Meditation on Equality

We breathe the same air. That statement is already beginning to be problematic if you live in one of China’s heavily polluted cities and you can’t afford to escape to the relatively unspoilt countryside. You can’t afford to buy Canadian air in a bottle, shipped to you by a special company. Let’s breathe some air before we continue. Equality is a wonderfully artificial concept, but it is often understood in a rather idiosyncratic way.

Some right-wing populists distinguish equality of opportunity from equality of outcome. They argue that left-wing policies cancel out the differences caused by the hard work and perseverance of some, rather than the differences caused by the lack of opportunities or disability. More principally, they would argue that equality is not something that can be enforced.

For the religious right, equality is an abstract, absolute and ‘untouchable’ value. At life’s edges, this is turned into an intuitive moral argument by pro-life activists or people who oppose euthanasia. Perhaps precisely because equality is such a sacred and abstract value for them, they don’t feel good about ethical debates about redistribution that seem to quantify people’s value. If equality is something that can be manufactured, as the liberal mind believes, it becomes a mundane and fragile balance, rather than the equality ‘under god’ (who is the ultimate guarantor of justice, at Judgment Day).

We breathe and wonder once more about the complexity of this concept. We see it translated and dismissed as ‘sameness’, or embraced as the rationale of solidarity. We all agree that people should be treated the same by the law, more precisely, that the law should have already spelled out any differences before a trial, and further that such differences don’t pertain to things like race or sex, but could pertain to things like wealth or mental health (for example to determine the degree of punishment).

We feel compelled to come up with a technical, legalistic definition. We want to spell out our intuition of equality, but might lose sight of the actual practice of equality. We can for example write mathematically about representative democracy and ‘one person one vote’ while forgetting the messiness of the influences of moneyed interests on politics.

Equality, we should perhaps admit, doesn’t exist. It is an important article of secular faith. It is a transcendental condition of rational debate that prima facie, the value of your opinion is the same as the value of mine. I will need to give a reason to show the superiority of my opinion, authority won’t do. Perhaps rational debate is the best we have to celebrate the value of equality.

Meditation on Equality was originally published on Meandering home


A birthday wish

One year ago, for my 38th birthday, all I could wish and hope for was the absence of toothache. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get it. ‘If and only if’, my daily mantra became, ‘my mind is not distracted by that pain in the upper jaw, so very close to the brain, I will do great things’. My life pretty much revolved around this and it contitutes a dent in my biography, so to speak.

I have been working on a job that lacks even a shimmer of meaning when measured by my admittedly high standards (now, that sounds a lot more eloquent than ‘I hate my fucking job’ doesn’t it?) to earn the money for half a dozen dentists to drill, fill, crown, and whatever, my mouth. As of yet, that pain isn’t totally gone and for my 39th I wish, again, the absence of irritation and the ability to focus.

This might sound dramatic but it really isn’t so bad. I know of people whose wife died of cancer or, perhaps worse, suicide (read about our remarkable ‘ice man’ Wim Hof and how he overcame his wife’s suicide), people who have aids and tbc yet refuse to be defeated, athletes with hand nor feet and – I’ll be damned if life is a pissing contest of doom and gloom.

For this new year I wish focus. To me personally, that translates into no more nasty nervous distractions like that toothache, so that I can focus on getting focused. I can focus on doing my regular meditation, eating a healthy diet, taking cold showers, doing physical exercise, you name it. These things both seem to require and produce focus, so what I wish for the new year is a way into this catch-22 vortex.

a religion or some other story that pictures the unintelligible as an anthropomorphic and often sadistic power that manufactures ultimate meaning and always perverts one of our noblest feelings, that of humility.

It wil be my fortieth year and I am going to say here that a good way to celebrate such a milestone in a human life is to find a Cause that is ‘bigger than yourself’. By that I don’t mean a religion or some other story that pictures the unintelligible as an anthropomorphic and often sadistic power that manufactures ultimate meaning and always perverts one of our noblest feelings, that of humility. It is no trivial task either: I think that now, 129 years after Nietzsche collapsed on the streets of Torino, the specter of nihilism goes around again, and can poison our fragile idea of a shared goal that can claim ultimate meaningfulness. We may stammer our enlightened formula of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and still the nihilist will shrug because the existence of humanity is no ultimate goal. Indeed I think we can speak of practical philosophy as a way of countering this nihilism, or to put it more aggressively, to cut off its oxygen supply.

So, what sort of goal could be ‘bigger than myself’? And should it be a whole lot bigger or is it enough when it’s just a little bit bigger? Could it be something like ensuring permanence of human culture on this blue planet (permaculture) or helping this human species and its successors to colonize the rest of our solar system and ultimately escape before the sun gobbles up the earth (elonmuskism)? Or are these ideas too big, so that ‘being a part of it’ is no meaningful concept, like it is not meaningful for an atom to be part of an acorn as much as it is meaningful for the acorn to be part of the oak. Perhaps I should ponder ideas that provide both myself and the greater whatever-it-is-we-are-in-it-all-together with the optimal amount of meaning, where optimal is something like the greatest leverage?

Above, I wrote I wish focus. In the last two paragraphs I lost that focus in an attempt to ‘flow’ writingly to someplace beautiful. To repeat it for a world in which the beast of nihilism has been slain (shouldn’t we slay it every night in our dreams lest we cease to be human?): Focus translates into our better cooperation on the rapidly aggravating problems humanity faces. More serious grown-up work that adresses inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, illiteracy, diseases, religious fanaticism, species extinction, habitat destruction, and here we go again – focusing on one thing that is only meaningfully bigger than yourself is not easy. But I have an entire year.

A birthday wish was originally published on Meandering home