Equality is another important element of treating people humanely (that is, as if they are human beings). We are each human beings equally created in the image of God, and as such, we are each of equal value. No human being is worth more than any other. I think it’s easy for us to agree with that intellectually, but do we actually live it out in our daily lives?
For most of the us, the answer is no. Because true equality is hard. The biggest roadblock to treating every person is equally, I think, is ingroup bias. Humans have a tendency to show a preference for those we think of as being a part of “our group.” Our friends and family members. Those who look like us. Those who live near us and share our nationality. Those who believe the way we do. Those who act the way we do.
We have a tendency to look at people who are like us and decide that we are all a part of a group. Then we apply an us-versus-them mentality to any given situation, and bam: ingroup bias. The people in our group—those who are like us—are the ones who matter most. Outsiders—those who are different from us—are either the enemy or, at best, irrelevant. They can fend for ourselves. We’ve got to take care of our own.
That doesn’t sound like equality to me. But it does sound like the world we live in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say of a current issue, “That’s not our problem! We’ve got our own problems; let those people take care of theirs.” Maybe you’ve been guilty of saying something like that yourself. I know I have. But true equality, the recognition of every human being as equal, requires that we get rid of this divisive logic.
The solution, of course, is to train our brains to think differently. To expand our conceived ingroup until it includes everyone. This is a difficult exercise in compassion and empathy. In fact, for most of us, it will probably take our entire lives. But it is possible. Once we see that we’re not several groups of people competing with one another, but rather one group—the human race—working towards the same goals, we can begin to see a new way forward: the way of equality.
That’s a beautiful thought, but lest I show too much of my idealistic side, I’d like to offer a few practical ways that equality manifests itself in the world.
We often like to say that in our country, everyone gets a fair shot at success. That simply is not true. We’ve come a long way towards meeting that goal, sure, but we’ve still got a long way to go. While it’s true that most everyone in this country now has the theoretical potential to find success, the reality is much less equal than you might think.
There are so many things that factor into a person’s opportunity for success, and it starts before they’re even born. Ethnicity and biological sex determine a lot of the assumptions the world at large will make about a person. A family history of poverty, discrimination, or oppression takes its toll on every person born into it through generational trauma. If a mother is unhealthy or under an inordinate amount of stress during pregnancy, her child’s development suffers. These are but a few of the ways opportunity is unequal even before birth.
And it carries on in life. If a child lives in an unsafe neighborhood, they will not be able to play outside, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and discover their full range of talents. Kids who grow up in poverty spend their time figuring out how to provide for themselves and their families rather than on excelling in school. Teachers and schoolmates alike make assumptions about students based on race, sex, and other factors that can take a toll and limit one’s potential, as we’ve seen in instances like young girls being discourage from studying STEM subjects and young people of color experiencing test anxiety due to stereotype threat.
This doesn’t even take into account the blatant racism, sexism, and other discrimination that people face out in the world. We might try to ignore or deny it, but bigotry is still at large today. And it creates unequal opportunity for those whom it targets.
But the inequality of opportunity goes deeper than any of that. The single biggest limiting factor in a person’s life, I think, is their own perception of what is possible. Research shows that when someone is expected by those around them to excel, they tend to do better, and when they are expected to fail, they tend to do worse. We call these expectations self-fulfilling prophecies. When you believe you can do something, you’re more likely to actually do it.
How did I know that I could get into college, earn a degree, and use the knowledge and insight I’d gained there to help me launch a successful career? Because I’d spent my entire life being told that I could do so by my parents. What if I had never been told by an authority figure that I was capable of going to college? Would I have done so? Maybe, but more than likely not, because the opportunity to believe in that wasn’t there.
What about kids who grow up in neighborhoods where no one ever seems to get out? Where the only people they know who aren’t struggling to make ends meet are gangsters and drug dealers? Where the only two lifestyle options they see are poverty and crime? How are they supposed to know that there’s any other option if they never see it? How can we say that they have an opportunity to break out of that cycle if they don’t even know it’s a possibility?
So no, everyone doesn’t have an equal opportunity. That’s why we talk about privilege. Someone who’s born into a well-off family, who isn’t the target of constant discrimination, and who has a broad and hopeful understanding of their own potential is a lot more likely to succeed than someone who isn’t afforded any of those privileges. Equal opportunity doesn’t exist, even thought we all implicitly know that it should. It’s an important part of equality.
What do we do about this problem? Solving the issue of unequal opportunity starts by recognizing it. Then, we must take steps to help underprivileged individuals compensate for the opportunity they weren’t afforded. That’s where things like affirmative action and diversity reporting come into play. The purpose is not to rig the system against those who are privileged; it’s actually quite the opposite. The point is to make up for the unequal opportunity by creating opportunities for those affected down the road. It’s an imperfect system, but it’s a necessary one, at least for now.
Of course, the long-term solution is to create a situation where equal opportunity for all is a reality. We do this by eliminating the factors that hold people back: discrimination, poverty, lack of healthcare, unsafe living conditions, and the like. If we wish to truly stand for equality, we must work to eliminate these factors so that each and every person will have an equal opportunity to succeed and to become all that they are meant to be.
This one sounds pretty straightforward: Everyone deserves to be treated the same. It’s simple, but it’s not easy to put into practice.
We each have preconceived notions about other people based on stereotypes about how they look, where they come from, and the like. We can’t help that. Our brains are wired to generalize and to make assumptions because, in a lot of cases, it’s helpful. Not so when dealing with other people.
Another cool thing about our brains: They can be reprogrammed. We can become aware of our own biases, name them, recognize them, and fight back against them every time they rear their ugly heads. Eventually, we can even overcome them. It requires literally fighting against our own thoughts, and that may seem counterintuitive. But it’s the only way to destroy the demons that live inside of us.
The solution is not to claim color-blindness. None of us is so perfect that we’ve remained untainted by the stereotypes fed to us by society and the people—even good, well-meaning people—who have influenced us. Besides, we don’t want everyone to be the same. Diversity is a beautiful thing. But everyone should be treated the same way without having to worry about facing discrimination.
The secret, as I mentioned above, is recognizing that we’re all on the same team. The single most effective way to overcome stereotypes and bring people together is to give them a common goal. Once we’re all working together, it’s so much easier to see each other for who we really are: human beings. And the great thing is that we don’t have to create a common goal because we already have them. We all want peace, justice, and prosperity for all. So let’s work together and starting seeing the false lines we’ve drawn between ourselves disappear.
Of course, the other part of equal treatment is removing any discrimination out in the world, and that’s very hard. We can’t control other people, but we can call them out when they express bias and treat others unequally. And we can’t single-handedly remove every discriminatory policy, practice, and norm out there, but we can remain vigilant to be on the lookout and work to change the ones we do see. Instead of burying our heads in the sand, we can practice a worldview of equality and be bold in holding ourselves and others to that standard.
I know you hear me say this all the time, but it can’t be said enough: Every single person matters. Their needs matter. Their experiences matter. Their feelings matter. Their opinions matter. Whether you identity with them or not, they matter. And they matter equally.
That means that we have to be willing to consider every single person equally. We have to listen to them and take into account what they have to say. We cannot reject their experience or their perspective just because they are not the same as ours. They deserve equal consideration alongside our own views, because they matter just as much.
I’m not arguing for relativism here. There are some, like neo-Nazis, who have lost their way and need to be told, “I’m sorry, but no. We’re moving in a better direction, and you can either get onboard or go do your hateful thing somewhere else.” And there will always have to be room for diversity of thought and belief. Again, we’re not looking for consensus or uniformity or the lowest common denominator. The goal here is equality.
So let’s stop assuming that our way of viewing the world is the only way, or at least the only correct way. Let’s start listening to the voices of those who have experienced the world much differently than we have, even those who fundamentally disagree with us. Let’s give those ideas consideration—serious consideration—even as we work through our own beliefs. Because every person has something to offer, and every person deserves equal consideration.
We’ve all heard of the fabled “great equalizer.” For as long as decent society has recognized the evils of inequality, we have sought a solution. Some thought it might be education, and the system has no doubt helped, but it’s still left much of the problem unaddressed. Then it was supposed to be the internet, but I’d say the web’s impact on issues of equality is mixed at best. We haven’t found a one-size-fits-all solution to inequality yet, and it’s unlikely that we ever will.
Maybe instead of searching for a great equalizer, we would do better to become mini-equalizers ourselves. We all have spheres of influence, and in those spheres of influence, we have the opportunity to practice equality, to stand up for the oppressed, and to make a difference. And who knows? If enough of us do this on our own and come together to fight systemic injustice, we might just become the great equalizer the world so desperately needs.
Equality is hard. Putting into practice the principles outlined above is not easy by any means, and I can’t say that I’ve fully mastered them myself. We all have ways that we can and should do better about practicing equality in our own lives. But I truly believe that if we each commit ourselves to practice equality to the best of our abilities and constantly seek out ways we can improve, we can make the world of more equal and humane place for everyone living here. After all, we’re on the same team. Let’s work towards this goal together.