When we try to qualify absolutes

Last week I wrote about how confusing things can get if we start trying to get around a mathematical symbol like “=”.  One commenter specifically pointed out that whether we follow the illogic of the original problem (you know, as in 2-6) or whether we use the mathematically valid workaround of function notation, with a little creativity the answer can be absolutely anything.

The same applies to language.

Think about the word, “equal”.  It’s one we enjoy throwing around these days.  Equality is very much in vogue.  Everyone is claiming equality to everyone else on whatever criteria they can come up with.

And that’s very well and good, except that it’s not true.

We’re not equal before the law if you can afford a partner in a prestigious law firm as your attorney and I have to settle for whatever only-passed-the-bar-on-my-fifth-try lawyer the state provides for me.  We’re not equal if you can place your kids in a top-ranked, super-resourced school and mine have to go to an under-staffed school that doesn’t even have enough desks for everyone to sit at.

Let’s move away from the big inequalities poverty imply:  we’re not equal if I have a Ph.D. and you only have a diploma.  We’re not equal if I’m the manager and you’re the mail clerk.  We’re not equal if I’m the president and you’re the mayor.  The law might say we’re equal, but we’re not.  We may have the same rights, but people are not going to treat us the same.  We’re not going to treat each other the same.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with equality.  It’s a very noble ideal, but I don’t think it will ever truly exist in practice.  Which makes it a dangerous word to use – it can end up meaning anything.

I was talking about this to the seniors at my old school a few weeks ago.  I’d been helping them come to grips with George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Early in the novel, just after they take over the farm, the animals make a set of rules to govern behaviour on the farm – a constitution, if you will.  Laws like no animal being allowed to kill another (a bit problematic if you’re a carnivore), or no animal being allowed to sleep in a bed (but what is a bed if you really think about it?) or drink alcohol (because the prohibition worked so well with humans), or wear clothes, and of course the final commandment:  All animals are equal.

That last command was the central governing principle of the entire animal revolution.  It was the single greatest absolute.  It was also patently untrue.

Some animals were smarter than others.  Some animals were stronger.  Some had sharp teeth making them unique.  Some had to eat more, or needed different types of food.  And over time a group of animals start setting themselves apart from the rest, claiming more comfort and better food, working less, citing their superior intellect and the responsibility of governing as justification.

As they ran into the commandments those were easily adjusted (possibly the greatest weakness of any law that absolutely forbids something, but that’s perhaps a topic for another day).  But most significant is how the seventh commandment was changed.

One day when the animals came out the Seven Commandments were gone and in their place a single commandment:

All animals are equal,
but some are more equal than others.

Absolute nonsense.  9 cannot be more equal to 90 than to 1350.  9 can only be equal to 9.  But if I look at the way we live our lives, at the excesses we allow those with power, money and connections and the disdain we have for those without it, it appears to be a piece of nonsense we wholeheartedly embrace.  Each one of us seems to think we’re more equal than the one next to us.

Okay.  I’ll shut up now about Animal Farm (though you probably shouldn’t take my word for it.)

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