On Each Side of the Equal Sign

It is important to consider the idea of equality as a contested concept with different meanings to different people. It’s just as important to learn the difference between equity and equality.

 Equality does not mean the same thing to different people. I have found that this discrepancy can lead to conflict and confusion when discussing the rights, responsibilities, social standing, opportunities, abilities, etc. of various peoples, both individuals, and certain demographics.

For example, to some, equality means everybody starts at the same starting line and uses their knowledge, skills, talents, and abilities, etc. to move ahead in a ‘race’ toward ‘success’. This view of equality is somewhat myopic in that it does not consider the fact that race, religion, sexual orientation, and supremacies based on numerous types of privilege do not, in practice, allow for everyone to start at the same starting line. This effectively negates the idea that everyone has an equal chance to ‘win’ the race.

One might attempt to justify that particular definition by referencing the Declaration of Independence quote “all men are created equal”. However the Constitution made it clear that, in the words of George Orwell, “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. According to our governing document blacks were only considered to be 3/5ths of a person and women were not allowed to vote or own property. Thus the reality of equality is and has always been dependent on evolution.

A different definition of equality allows for the fact that people have differing abilities, backgrounds, educations, etc. and it is reasonable to expect ‘the rat race’ does not lead to the same outcomes for everyone. This definition sees equality as equal opportunity, not with all other things being equal but with equity of opportunity based on accounting for the presence of societal roadblocks, many of which originate in privilege and supremacy. This gives us a hint at why equity is not the same as equality. But I digress.

This definition takes into consideration that while we are all equal in the sense that we are all born with umbilical cords we are not all born into situations that give us an equal chance to thrive. Poverty, racism, sexism, and other isms prevent many people from beginning at that hypothetical equal starting line. This definition sees us trying to balance these inequities (another hint) by making an effort to compensate for negative societal realities.

Both of these disparate definitions are based on a degree of wishful thinking. Certainly, when people start a discussion with different definitions of the same concept the situation is ripe for misunderstanding and argument. So when someone challenges your understanding of a concept, be it equality or freedom or security or any other, take a moment to listen to the other person’s arguments and see if you can determine if the disconnect originates in a contested concept with opposing definitions of terms. In formal debate, agreement on fundamental definitions of terms is very important. In informal debate perhaps even more so.

This brings us to the difference between equality and equity and the misunderstandings that can arise from it. These words are different in meaning, as much as some of us like to use them to mean the same thing. Words have power. Concepts that are in reality contested but assumed to have only one definition turn that power into power failure. Those false assumptions lead us into deep and murky waters in which agreement can easily drown. 

Simply put equality is about state of being and equity is about fairness. For example, equality is that the 100-yard dash is the same distance for anyone. Equity is the fact that there is a Paralympics that gives elite athletes with disabilities a fair chance to compete. Equality in golf is everyone teeing off from the same marker. Equity in golf is your handicap.

So when someone speaks about equity and someone else answers with a statement about equality they immediately are talking about two different things. The conversation then begins to deteriorate and an argument ensues where a discussion should live. These misunderstandings, based in language and syntax as they are, point to an almost desperate need for the pursuit of understanding among peoples, as a starting point toward good relationships, political or otherwise.

Understanding doesn’t require much more than calm patience, humble listening, and self-respect. That may be hard work but it doesn’t have to be difficult.

Oh, and one more thing, Privilege is about what you are and not who you are. Therefore you can’t talk away or take away one’s privilege but through understanding you can change who the privileged person is. That’s a conversation for another time.

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