Trying to catch up on my post-holiday podcast backlog, I finally listened to Tom Woods’ interview from mid-December with sociologist Jason Manning, author of The Rise of Victimhood Culture. Manning’s book, which he co-authored with fellow sociologist Bradley Campbell, ostensibly seeks to explain the sudden onset of concepts like microagressions and safe spaces, particularly on university campuses (I say ostensibly because I’ve not read the book).
One interesting explanation that Manning proffered in his interview with Woods is that the current obsession with social justice and inequality has arisen precisely because inequality is at its lowest level, maybe ever, and that with it has come a concomitant reduction in a whole range of prior prejudices. Manning theorized that human nature, not being given to contentment, is such that man relentlessly seeks dissenters to his opinions, even when his opinions are fabulously ascendant and the dissenters hopelessly outnumbered. In Manning’s view, and I think he is correct, modern hand-wringing over things like the supposed onslaught of fascism is in reality the case of seeing monsters that aren’t there, or that are at least crippled well beyond the point of being scary.
This point, appropriately, is similar to one made by Robert Nisbet, who was one of, if not the, most prominent sociologists of the 20th century. In his 1988 book, The Present Age, Nisbet’s quoted one his favorite sources, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote, “When inequality of conditions is the common law of society, the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it. Hence the desire for equality always become insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete.” Applying Tocqueville’s insight to modern America, Nisbet believed that although much progress has been made towards broadscale equality, such progress has only increased the appetite for more, and more types of, equality. The drive for equality, having progressed through political and economic stages, has now reached the stage of social groups, such that any hierarchy, no matter its basis, is decried by the egalitarians.
Nisbet didn’t disparage the struggle to lessen true inequality, but he viewed this extension of the egalitarian impulse as destructive. “The great difficulty with equality as a driving force,” he wrote, “is that it too easily moves from the worthy objective of smiting Philistine inequality, which is tyrannous and discriminatory, to the different objective of smiting mere differentiation of role and function.” It is one thing to believe that different roles and functions shouldn’t confer special rights on individuals; it is quite another to say that different roles and functions shouldn’t exist. Political aristocracy, in other words, is not the same thing as a natural hierarchy in society and its various social groupings.
How does this relate to our modern culture wars? Well, for starters it’s obvious to just about anyone who isn’t a social justice ideologue that equality of all types are at their zenith – particularly in American society. And yet you would never know it from the behavior of put-upon college students and aspiring social media influencers. Seeing all of the progress towards equality that has been made, both organically through the market and artificially via state action, modern grievance mongers seem only able to focus on the increasingly minute areas of inequality, and on inventing new categories that can pick up the banner of oppression. This is not, of course, to say that inequality has been vanquished – a task that can only be accomplished by the annihilation of the human race – but any honest reading of the past shows how drastically it has been reduced over the last two centuries.
Ironically, those prior inequalities may have been less damaging to the human psyche than is modern equality. Paraphrasing Tocqueville, Nisbet wrote, “In ages of accepted rank, one does not feel beaten or humiliated by life when stark reality forces one to awareness of one’s individual limitations and weaknesses. …perceived inequalities are just that… All that matters is the sense of isolation, of vulnerability, of alienation, that attacks the individual as the waters of egalitarianism commence to flow. And from this sense it is an easy, an almost inevitable step to subjectivism, to retreat to the warm and welcome recesses of one’s own little inner reality.”
This goes a long way towards explaining why increased equality leads to a stronger belief that equality has become more elusive. It’s not so much the attempt to lessen inequality that is harmful as it is that the egalitarian mindset becomes focused on all inequalities, perceived and real, natural and unnatural, surmountable and not. This in turn creates a kind of self-centeredness that creates a “little inner reality” that is not only attuned to inequality, but amplifies its magnitude and effect on the person. Put more simply, if more bluntly, a focus on equality tends to lead to a selfishness than can focus on little else than inequality. As Richard Weaver put it, “Fraternity directs attention to others, equality to self; and the passion for equality is simultaneous with the growth of egotism.”
This is not to exalt inequality as preferable to equality, or to say that the solution to inequality is for people to stoically accept it. Rather, the point is that the search for equality doesn’t, and perhaps can’t, differentiate between types of inequality, and tends to tear down more than was initially intended. If we take the historically-supportable view that inequality is a rule of human existence, that all people do not naturally have the same abilities and capabilities, roles and duties, there is no ultimate solution to inequality, only trade-offs. And one of the trade-offs for the unending pursuit of equality may very well be social peace. Weaver asked, rhetorically, “How much of the frustration of the modern world proceeds from starting with the assumption that all are equal, finding that this cannot be so, and then having to realize that one can no longer fall back on the bond of fraternity!”
I should note, lest I be misunderstood, that the true sources of inequality aren’t what some elements of society, notably those wielders of tiki torches, think they are. These are not group inequalities, they are individual inequalities. Russell Kirk wrote that, “The real causes of inequality, in nine cases out of ten, are differences in intelligence, strength, swiftness, dexterity, beauty, perseverance, and other physical and moral qualities.” Nor, does the fact of inequality justify a dismissal of concern for the less fortunate. Indeed, Kirk believed that with higher capabilities and status come higher duties, writing that “The sincere Christian will do everything in his power to relieve the distresses of men and women who suffer privation or injury…” But, he added, “the virtue of charity is a world away from the abstract right of equality.”
The pursuit of equality, which is now almost completely political, will ironically result in the same kind of legal restraints which formerly kept people in artificial inequality. “The delusion that justice consists in absolute equality,” wrote Kirk, “ends in an absolute equality beneath the weight of a man or a party to whom justice is no more than a word.” The same kind of laws that formerly kept entire groups of people subordinate will be necessary to truly level society to the extent desired by the egalitarian mind.
And even then, if history is any guide, that mind will be unsatisfied.