equalism – for a fairer world

one word .. just try it .. use it .. share it .. discuss it here

More on equalism in general

Waterpark Equalists support progress toward equality of opportunity in all the many areas of social inequality. These form the categories on this weblog. In their positive form, they come from the systemic family therapy field in what is known as the Social GRACES (Burnham et al, 2008) – Gender, Geography; Race, Religion; Age, Ability, Appearance; Class, Culture; Ethnicity, Education, Employment; Sexuality, Sexual orientation, Spirituality. Peter Singer would have us consider animals as well as humans.

It can be hard enough to ensure equalism in a more personal situation, like therapy or friendshipMuch harder is making a more general culture or country or the world more equalist. Often in general discussion and specific local situations the equivalent implicitly equalist movements – sexism, feminism, racism, speciesism etc – may forget and fail in their implied equalist aims. Remember that equalism here means fairness or equal opportunity – to have equality forced on you may be as unwelcome as having inequality forced on you. A key issue is how differences are respected so that equality does not mean being neutralised.

Equalism seeks to strengthen these weak points in all the sub-group-isms to make them and equalism more effective. The principles and practices that equalism shapes for face to face situations might be called “systemic practice” by family therapists in the UK. Bigger systems are a bigger political challenge. 

John Rawls’s academic but very popular thinking in A Theory of Justice (first published 1971) is about equalist issues – freedom, fairness and difference. His “justice as fairness” is a really good underpinning for the whole of this equalism blog. He considers what would be a fair world from the point of view of a person who doesn’t know where they are going to find themselves in it – rich, poor, able, good-looking, male or female, LGB or T, etc. Presuming we don’t want to gamble about this, he reckons on a fair shaped world guided by two principles: the Liberty Principle, and the Difference Principle. The result is a more socialist liberal world where bankers would only get paid more as long as the poorest also did. His ideas were disliked of course because of that.  

At all levels, to secure equalism in face to face practice and any other intelligent discussion, to keep ourselves thinking is key. So another key thinker for us is John Stuart Mill. In On Liberty (1859) he was already seeing dangers in “the tyranny of the majority, the despotism of custom and collective mediocrity … the fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful … ‘the deep slumber of a decided opinion.’”  


Finding the equalism we share; Ground level thinking first; Common core values; Common core reasoning; Keep thinking about thinking; Free speech and causing offence; Equality and diversity; Fair and no hurt; Finding or missing trust; Stronger through equalism; But life isn’t fair!; Defining fair play by equalist principles; A simple example; Conclusion

Finding the equalism we share

Equalism is a very general idea. It goes along with ideas of social justice, fairness, community and humanity. Equalism is a stronger word for the active advocacy for this general principle than similar ordinary terms like: being fair, egalitarian or supporting equal opportunity. All members of the equalist family of movements can identify with the overall shared ideal of being equalist. Then we can discuss the more complicated details of what that will look like in practice using the principles of equalism. Some issues (eg gender) are constantly in front of us and are not minority issues … in the sense that there are fairly equal numbers of men and women, their gender is fairly evident and the idea that there should be gender equality is hugely familiar. Age, social class and appearance are also constantly in front of us and everyone carries powerful generalisations about these categories all the time.

These may be powerful inequalities too, but they are more absorbed and accepted as normal or unchangeable inequalities. Anne Karpf looks at both age and appearance to remind us perhaps that the malignant pursuit of image over substance shrivels us all, especially the young! Otherwise there are unlikely to be campaigning groups against “ugly-ism” (though there is for animals that don’t look cute!) … even though the beautiful and the handsome gain significant power and position in their lives and our society. Other issues like race and ethnicity may not be so constantly in front of us. This is partly because these are so-called minority issues and there are geographical segregations. So many people – e.g. non-city-based British white people – do not come across the minority groups that much. The racism and ethnic-ism and classism is still powerfully active but kept at more than arms’ length. Or this could be seen as a positive choice by all to live within the different cultures they prefer. However, there are, for example, many more non-white and mixed-race people in the world than there are white ones – a world majority for sure. Almost everyone comes from immigrant stock.

Genetic testing shows that no one is of pure ethnic or racial origin anyway. Yet the majority non-white people of the world have arguably less power than “white” peoples still have globally. Climate change, for example, affects people unequally in inverse proportion to their responsibility for causing it. These are major inequalities that are slow and global and not easy to have face to face discussions about however equalist we want to be. Then some sub-group-isms may not be immediately apparent even if people do live or work together. Sexuality, sexual orientation, and spirituality, for examples. Others may be variously noticeable or hidden. For example, religion, class, culture, ethnicity, education, and employment. And remember that a mixture of choice and several inequalities may mean a further significant inequality of access to many things, some very “basic” ones like food, water and electricity, and some that are taken for granted by those that have them like the internet – the world’s digital divide.

Returning to gender equality – the most hugely and heatedly debated – there are probably better ways than escalating the battle between armies of women’s versus men’s rights wth the tendency to out-do each other with the victimhood weapon. The endless debate can be taken as some evidence that the armies are fairly well matched … otherwise an appeal to working together may be seen as favouring the side that is most powerful (i.e. feminists will resist that kind of sweet-talking patriarchy). But the sentiment is ultimately more equalist and worth pursuing. For example: The Men’s Rights Movement: Feminism’s Mirror Image by Blair Spowart.

Let’s focus more on cutting across gender lines, on shaking off this overwhelming, divisive emphasis on identity and victimhood, and start organising and shaping society in all of our interests. 

And: We Don’t Need Men’s Rights (and we don’t need feminism either) by Tom Slater:

We need to throw out this divisive genderism altogether, and work out how we can best serve everyone’s aspirations and interests. … Deep down, most people realise that segmenting issues on the basis of biology is ridiculous. But, in the age of identity politics, special pleading has been institutionalised. We don’t need feminism, or men’s rights – we need real solidarity.

Ground level thinking first

The result of these patterns is that issues to do with vocal, well-represented, every-day groups can dominate our thinking. To get the world to listen to you, your group has to get an unequal foothold of organisational and media power. Those who do think and write more about equality, will naturally focus mainly on their own one area of interest – genderrace etc. But it is the quieter powerless minorities that are probably suffering the worst effects of inequality. There are organisations, such as this Scottish one, that “promote equality, fight all forms of prejudice and discrimination and foster good relations amongst all people of the following nine protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation”.

That list is close to the Social GRACES list here. How does a broader application of principles of equalism do justice to the inevitable inequality of the vocal volume of its sub-group parts? The best of the worst political solutions is democracy. And there are many other words to describe the principles of what the world needs to do to save itself and its peoples. They all require a balance of self-assertion with unselfish consideration for others. That is true for equalism too. If you are in a powerless minority in a democracy you will still probably need to persuade and rely on the good will and support of enough of the majority voters to secure legislative measures and so on.

Any political party that hopes to get into power has to make some concession to equalism and moderation to get the majority vote across the diverse social spectrum. To call itself equalist, a political party or governing group will have policies that are socially just. Here our main concern is to get our own thinking straight, to make sure we can properly discuss things face to face, and to not let presumptive thinking make things worse for people who need help from services. The values of equalism had best begin at ground level and then hopefully inform and shape the building of higher levels of organisation and government on that foundation. A good ground level principle is friendship, though that is too specific and local to be a generalised principle. Love has too many meanings to be useful here.

Our human intelligence equips us to do amazing things – e.g. technology and socially – but we have to work that intelligence hard if it is to control our excessive achievements from destroying us. Technically the human race is set to destroy the world that sustains us. Socially we are subject to powerful social whims and pressures that need similar restraints on their destructiveness … here’s a blog on how moral panic can work like that.

Common core values

Being clearer about some core common values helps avoid some common upsetting and sometimes extreme conflicts. Here’s a better known – if more unlikely – example than gender. Taking religions, we know that the core beliefs of major world religions are based in very compatible spiritual values of humanity, goodness, love and equality (“in God’s eyes”). Yet many of the most terrible conflicts in the world still arise from peripheral and minor differences between religions – eg the only prophet, the right scripture, specific theological beliefs. The motivation for these hateful conflicts that arise from peripheral differences are probably fuelled by each side’s sense that the other one does not hold the  core beliefs.

This might be stated as the other side not really knowing the true god or religion. But if the peripheral and minor aspects could give way to the shared core beliefs, then teaming up of the religions would replace hate and conflict. OK peace between religions is plainly not usual. But the equalist rationale is valid. So similarly, if passionate believers in other equalist movements could see that their supposed detractors do in fact share their core belief in equalism, then the rage, offence and conflict might logically moderate.

There is another challenge where common core “human” values and experience are important. That is where one equalist issue clashes with another. A prominent example of this is where a culture or religion actively resists gender equalism. A typical result in the Western cultures is that we hold high standards of gender equalism to those within our own culture, while switching into multicultural tolerance in order to excuse ourselves from judging different cultures. Mary Midgley (1981) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali  (2013) differently provide the most elegant thinking through to challenge the poor thinking behind the copping out that most Western cultures have been doing in this difficult area.

Common core reasoning

As we go deeper into thinking complicated things through, we are trying to be reasonable, we are reasoning with each other, and we may need to clarify what counts as good reason too. A blunt way to put all that is that we aim to avoid bull shit (Harry Frankfurt, 2005). What makes reasoning even harder is the evidence that shows that Charles Darwin was right (in 1871) when he said: Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge (p 3, The Descent of Man). Justin Kruger and David Dunning (1999) show that the less you know the more confident you are likely to be of your ignorant views.

This is not good news for the spread of good reasoning. And the world of media and social media now mean that major personal and political judgements are made on sound bites or a Tweeted photo rather than on deeper research and principled thinking. Equalism has to mean more than this, more even than just tolerance rather than intolerance. Tolerance may still be conditional, or patronising, or an excuse to not think or act on difficult matters. Zizek (2008) suggests that tolerance can be a Western culture’s plea for the status quo in a neoliberal economic system that celebrates freedom, globalisation and profit. “Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, not as problems of inequality, exploitation, injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, not emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle?”

That is quoted in Rober and De Haene’s (2014) discussion of Culture and therapy … therapy being the easier – but still not very easy – level of finding positive respectful personal space. Here is a video of Peter Rober (2013) summarising a therapist’s approach to cultural difference and competence. He suggests we can draw on our shared humanity as part of the basis of understanding and progress with differences. The notion of a shared humanity is very close to the values of equalism. Philosophies and other thinkers promote the highest value being for the personal, for friendship and community.

The most comprehensive of these is John Macmurray. He summarised his wide-ranging personalist philosophy as: All meaningful reflection is for the sake of action; all meaningful action is for the sake of friendship. It is possible to criticise this as too assuming of one view as true for all. The dominant thinking of social constructionism would prefer a relativist stance of interested curiosity and reflection on everyone’s different views rather than to move into action and get it wrong. But at some point social responsibility must take over when there is reason or evidence to start taking views more seriously, even that they might be facts.

A good corrective framework to generate useful social responsibility might be in Stanley Cohen’s (2001) book: States of Denial, and particularly the everyday denial of “bystanders”. The more constant question in life and work would then become:  If I merely reflect on this or that situation (nearby or not), will I be just a bystander when something more active than reflection is called for?   In learnéd discussions a ploy can be to use the often approved reflective or relativist stance that a new view or fact is worthy just of an “airing” … and to count yourself lucky to get even that!

Keep thinking about thinking

Strangely it is in perhaps the most privileged setting in the world – university campuses in the USA – where we find elaborate curtailment of freedom of speech and thinking.  University students may refuse to have their teachers even voice views they don’t like. Disagreeing has moved to disapproval and to being offended – and being offended turns into the charge that an informal crime or offence has been committed and must therefore be corrected. Here is Dr Charles Negy’s email to his students after they decided they didn’t need to think properly. Prof Alan Charles Kors gives a rich personal account of how university education has lost an essential discomfort of learning from our differences as political correctness and other comforting trends have taken over.  He says:

… Note well that these harassment codes were never applied as written because if they were they would not exist for a nanosecond. The first time that a feminist professor were sent to sensitivity training or given a warning  for having offended the males in her class, the first time that a radical professor was sent to Christian sensitivity training because his views had offended the views of Christian students – the cry would be: academic freedom; the cry would be: you’re not educated unless you’ve been offended in your beliefs. So these speech codes and harassment codes depend absolutely for their enforcement on a double standard. … … Universities followed this theory that comfort is the sine qua non of education. It is not. It is a treating of young adults as infants unable to chart their way in a world that isn’t always neat and comfortable.

He continues to argue that due process of law is there for anyone of any class because that is how civilised society works. If you don’t like what someone is saying outside of the laws, then you bear witness, you organise a protest; you don’t appeal to some lesser power to impose and prevent one side being offended.

And here is Prof Janice Fiamengo similarly holding to steady reasoning for free respectful speech during an hour of challenging context and audience at Queens University of Ottawa on the topic “What’s Equality Got to Do With It?” It helps in the further hour of Q&A session that she clarifies that her critique is aimed at a particular kind of ideological feminism because her main concern is about any ideology that results in a ‘totalitarian’ shutting down of discussion. But if she herself had, in her main talk, taken a more nuanced approach than classing of all feminisms together, she might have taken more of her audience with her thinking.

Similarly Steven Pinker’s talk on free speech (20 min talk) explains how free speech is central to the acquisition of knowledge, as well as being essential to democracy as a bulwark against tyranny (see the full text of the speech or this adapted transcript). The ‘silencing of critics’, he says, is the universal route by which totalitarian regimes come to power and that our principle safeguard is ‘common knowledge’. He explains that ‘common knowledge’ is generated by public statements and ‘conspicuous displays’ – people who are prepared to be outspoken despite being denounced. And to prove that the campus debate about debate is alive in the UK, here’s Mary Beard’s account of the (much support but also bombarding) e-attacks when she signed a letter supporting debate (of views she may not agree with) rather than no-platforming.

The UK has been quietly emulating the US campuses. Here’s BBC Tonight’s discussion between David Aaronovitch and Toke Dahler of the Leeds Student Union – Toke steadily defending “No Platforming” anyone that the student body democratically decides might be traumatising for them to hear. (From 27 mins in).

A most famous story is of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone already knew the Emperor was naked, but it took the child’s naive courage to instantly make this openly common knowledge. So focusing on common knowledge is a good way to challenge authority where, as with the Emperor’s Clothes, individuals do not privately believe a public belief but it still gets hugely entrenched because no one will publicly deny it. This ‘spiral of silence’ where people don’t actually believe something, but punish others for any outward sign of believing it, typically arises where a determined minority of agents have the power to intimidate others and to silence them.

All of this parallels John Stuart Mill’s thinking 150 years ago (1859) on liberty and threats to it. Here is a fine look at JS Mill on: the tyranny of the majority, the despotism of custom, and collective mediocrity. Steven Pinker and the others mentioned above give this continuing modern relevance. The internet shows both the potential to share common knowledge, at the same time as to obscure loudly if not abusively careful thinking by modern versions of JS Mill’s trio of threats. Steven Pinker provides new help for those who want to think for themselves … “to discriminate the valid from the invalid parts of the so-called authoritative research”. We need to do better, he suggests, than to base our understanding of the world on the media as “the news is just anecdotes, It’s about stuff that happens. It’s not about stuff that doesn’t happen, And it’s statistically illiterate.”

Here he sets out Concepts and Reasoning  (1hr 10min video). He recommends Daniel Kahneman’s work – Fast & Slow Thinking – and uses his simple tests to show us how easily we fall into faulty reasoning. Kahneman uses Prof Frederick’s even simpler Cognitive Reflection Tests to sort out those who don’t think beyond their first impulse and those who are willing to ask, ‘Does this response really make any sense?’ That’s about good thinking, but even our perception can be blind – we don’t see what is plainly happening in front of our eyes. Here is a famous test of how faulty even our direct perception is.

Free speech and causing offence

So it is important to think through what happens when free speech comes up against causing offence. In other words, how does anyone with something to say best get themselves heard? And how do others with different views or who are offended by other views get their dissent and offended views heard. Looking at free speech on campuses, we can agree with the ruling in the Redman-Bate appeal (see below), that “Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.” Being offended, on its own, is not an adequate reason or way to shut someone up. It is, as Prof Kors account suggests, a reason to find effective ways to express your counter views. But one side’s “effective way” might equate to the other’s “being shut up”.

Here is a TV discussion that explores different views of when and why it is ok or not for protestors to disrupt an event, or block people going to it. Elsewhere in equalism.org.uk there is more on this gender debate event. To take Prof Kors line, offended protestors should organise to vigorously raise and engage their arguments at the event, to organise as loud a protest expressing their dissent as they can short of interrupting the event, or organise their own event alongside it. Another view expressed in the TV discussion would be that if people are so offended that they disrupt a properly organised event, then so be it, that impolite vigorous behaviour is a consequence and a part of a kind of discourse and one that often generates publicity and higher profile … and for both sides eventually (as the TV discussion exemplifies). The question is how far false views or other drivel should be allowed (if it could be objectively determined), and if so, then how far is it ok for those who think it’s drivel, not just to laugh or protest, but to shut the speech down. If everyone shouts at everyone it may not be reasonable debate, but who is to judge standards of reasonableness?!

This has been most openly debated around the Charlie Hebdo killings – the editorial board of a magazine that publishes provocative cartoons including those that portray the prophet Mohammed, shot down by two Islamist extremists at their meeting in Paris. This can be taken as a useful extreme example. Most people and most Moslems would agree that, however offended one may be – in this case as Moslems offended by forbidden, in their religion, depiction of the prophet – killing is not the right or best way to impose one set of values about free speech over another set. There is a kind of logic to the extreme free speech viewpoint as Brendan O’Neill writes:

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean a thing if we only defend it for polite, right-on people who parrot agreeable orthodoxies — we must also defend it for those who shock and rile and outrage. Why? First, because everyone must have free speech, otherwise it’s not free speech at all, it’s privileged speech. And secondly because offensiveness is a good thing. Blasphemy has benefits. The instinct to shock and upset society is often a positive one. In fact, it can be the motor of progress. As George Bernard Shaw said, “All great truths begin as blasphemies”. Some of mankind’s greatest intellectual leaps forward are a result of people having the cojones to say things that would have sounded Earth-shatteringly offensive in their day.

However, while supporting free speech, most people see that there are also limits to unrestrained free speech. As Mehdi Hasan succinctly put it “I do not believe that a right to offend automatically translates into a duty to offend”. As this Joe Sacco cartoon shows, people do take stock of causing offence before publishing gratuitously offensive things. And here Will Self, in debate with Martin Rowson on C4 news suggests that satire is best aimed at those in power as a comfort for those without the power (Moslems in France included).

Charlie Hebdo might argue that prophets and Gods of all kinds are a power in their own religion – and anyway (at least when “in Rome”) respect goes both ways: if you’re not Muslim then cartoons of Mohammed don’t mean the same as to the faithful. And Sufian Ahmed argued that “Dear white liberal apologists of Islam” should allow Moslems the same process of enlightenment that Christians went through over many centuries of putting worship of graven images into perspective. Perhaps Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and others should take care with what they publish and why, not for fear of being killed, but because free speech to the point of causing gratuitous offence is not a duty but a freedom to be taken responsibly. Or: when expressing an offensive viewpoint, be ready to explain your constructive reasons (e.g. the world is round not flat, the earth goes round the sun … because academics seek empirical truths, because these could be really useful, etc).

A further complication about free speech is that, even in the most liberal societies, different groups have different position, power and resources to promote their views. And to outflank or suppress the views they don’t like. Rupert Murdoch, for example, has been openly driven to run a massive media empire to give his kind of views a much greater 24/7 airing than other views. Even if a strong group doesn’t kill or imprison dissenters, they can be louder because they have the megaphones. To organise an event or press release or awareness raising campaign requires some backing or funding and quite a lot of organisational ability that poor or oppressed people may not have readily available. Even with the internet and social media – the new fairly universally accessible version of the old soap-boxes at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park (all you needed to speak freely was a voice and a soap-box there) – we may want to analyse how free speech is not equally free for all. This inequality part of the process is probably unavoidable. It takes a suffering few to find something they want to tell the world. Equalism perhaps points us to being more alert for this.

In summary for this section, free speech and expressing dissent or offence are both important parts of a process. One presumes that both sides speak out because they want to be heard and persuade others, and especially to persuade the other side. So both sides might consider what will increase those chances of being properly heard rather than what will shut the other side up. Killing anyone for what they say or publish is going too far – though going too far is probably exactly what the Paris terrorists and others are wanting to do to frighten and divide wider populations. But if wanting to speak and to be heard and to debate and progress is the objective on all sides, it is wise to avoid unnecessary offence to others.

So to return to the campuses, here is another US academic, Christina Hoff Sommers, confirming how students can seem unable to think or argue about anything because of “The Tyranny of Niceness“. This is being inoffensive taken to extremes that close down intelligent thinking and debate. We have to be able to use reason properly whether we are just entertaining reflections or whether we are working out social responses and responsibility. Returning to Peter Rober’s “shared humanity”, that can be given this relativist treatment, but without common humanity and reasoning, what else have we got to work with in therapy or in tackling world problems and inequalities?   Which leads neatly into:

Equality and diversity

So, to emphasise it again, equalism does not  mean everyone is or has to be the same. Clearly people remain different through gender, race, religion, ability, culture etc etc. These are mostly not a matter of measurable quantities alone – e.g. of goods as in distributive justice. Those differences may be socially constructed or they may be inherent. Equalism means equality of opportunity, not forced equality. Listen to (15 mins of) philosopher, Janet Radcliffe Richards, carefully exploring this in terms of gender difference. Diversity is accommodated within equalism through actively working on respect for differences. Legal equality or equal opportunity often means a level playing field for those of compatible opportunity and ability. So there will be rules “of the game” that ensure no favouritism or bias for or against any individual by reason of their gender, class etc. In this way only skill and ability are being tested out.

But equal opportunity can also mean being very aware of how differences mean people can have an unequal opportunity in life, one that is unfair, one that hurts them. Hence measures are taken for example to make transport systems and buildings accessible to people with disabilities, or to ensure fairer proportions of all kinds of people in jobs and organisations.  The fair test cartoon (on the home page of this blog) makes the point well. Another way to think about balancing equality and diversity is through what we can expect the outcome to be. Why bother with equalism?! Difference will always be present. It makes life interesting.

Obviously equalism requires some careful thinking and moderation. But there would be nothing much to moderate unless there were also those who take up a cause on one side, e.g. the oppressed victim, and campaign loudly for them against the other side. So equalism can be seen as a (dialectical maybe) process where emphasising differences is a stage that is the necessary basis for, and leads to, bridging them. This means that, to the degree that enables the bridging rather than endless polarisation, equalism values the -isms that it seeks to get rid of. As in games and sport, difference is enjoyable and brings people together to both compete and collaborate. But we all want there to be that level playing field of equalism. What is the reward for getting equalism worked out?

The best answer is: the reward is in our independence or liberty. But totally isolated independence and liberty is not fun and mostly not possible either – you need a team, friends, a family, an audience. Liberty basically requires the awareness, support and celebration of others. Sport is a good example, particularly in the paralympics where the amazing achievements of fair rules and technical help to create ability for the otherwise disabled. Another example of liberated people who have gone beyond any mould (of class, age or gender) is in the Channel 4 programme “Fabulous Fashionistas“. The French revolutionary slogan encapsulates the integrated combination well: Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Fair and no hurt

This US based Spearhead blog – among many other aspects including views on the American history of “all men are born equal” – includes discussion of different kinds of equality. Mostly the ideology of equalism as “equal outcome” is criticised for its apparent aim to get rid of all difference, to get governments or the law to manage outcomes to come out even. See here for more on different meanings of equalism. Here on equalism.org.uk, instead of legislative definitions, the idea is for a more interesting process with a less clear cut end point, as the principle of equalism is applied to particular issues and situations. The process entails that we consider and discuss how far there is fairness or hurt or oppression of some and not others. The experience of equality goes with support for a freedom of choice – liberté, égalité, fraternité – in our particular and general actions.

Inequality’s edge applies most where a person does not have a choice over their condition – skin colour, birth place, ability, appearance etc. Leaving that aside, much of what we do arrives by custom and culture. Then habit becomes a default for choice. We choose to do what we have learnt we are meant to do. We grow up and mostly adopt our family’s and our community’s social ways, values, religion and roles. To take gender as an example, men learn their default choice of manly things – stereotypically:  high careers, stoicism, physicality, sport and wars. Women learn their default choice of feminine things – stereotypically: low careers, home-making, childrearing, relationally. The one is motivated by supposed complementarity with the other. Minor, major or even fatal sanctions may  ensue for those who vary the code.

Gay and lesbian sexuality importantly questions the formulation. So when a woman wants to take up competitive sport or fight at the front line, she will be seen to be actively choosing this. When a man stays at home to cook and care for children, they are praised because they must have chosen to (where women are not praised because they are meant to do it). Laura Shapiro in Perfection Salad neatly captures this : “We will know full sexual equality has arrived when men cook dinner even when they don’t want to”. Individually and collectively our sense of what we choose is an organic development, a never-ended process. The influences may reach us by peer, media or global channels, but the choice is worked out (or blocked) personally and in our immediate relationships. So there are lots of complicated wider aspects to gender equality and fairness or the lack of it.

Here on this blog, we keep a focus on the immediate personal situation, on what being fair means in more local face-to-face contexts. So a discussion about equalist issues itself would also ideally be conducted in a way that respects difference and diversity. Intelligent equalist discussion would be the basis on which a more equalist outcome might be built wherever possible … with good will, effort, and subsequent social and legal changes. Equalism would be a principle, a touchstone, or umpire.

Of course it gets messier than that, but this may hold good for particular situations and face to face discussions. For this to work, we need an awareness of what good quality discussion looks like so that engaged and robust thinking and talking does not get derailed by passion or group pressure leading to anger or silencing, nor by false declarations of offence and hurt being used to the same effect.  Steven Fry points this use of “I’m offended!” out but there are more constructive equalist responses than his suggestion of: “Well so f***ing what!”.  In the Redman-Bate appeal (against the sentencing of loud protestors who offended others to the point of being charged by the police), the ruling was clear and eloquent: “… Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having. …”  So being offended is not, on its own, a valid response in an argument.  However, it is usually best to find fair ways of talking that avoid being offensive if at all possible. 

Finding or missing trust

One way to think about safeguarding good quality thinking and discussion is to start with what people find works best. For example, trust in the relationship (personal, professional etc) naturally helps the exchange of knowledge. Often trust requires familiarity if not similarity with those you are talking with and learning from. That can of course limit the boundaries of new and diverse learning – you may just be choosing those who confirm what you already like to think. But the idea of trust as a channel for talking well helps explain why equalism is so hard when you are bridging big diversities of language, race, class, gender and so on. In big unfamiliar academic or professional groups or gatherings, or smaller urgent service situations with new clients, trust may be hard. People are likely to work overtime to pick up early signs of whose side they’re on, and assumptions come all too quickly … gender or appearance may be all it needs to categorise someone as for or against you.

So debates in all areas of inequality can be very heated and interminable. You might think that we should all be concerned in appropriate ways about all troublesome inequalities of all kinds involving any individual. But the heated argument seems to arise from tribal competition about which category of sufferer and which kind of oppressive inequality is the worst and that only the most extreme kind merits any attention. Great offence is often caused to the tribe concerned by even the slightest yet damning pause to take a more thoughtful and inclusive perspective than the extreme one.

This is not surprising, since the more severe the inequality, the more upset the sufferer and those supporting them are going to be. And the more it will seem like a repetition of the oppression if someone pauses to try to broaden the range of inequality and sufferers from those trying to get their predicament taken seriously.

To return to distinguishing equality from everyone being the same, the sporting analogy might be used: equalism does not mean that all sporting contests must end in a tied result or a draw. But equalism is interested in how far participants experience the contest as fair, and that no one gets hurt.  In a discussion or service context, all individuals will want to feel that they are not being prejudged, that they will have a fair chance to give their side of the story, and that it will be fairly listened to not dismissed. Another way to think of it would be the principle of “do as you would be done by”. And that could be put in terms of democratic freedom and free speech – equalism supports everyone’s right to do or say what they want to – with appropriate attention and listening maybe – as long as they are not harming anyone else. Defining what is harmful might be a matter that is up for discussion too.

Stronger through equalism

So, to summarise so far, many inequalities are the result of global matters, things that maybe no-one in particular and maybe everyone is responsible for. These inequalities cause the worst hurt, poverty, illness and hardship across the world, even destruction and death. But however well-intentioned, political leaders and governments struggle against global business and economies and the power they wield. Yet that is where the principles of equalism most need to be stronger. Equalism and all the equalist sub-group-isms are ideologies. So they are liable to be idealistic – at most only distant visions of an equalist real world. The hard work of making ideas happen entails organisational, political, legislative and government change.

This blog aims low – we just want various face to face situations and discussions to work well. A bonus would be if global internet discussion can find a more constructive intelligence and integrity. Discussion is just a foundation for the organisational and social changes that will make equalist policies happen too. Inequalities and differences are, by definition, likely to distance and polarise groups from each other. The more verbally or actually attacked one group is, the more the gap broadens and the less the interest in understanding the other group.

The kind of polarisation in thinking and discussion – that we describe more in the gender blogs here – can be seen in its fullest form in how the mediaeval witch hunting operated using a range of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” authorisations for terrible evil to be done for the best of intentions. Read this account in Anna Raccoon’s blog. Taking a more modern “moral panic” famously written about by Stan Cohen (1972), that of the Mods and Rockers causing trouble in seaside towns, we can  contrast the position of fear of the new young Rockers then with listening to some of them grown up now. It is hard to avoid polarising into one side versus the other in the 1960s, and hard to imagine polarising when chatting together nostalgically. Equalism will not be achieved only by chatting across differences, but without that human connection and the attitude that goes with it, polarisation is likely.

But life isn’t fair!

Equalism and the sub-group-isms that fight for equality are idealistic principles. Like all ideologies and ideas they are simplistic. It is unrealistic to expect them to easily if ever to fit and resolve the inequalities of the complex real world. Human beings struggle to balance high principles with their more fallible selfish human nature. Like children, we want things that others have got. We appeal to society, to parents, or to gods to provide them or else “it’s not fair”. We’re told “But life isn’t fair, is it?”

So realism or even cynicism may scoff at equalism with justification. Along with their high principles, spiritual and religious thinking encourage patience and acceptance of life’s suffering and unfairness. Psychotherapy too is often about coming to terms with hurts and unfairness. The key thing is that, if you want to ditch the promotion of fairness and equalism, you also must ditch any and all the unfairness -isms since they imply a search for a fairer and more equalist world. They are all ideals that sink or swim together. Even if we aim to change local situations rather than the whole world, equalism is of great practical use.

The sub-group-isms need strengthening where they forget they are equalist too. In specific situations, they can be anti-equalist in the local way their proponents present them. These occasions may result from mistaken disagreement between the sub-group-ism when actually there would be no disagreement about equalism. Specific situations occur, for example, in front-line services and also in academic and legal debates where the logical thinking we expect can be displaced by powerful emotional polemical group loyalty. The local effect is to raise emotions, to silence discussants, and to block the thinking process altogether. Individuals find themselves shut out or included purely on account of their presumed worth or lack of it within the assembled company. These are not descriptions of equalism in practice, even if the viewpoints being debated are in principle equalist.

Defining fair play by equalist principles

Equalist principles are useful to separate out those who may share a sub-group-ism but don’t really share the implied equalism. Thus a religion may house both those who preach and practice love, respect and equality, alongside those who interpret the religious creed as justification for terrorism. The religion or -ism may be equalist at heart, but those who profess it divide into those who are guided by equalist principles, and those that don’t.

Again there may be room for discussion – for example: waging a terrible war against Hitler and the Nazis is argued as justifiable (if the alternative was respecting the Nazis for reasons of diversity) because of their grossly non-equalist disrespect for humanity and difference. A modern religious terrorist may well be able to claim the same justification – but here is an alternative closer-to-home explanation. Gender provides an important example for wider use. Feminism is notably defined explicitly to be an equalist sub-group-ism. Feminism is a valid movement that supports women and fights to bring patriarchal men down a peg or three.

Sometimes that fight looks and feels like it is aiming for more than an equalist outcome … more like it’s revenge, or punishment, or wanting to oppress men under the heels of women, maybe even ridding the world of males altogether. See Feminism, patriarchy and family conflict for more understanding of how this strength of feeling can arise. Radical feminists may argue that they are equalist but that there will always be patriarchy, and therefore there will always be a war to wage. The test here is not just by what the opposing men or non-feminists think about feminists. The test is in whether a feminist (female or male) owns up to really intending that the outcomes they want are those non-equalist outcomes – revenge, reversing the oppression, and riddance. If the answer is yes, that’s the outcome we want, it is important that we identify those people as pursuing a different kind of feminism, one that is not equalist, one that is defined differently than feminism usually is, that is, as seeking gender equality.

Equalism asks us to make this difference – and it provides the means and measure to do so. In addition to this general or ideological clarification of the moderate and the extremists in a particular movement (with those examples from religion and gender), equalism would also recommend that the manner in which the pursuit of a cause is conducted matters in order to be classed as more or less equalist. So in personal discussions – face to face, correspondence, or social media on the internet – that respect for difference and engaged thinking through that is defined as part of equalism here means that somewhere in the passion and even robust debates, there is respect and listening to each other’s different views and arguments. If the feelings run so high that people are fearful, or silenced, or hurt, then equalism is lessened. And it is also lessened if false declarations of offence (of the Steven Fry kind above) block the talking and thinking.

A simple example of equalism

PromConduct Portobello promenade is a popular avenue for pedestrians and for cyclists. For many years the two sides argued about if and how they could share. Those who carried the responsibility to represent and respect both sides had to work long and hard to come up with a sensible equalist code of conduct for both sides to abide by voluntarily – “Pedestrian priority. Considerate Cycling permitted”. Equalism is sensible but not easy! Greater respect is also due those in democratic government and politics at all levels who have to find fair solutions for everyone.

In conclusion

At any level, being guided by equalism works as an overall ideal but also a useful practical tool to create better teaming up in the common cause. Thinking flows instead of being blocked. Instead of falling out with each other, diversity is respected and bridged. More rational discussion and more sensitive decisions are the result. 

Nick Child


John Burnham, Diane Alvis Palma and Lisa Whitehouse (2008)   Learning as a context for differences and differences as a context for learning.  Journal of Family Therapy (2008) 30: 529–542

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

One comment on “More on equalism in general

  1. Chris Burroughes
    1 August 2013

    Hi Nick & Roy
    I like it! It’s an interesting dilemma, isn’t it, to demarcate categories, and then acknowledge that each of us needs to overcome the differences that those categories testify to?
    Every time I try to categorise myself, I immediately want to “de-categorise” myself again. Then, if one of my categories is ignored (age, ability &c.) I feel like protesting that “some GRACES are more equal than others”.
    The personal is political & vie versa.
    BTW AFT’s Diversity & Equality Committee, of which I am now becoming a part, should, I think, be told of your venture.
    Best wishes

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