation to ourselves and to each other to point out bad ideas when they appear in front of us. We have a responsibility to use our powers of reason to arrive at universally applicable moral values, and then to actually apply those values. As worthy a goal as cultural sensitivity is, human rights come first and foremost. As wonderful as freedom of press is, the media ought not force itself to dedicate equal airtime to all sets of competing ideas in a blind pursuit of ‘fairness’ when some ideas are, objectively speaking, invalid, unreasonable, and downright false. This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t allow people to express bad ideas, because of course we do hold freedoms of speech and expression sacrosanct. There is an objectively real world, though, and we must deal with that world as rationally as we can, so that hopefully some day we can manage to live in it without killing each other en masse. I am ecstatic that equality and tolerance exist in larger measures than they ever have in the past, even if prejudice and intolerance are still disappointingly widespread, but it disturbs me that in so many cases, these noble ideals are being used as placeholders for things with which they can’t be reasonably associated. Things that are, when it comes down to it, thoroughly antithetical to the actual ideals. Equality and tolerance, fairness and justice: these are more than empty buzzwords, and we ought to do everything in our power to keep them that way.