On egalitarianism

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: In politically correct environments there often exists a strong compulsion to treat every idea as equal, or risk ‘offending’ someone by suggesting their argument weak or wrong. Because we are all equal before the law, the assumption is made everything we say is likewise of equal worth. That, of course, is not true. And we risk encouraging ignorance if we disallow critical interrogation of argument.

On egalitarianism

By: Gareth van Onselen

1 March 2013

Equality is easily misunderstood: the idea that we are all equal before the law confused with the belief that we are equal in every other way too. Of course, we are not. For the liberal novice, this often leads to some confusion – how can we all be different and yet all be equal? After all, inherent to difference is the unequal distribution of talent and ability.

The answer is that the human rights we enjoy are ideals, abstract and universally applicable, in equal measure, to each individual. It is this framework that allows individuals to be different, safe in the knowledge that those things which define one’s unique character will never prevent them from fulfilling their potential or be used to discriminate against or prejudice them unfairly.

A dangerous egalitarian impulse, however, often tries to extend the idea of equality to the world of ideas, implying that all ideas are equal and disingenuously conflating criticism of crooked thinking with an attack on human worth.

This is nonsense.

Ideas and argument, unlike human rights, are not equal. Just as many are powerful, original, insightful and rational, a great many others are weak, cliched, inane or irrational. Everyone is entitled to express themselves, but not every opinion is worth listening too.

The suggestion in such egalitarian thinking is that valid criticism is no more right nor wrong than the argument it addresses. It is merely another, equal and indistinguishable view and its advocates prescribe it be presented in that fashion: “By all means, express yourself but do not dare assume your opinion superior, that is arrogant and ‘disrespectful'”, they protest.

Progress and enlightenment, the natural consequence of conjecture and refutation, is lost on such insecure ignorance – a chance to learn shut down in the name of offense.

Little wonder such an attitude thrives in politically correct environments, the very antithesis of introspection but fertile ground indeed for mediocrity to entrench itself in.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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