Although most people claim to believe in equality, if we look closely we can see that they don’t take this belief as seriously as they say. We can also see that, for the most part, few even believe it. Nor do most of us seem to notice this subtle truth which undermines the great sham of political liberalism.
People’s pretensions to superiority are easily seen; just observe how seriously almost everyone takes rank and titles, how happy people are that others know they are doctor this or senior that. Of course, however, being wary of envy and of appearing arrogant, they will not always make a big show of their station. That task is frequently left for others, who in many cases stand to gain from it.
What matters most to many people, we can easily see, is their standing in the world, because this realizes self-interest and narcissism, the strongest forces in human affairs. Samuel Johnson observed that people are all for leveling (or making equal) when it is leveling others down to them–but it is otherwise when it comes to leveling upward!
For many of us worldly standing is the only notion of supreme value. To this the notion of equality is tacked on as a hollow but slyly useful abstraction; people adhere to it so as not to be imprudently out of step with PC convention. In this complex way the notion of equality both maintains social cohesion and mitigates envy, even though it is no more realistic or substantive than the sentimental endings of popular films.
We can also see, what complements the value of feeling superior, the value people get from feeling inferior (albeit often unconsciously); for although everyone claims to be the equal of the next person, if you examine the behavior of any number of people closely, we will notice that they actually consider themselves inferior to many. Go, for example, to any literary reading or art gallery—notice how readily people truckle to the artist, whether he has any talent or not, whether they understand the work or not, or even heard of it before that day. What a humorous spectacle!
The slavish psychology of most people—the result of severely unequal nature itself—is quite pleased by such happy herd sycophancy. I have met several people who not only kept up with US, People and the like inane magazines, but had actual tattoos of celebrities commonly found in them! In some cases, of their names; in others, of their faces.
The reason for such stupid phenomena is this, that human beings are powerfully attracted to anything that seems greater than themselves. There is in human psychology a deep animal instinct of veneration and idolatry; into this has gone all our history, all our terrible struggle to survive and endure. Thus many people take naturally to flattery and are not at all troubled by it, their pride being no hindrance to sucking up to others. And this instinct is universal among classes and peoples.
Even philosophers, though typically more temperate than most and not given to overpraise, are happy to romanticize and make a hero out of the eccentric genius Saul Kripke, to celebrate and stand in awe of his prodigious youthful achievements as if the man were God himself. In so doing philosophers are not so different from the manner in which the empty-headed masses regard Hollywood “stars.”
For, regardless of gender, education, ethnicity, or class, there is in many human beings an unconscious need to venerate someone or something. Different people realize it through different forms. For some, it’s a picture or an autograph. For others, it’s small talk with a prominent or famous person, to be related to others time and again. This need, to be sure, is something different from our reasonable regard for supreme merit, though the two are often connected.
So, for instance, often what begins as deserved appreciation ends in bizarre idolatry (certainly far more affective than intellectual); but because the latter is offensive to pride, most of us are far from willing to recognize the complete truth about this phenomenon. Here, the common pretense to equality is fascinating. People can slavishly venerate someone, and so render themselves inferior to him in respect to whatever makes him so significant, all while acting as if they are nevertheless equal to the person who moves them to such obsequiousness.
Much of the gossip people engage in reveals how unequal they believe they really are, though this seems to be an unconscious belief. People will go on and on about how wonderful a person is, and though they do not think so highly of themselves, they will still say everybody is equal. But even when people engage in malicious gossip, in many cases they betray their feelings of deep inferiority, motivated as they are by resentment.
For instance, wherever there is a person who excels at something, and who is therefore superior to many people in this respect, there will be a number of resentful people who tell you he is all hype, overrated, or owes his achievement to external advantages, and so on. Or again, in order to shirk their resentful inferiority, people will say he is arrogant, or that he is insecure and thus endeavoring to show them up. And yet by such anxious means people reveal that it is they themselves who are insecure, being indeed inferior, though their knowledge of this must remain unconscious, it being so difficult to accept.
“If mankind had wished for what is right,” said William Hazlitt, “they might have had it long ago.” So it is with equality. For though most of us have moments in which we want life to better for everyone—for no one to go hungry, to be homeless, to be without healthcare, and so on—it is also true that many of us get an immense psychological satisfaction from being more affluent than others, from the appearance of our social superiority to them. Hence the celebrity’s $800 Versace sweatpants, so much more expensive than the $8 pair from Walmart.
Like belonging to a country club or having an Ivy League degree, the value consists of symbolic comparative superiority, which is impossible to measure, and hardly reducible to any $800 cost or name such as Harvard or Yale. For this is a matter of individual narcissism: delightful, boundless, irrational. Again, though we may find equality to be a good, we also like to feel superior to others. If we are particularly good at something, many of us don’t end it there; we want to be better than others, or the best.
Here is another dark yet evident truth: equality is an ideal to which everyone pays lip service, but for which few are willing to sacrifice to achieve. The reason is that people are deeply self-interested. Indeed self-interest is so much a part of human nature and our entire point of view that we rarely see just how influential and extreme it is. What is more, when people talk about equality what they usually have in view is their own material well-being; it is rarely the case that anyone really wants everyone to be equal. Despite all the lofty sentiments concerning equality, fairness and the common good, people’s main concern clearly is themselves. With respect to others they are usually indifferent hypocrites—except of course when it comes to those on whom they depend for their own well-being.
Meanwhile, after self-interest nothing is more reliable in human affairs than narcissism, the intoxicating delight people get from contemplating their own power or superiority, as it emerges from their awareness of how they believe others perceive them. It is easy to see that this narcissism is always at least a latent force in human affairs, ready to be called forth by the right pretext or occasion. Hence it frequently happens that when people rise in social status they immediately begin to carry themselves in a different manner, one meant to be suggestive of their newfound superiority. It can be seen here that human nature itself is strongly inclined to such self-delighting behavior, which needs only the right context for this very pleasurable feeling to come forth.
Our nature consists of contradictions. Now we value equality and altruism, now we prize superiority and our own well-being to the exclusion of everyone else. We need to learn to be at home with these incommensurable values. And here abstract thought is only so effective; it cannot make the incompatible not be precisely that. When faced with a problem of incompatible values—in this case, the natural human desires for equality, superiority and even inferiority—we must be like athletes or artists, letting the sharp instinct of the moment, which is the fruit of pondered experience, show us what to do according as fortune provides a challenge.
Read More: The Real Nature Of Politics