1944, C.S Lewis wrote:
‘The demand for equality has two sources; The noble: the desire for fair play. The mean-spirited: the hatred of superiority […] the kind of ‘democratic’ education which is already looming ahead is bad because it endeavours to propitiate evil passions, to appease envy. There are two reasons for not attempting this.
One: you will not succeed. Envy is insatiable. The more you concede to it the more it will demand. No attitude of humility which you can possibly adopt will propitiate a man [or woman] with an inferiority complex. Two: you are trying to introduce equality where equality is fatal.
Equality [outside mathematics] is a purely social conception. It applies to man [and woman] as a political and economic animal. It has no place in the world of the mind. Beauty is not democratic. Virtue is not democratic. Truth is not democratic […]
Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demand for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual or aesthetic democracy is death.’[i]
Lewis’ position on extreme egalitarianism is not unique. The late American political philosopher, Jean Bethke Elshtain, also brilliantly hummed her own critical tune in relation to this issue.
Writing under the heading, ‘Multiculturalism and Democratic Education’ Elshtain stated:
‘Teacherly malfeasance occurs in instances of unreflective, dogmatic politicisation. Each evades the dilemmas of democratic equality rather than offering us points of critical reflection on that dilemma. This sort of education fails in its particular and important task of preparing us for a world of ambiguity and variety. It equips us only for resentment or malicious naïveté [ii]
Lewis and Bethke come at this argument from different angles. Both add to the argument for the rebalancing of the “education revolutions” of the past decade. The area where this applies most is the coercion to meet a particular type of egalitarian compliance (e.g.: new multiculturalism; new tolerance). Slyly disguised as part of an educational standard this ‘purely social conception’ (Lewis) poses as an academic essential. Acceptance and legitimacy is only validated by an alignment with its ideology. In turn, a form of financial blackmail follows. Funding and accreditation comes by complying, or rather conforming with a particular political position.
As a political aim it succeeds in coercing conformity. However, it paralyses the academy because the academic focus is reduced to how best the education fits within a particular type of extreme egalitarian social construct. This narrowing forces everyone into the same box. From here academic indifference and complacency replaces the energy of academic rigour. Genuine progress is held back by total compliance to an out of control quest for the implementation of “progressive” ideas of tolerance. Democratic debate and its ability to preserve the beauty of unity in diversity, dies.
Differences are unreasonably considered irreconcilable. People are then isolated. Strangers are turned into enemies and friends into strangers. Both institutionally and clinically, in the name of new multiculturalism, each are set to stick to their own kind, where never the two should meet: Anglos with Anglos; men with men; women with women; African-Americans with African-Americans; indigenous Australians with indigenous Australians; in politics the left with the left, right with the right. This is, in a roundabout way, the rejection of differences.
For Elshtain it flags a new segregation:
‘As a form of ideological teaching, multicultural absolutism isolates us in our own skins and equates culture with racial or ethnic identity. [In America], the new multiculturalism promotes commensurability: If I am white and you are black, we cannot, in principle, speak to or understand each other. You just won’t “get it […]. Some critics wonder how long it will take to move from separate approaches for African-American children in the name of Afro-centricity, for example, to a quest for separate schools.[iii]’
Extreme egalitarianism masquerades as authentic equality. The point and purpose of equality is driven into a quagmire of sameness. Fairness is abandoned and the quest for equality ends up creating new forms of inequality. For example: anyone with a differing position or different ability is condemned, labelled and if history is allowed to repeat itself, shipped off to who knows where, under the guise of “re-education” or “resettlement.”
Nowhere is Lewis’ observation of a hatred of superiority more evident than in Australian society. Socially, our children are taught very early on to enforce extreme egalitarianism. This usually takes the form of an acceptable kind of bullying whereby the victim is labelled a “try hard.” The competency and talent of the person is reduced to meaninglessness by the majority who refuse to deal with their own sense of inferiority. Rather than celebrate the competency and talent of the person, the majority maliciously turn a complement into a put down. The benefit of difference is squashed into the box of sameness.
Most non-Australian cultures would be confused by this. For them the term “try hard” is about positive reinforcement. Those without the talent and competency cheer on those who try hard to hone their skills. The communal benefit is seen, valued and acknowledged.
Not so in Australian society. Outside athletic ability, the rule remains the same: “don’t try to, or even attempt to rise above the rest.”
Although changes are taking place, this tall poppy syndrome still rates as being a huge problem. It presents itself as the biggest obstacle to writers, artists, musicians, intellectuals, right down to budding home-buyers and homeschoolers.
The quagmire of sameness keeps people down. It mutes creativity and stifles industry.
Those who want to retain authentic democratic equality will not find resisting extreme egalitarianism easy. They face a similar hostile reaction to that of Albert Camus, who ‘was virtually excommunicated from the French Left by Sartre and his comrades because he expressed a strong disapproval of the passion for unity that saw any opposition as treason.’[iv]
For both Lewis and Elshtain, extreme egalitarianism is a ‘phony equality.[v]’ It perpetuates that which it says it opposes. This phony equality levels what it subjectively sees as uneven ground, while at the same time it sows inequality, with the tools of oppression: institutional racism, economic discrimination, legalised misogyny and misandry.
Democratic education is reduced to a list of new tolerance compliance orders. Academic standards are lowered whilst teachers are forced to obsess over appeasing the feelings and fickle sentiments of society. In not being willing to fairly recognise and responsibly discuss differences, for fear of offense or ridicule, democracy wanes. Political democracy, as C.S Lewis pointed out, is ‘doomed if it tries to expand its demand for equality into beauty, virtue and truth.’
In not being able to celebrate unity in diversity or find and maintain common ground, democracy fails. The cohesive elements of a vibrant Western society are then consigned to breakdown into the terror of fascism, the shared poverty of communism or the destructive anarchist vacuum of tribalisation.
[i] Lewis, C. 1944, Democratic Education In Walmsley, L. (Ed.) 2000 C.S Lewis Essay Collection Harper Collins p.190
[ii] Elshtain, J.B. 1995 Democracy on Trial Basic Books, Perseus Books Group p.83
[iii] Ibid, p.79
[iv] Ibid, p.120
[v] Ibid, p.74