I have recently seen posts in social media suggesting that ‘egalitarian’ and ‘egalitarianism’ are ineffective responses to the Black Lives Matter campaign. One post in particular that has been doing the rounds states that no one mentioned egalitarian until feminism was talked about. Personally, I think that this particular post is intended to be inflammatory and to provoke a negative response to the campaign against racism. It is also factually incorrect, but that really does not seem to matter much these days.
John Locke (1632-1704) may not have used the word egalitarian, which was coined in 1881 from the French egalitaire, but he certainly held that ‘everyone at all times and places has equal natural moral rights that all of us ought always to respect’. This is very much an egalitarian statement.
I was born physically disabled and grew up during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Disabled people are not particularly well treated today as it is, but it was even worse back then. From my first day at school I was treated differently to other children. It was presumed then that a child with a physical disability suffered a mental impairment as well. This is reflected in the teacher’s comments in my school reports. I was awarded a certificate at the annual prize giving for ‘perseverance’. I knew what the word meant, but that only amplified the degree of condescension the certificate represented. My grades and achievements at school did not reflect my efforts so much as the teachers’ assessments of my potential, which was pretty low. At our careers day, I said that I wanted to become a palaeontologist. The person who asked me the question did not know what that was, a friend of mine informed them that it was a research scientist; he told me that such a goal was beyond my abilities and that I should think of something a little more realistic.
After leaving school I eventually got a job working for a large multinational company that offered all kinds of opportunities. I had been there sometime when my manager called me into his office and told me that I should think of looking for something elsewhere, or even going to college to improve my academic qualifications. He was the best manager that I ever had. It turns out that he had put me forward for a junior executive development program run by the company as, in his estimation and from working with me; he judged that I was more than qualified for it. The senior management disagreed. They replied that they had only approved my recruitment because I held a Green Card. In the 1970’s large employers were expected to have approximately 20-25% of their staff as registered disabled employees; green card holders. As far as the senior management were concerned, I could spend the rest of my working life in a cupboard, as long as I retained my green card.
So, I did go to college and I read John Locke, as part of the philosophy course I joined. I became very aware of the level of prejudice and discrimination that being physically disabled made me subject to. I also became aware of the same thing happening to others simply because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, creed, and even nationality. There were many different campaigns going on to combat this situation, all for valid reasons, but all distinct and separate from each other. It occurred to me that they all had one thing in common; prejudice. It also occurred to me that a commitment to egalitarianism might provide the answer.
As an egalitarian I believe that every individual should receive equality of treatment and opportunity from the society that they live in. Any other consideration, such as race, disability, gender, etc., should be ignored. A person is a person irrespective of these other characteristics and should always be treated as such. Equality, in the way I have defined, should not only be a human right, it should also be a social norm.
One of the reasons why I embrace egalitarianism is because disability, physical or mental, can occur to any person, irrespective of what other characteristics they may possess. Disability does not respect these aspects of a person’s nature. It smashes through any defining boundaries that we might like to build.
You do not have to be disabled to know that today prejudice is still a strong social force. It resides in most of the positions of authority that exist. Many people can relate stories of when they were on the receiving end of it. Many instances have been reported in television, newspapers, cinema, literature, drama, and of course social media. It has been going on for thousands of years. There have been some victories, homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967, Scotland followed with the Criminal Justice Act 1980, and in Northern Ireland by the Homosexual Offences Order 1982. Prejudice remains strong, however.
The Human Rights Act 1998 is another step along the long road to achieving some degree of equality, but there is clearly still a long way to go. I am not proud of the fact that I successfully proved my employer discriminated against me on the grounds of disability when I applied for promotion a few years ago. It was a long and exhaustive process and my victory proved to be only a small one. The prejudice still exists.
The Golden Rule underpins egalitarianism. The precept of treating others the same as you would wish to be treated seems logical, reasonable, and even desirable. It has been a central tenet of many of the world’s religions and various moral teachings. Generally, we are not ignorant of it; many people just seem to consciously ignore it when they think that a situation favours themselves only.
People have been campaigning for better treatment and even more equality for almost as long as civilisation has existed. Some groups have been more successful than others, perhaps because they were larger, more vocal, and had access to greater resources when it came to mounting legal challenges for example. Other groups have been around for a long time and appear to achieve only small gains over that period of existence. Often, it seems to me, a lot of the smaller groups get overwhelmed by the noise and activity surrounding the bigger groups. Very often their cause, no less valid, is ignored and becomes forgotten. We seek to alleviate prejudice in one area, but then let it thrive in many others simply because one campaign brought to a conclusion is deemed to be successful. It might have had the demands of the group met, but it never addresses the needs of other people who are not part of that group but still suffering prejudice and discrimination.
Stating all lives matter is not necessarily a negative reaction to Black Lives Matter. All lives do matter if true equality is to mean something. The treatment of the individual according to the Golden Rule results in equality for all, which is an egalitarian objective.
My point is this: prejudice is applied to a broad spectrum of people. The standard response of those people it to form themselves into small groups and fight back. Even as groups, individually they are over-matched by those who are often the majority and also in positions of authority. They are the ones who typically enact the discrimination. The egalitarian approach is to recognise that there are two unifying principles in this situation, the first being, that all those involved are people; and the second, that they all suffer from prejudice. The only way to truly defeat prejudice in our society is for all peoples to unite; to become one voice. I believe that there is only one cause, to achieve true equality, and this applies to everyone irrespective of their race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or physical and/ or mental ability. Since civilisation began this cause has been fought by many different groups, typically independent of other each other even though they have the same objective. None of them have come close to achieving real equality. Individual factions might achieve gains, but the prejudice remains. Only an egalitarian approach could achieve a result in which all lives matter, all people are treated equally, and all opportunities are equally attainable. No one then would be left behind to fall victim to further prejudice.