the context of equality/inequality

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Sat, 7 Jan 1995 14:11:40 CST

I'd like to put some anthropological content back into the thread on equality
and inequality. Specifically, I want to point out the cultural context of
the idea of equality in Euroamerican thought and ideology. The cultural
context of equality-inequality goes back to the ancient Greeks, who
distinguished the order of nature from the order of law. To them, the
difference betwen humans and animals was the fact that humans had souls and
other animals did not. Because humans had souls, they had reason, by which
means they created the order of law. The nature/law distinction has gone
through any number of transformations over the last 2000 years, but it is
still with us (nature-nurture, gene/environment, nature/culture, etc.). One
of the major contributions of David Schneider, particularly in his _American
Kinship: a Cultural Account_ (1968) and several subsequent papers, was to show
how these two domains contextualize and shape American thinking about kinship,
nationality, and religion. Sexual intercourse, conception, gestation, and
parturition are all phenomena in the order of nature. So, for example, we can
talk about a child's "natural parents." But sexual intercourse has been (and
still is) contextualized by marriage, conjugal love, which is part of the order
of law. We do, after all, talk about the marriage "contract," and we do call
relatives by marriage mother-in-law, father-in-law, etc..

It is in these two domains, still with us and still shaping our thought and
perception, that equality and inequality make "sense." When Thomas Jefferson
penned the lines, "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." he was being
somewhat disingenuous--not as disingenuous as Bjorn Fry whining about people
calling his ideas ethnocentric after several of us pointed out to him in
detail which ideas were ethnocentric and why, but still disingenuous. If
Jefferson or anyone else at the time had really considered those truths to be
self-evident, then he would not only never have had to state them, but they
would have been the sort of assumptions (being self-evident and thus self-
validating) that would have been unstateable, as are most cultural premises.
They were indeed not self-evident and did indeed have to be stated,
particularly when they were to be the basis of a call to arms. What is more
interesting is the clarity with which the text that follows contextualizes his
assertion of equality. The following text is about governments and what
governments do to and with people, and what people have to do with and to
governments. Jefferson and his colleagues squarely place equality in the order
of law, where it has been (before and) ever since. Following the political
thought of his time, itself a result of centuries of development, the polity
was the outcome of a social CONTRACT and properly a phenomenon in the order of

So if legal equality reads inequality out of the order of law, where can it
find its place? Only in the order of nature. This has, of course, meant that
inequalities, if they were to be considered inherent, had to be biologized, and
indeed they have been. Eve Pinsker in a previous post urged Bjorn and others
to look at Louis Dumont's _Homo Hierarchicus_. I second that, particularly the
appendix to that book where he discusses the development of the idea of the
individual in western thought and perception. He has explored the concept of
the individual in several subsequent papers, not easy reading but more than
worth the effort.

Darwin unwittingly provided lots of fodder for biologizing inequality, in
particular his disciple Thomas Huxley, who promulgated natural selection as
survival of the fitEST. Darwin only talked about survival of the FIT, those
animals that outreproduced others. But the fitEST was another matter. It was
this unhappy phrase that was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to
classify "the poor" (itself a recently invented social category) as a
biological category. The miserable conditions of "the poor" could be taken as
a natural outcome of natural selection at work. This is Social Darwinism, and
Richard Hofstadter's book gives an excellent history of that idea as adopted by
the captains of industry. That we are seeing its reappearance in the work of
Murray and others should be no big surprise to anyone.

Now, from this cultural perspective, a quarrel over which is worse, racism or
sexism, is silly on a couple counts. First and foremost, both are
manifestations of the same process--creating, rationalizing, and implementing
inequality through (ethno)biology. Biologizing of differences for the purpose
of exploitation, of denying access to resources and to redress, and genocide in
our sorry century has included not only race and gender, but age, religion,
nationality, and social class. Second, arguing about who is the bigger victim
deflects attention from confronting the processes of common oppression of
people who ought to be allies.

The confrontation is not an easy one. Some people are smarter than others.
Some people are stronger than others. Some people are more musically talented
than others, more graceful, faster, more agile, shrewder, etc.. That
differences exist and that on any attribute that one might compare, there is
likely to be an observable range of more or less is without question. If
anthropology has anything to contribute to a rethinking of and reordering of
equity in a heterogenous society like ours, I think it lies in two areas.
One is making clear to a wider public what the cultural nature of biologizing
is. If we understand these things about ourselves, surely we can find ways
of making other people understand in a language that they can understand.
Second, we are not the only people who confront these issues. These are
common to any multicultural milieu--and this milieu may be a multi-society
region, as John Terrell has pointed out. It seems to me that our contribution
can and should be alternative models for creating equity, a determined
fairness, using the unequal distribution of ability and resources as tools
for generating equity in everyday interaction. They do it one way in the Huon
gulf, another on Pohnpei Island, and yet another in the Basque country. What
works and how does it work? How would it have to be modified to work in our
situation? We've got plenty of data and plenty of comparative experience.
So maybe it ain't such a bad idea to focus these on practical matters in our
own society. We don't have to wait for a World War, as Margaret Mead, Ruth
Benedict, Gregory Bateson, Ed Kennard, and other amthropologists did, to apply
our comparative craft. And if this suggestion is not reasonable or feasible,
then at least let's stop bellyaching about who is the bigger victim.

Finally, and sadly, while we're on the subject of applying anthropology, I have
to tell you all that Sol Tax died this past Wednesday. We don't see many like
him, who spent his life living and breathing anthropology.

Mike Lieber