Tuesday, June 06, 2017

On achieving equality

There's a chilling line in a Kurt Vonnegut story about a future I don't believe any of us want to see come true. "The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal."

It's from a story called 'Harrison Bergeron' in Welcome to the Monkey House. While the idea of equality is a noble one, the way it's achieved in Vonnegut's vision is anything but noble. To achieve 'equality' among everyone, anyone with a beautiful face must wear a hideous mask; anyone with above-average intelligence must wear earphones that continuously blast cacophonous sounds to prevent them from thinking clearly. It's a society with a level playing field, but it's one where the bar has been lowered to the bottom rung.

On the weekend, I attended the On Words Conference of The Writers Union of Canada, a group to which I belong. The overriding theme of the weekend was the issue of equity.

Carmen Rodriguez offered a metaphor of explanation, one that made it clearer than any I'd heard before. She told us to picture three people standing behind a fence, outside a soccer match.. One of the persons is quite tall, one is of medium height and one is very short. The tall one can see a bit of the game, the mid-sized one can reach for the occasional glimpse, but the short one is out of luck. In other words, they're not being given equal opportunity to see the game.

Then someone comes over to the fence with three little stools for them to stand on. Now, the tall one has a good view; the medium person gets a better look than before, but the short one still can't see over the fence. Resolution for the problem? For the tall person, the short stool provides a solution, allowing them to see the game. For the middle-sized person, a stool that's a bit bigger will make all the difference. As for the short person, they will need a very tall stool to look over the fence comfortably to participate in watching the game. Equity. Aha! A chance for all to be equal.

At our family supper on Sunday night, I told Carmen's story and reactions around the table were mixed. One son thought each person should get the same advantage -- that they should all get a tall stool right at the start. Even though the tall person didn't need a tall vantage point, this way would be 'fair' to all with no one person needing more 'propping up' than the other. Interesting.

And then came the suggestion to simply take down the fence.

I'm still not sure how best to handle the question: How do we provide equality to everyone? About the best metaphor I can offer for now is the image of the curving fence above. Maybe each of us needs to find our own place along it.

1 comment:

Janet Vickers said...

A deep question - one that some of us will always keep asking.