Columns

Johnson ’14: Powers ’15 misses the point on equality

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Everyone can agree that we are all different. Some of us have blue eyes, some have brown. Some of us are tall, some are short. Some people are born with incredible gifts in math and science, while others suffer from learning disorders. Since its founding, the United States has fought bloody internal struggles over the problem of equality. We still haven’t quite been able to reach full equality of opportunity. But because of the efforts of America’s most significant leaders, we arrived at the collective conclusion that we are all created equal. We decided that differences do not equal imperfections.

In fact, the genius of America, which Andrew Powers ’15 evidently does not understand, is that our differences are what make us great. In a recent column (“Nature matters,” Feb. 3), he claims that the question of equality “is a matter of science, not politics,” and asserts that political correctness keeps us from acknowledging that some people are intrinsically less likely to succeed. Powers cites the theory of evolution to support his claim that some people are just better than others. But he misses the point of the Declaration of Independence. Our Declaration doesn’t say that we’re all the same, but rather asserts that all men are equal in worth, and have rights granted to them by God that must never be abridged.

Besides being un-American and offensive, Powers’ column shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the fact that “equal” does not mean “the same.” This view of humans is one in which we are all given quantitative, measurable values of worth. We cannot determine another human being’s worth precisely because one’s worth is not an objective quality.

For example, he calculates that it is “infeasible” that a terminally ill child could be as “successful as a healthy child.” So what? Obviously an ill child is less likely to reproduce and raise his own kids than a healthy one, but that doesn’t make him any less valuable as a human being. To a mother, there is no person on earth that is worth more than her child — sick or well. While Powers may argue that this child’s disease makes him somehow inferior, proving his assertion that we are not all created equal, how do we define superior and inferior? What if that child possesses a capacity to love that is greater than that of any healthy child?

On Sunday, Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman became the first deaf player to win a Super Bowl. His deafness is genetic. Coleman’s story proves that we are not all the same. It also shows that disabilities do not diminish one’s value as a human being. Coleman was born with a disadvantage and used it as motivation. Now he is an NFL player, a Super Bowl champion and likely very content with being born “unequal.”

What Coleman lacked in hearing, he made up for in drive, determination and intelligence. Everyone has strengths and everyone has weaknesses. Each of us has a unique combination of gifts and flaws such that we are all equal as humans. This is the very definition of humanity.

In a different era, ardent defenders of slavery claimed that other races were somehow biologically different in order to fight against abolition. Pseudoscientists claimed that black people were susceptible to “drapetomania,” a disorder that caused slaves to want to run away from their masters. In the 20th century, pro-segregationist southerners spread falsehoods that black people carried strange and horrible pathogens as an excuse to keep the South segregated. Nazi philosophers sought to create a pure “master” race by exterminating people who did not fit their mold of a perfect human.

I do not want to live in a country that believes some people are simply born as lesser humans. Powers complains that “modern society is increasingly intolerant of all forms of inequality.” Guilty as charged. This country’s founding documents — flawed as they may be — and its centuries-long struggle for progress are based on the intolerance of inequality. Those of us who care about equality stand up not because it’s trendy or politically correct, but because we have a responsibility to do so. To explain inequality with genetics and social Darwinism only serves to make America’s widening opportunity gap permanent and to further divide our already polarized country.

 

Garret Johnson ’14 thanks his friends for channeling his many “thoughts” on this issue into a column. He can be reached at garret_johnson@brown.edu. His columns appear on alternate Wednesdays.

  • TheRationale

    Whoa, jeez, I think everyone missed the point in his article, although he could have written it better. I think people are getting caught up on “equal.”

    Brown students need to stop labeling everyone they don’t like a Nazi. I mean holy crap. I saw Powers largely arguing that people have different abilities and we shouldn’t pretend they don’t. That maybe we could do better by acknowledging differences rather than coming up with terms like “differently-abled.” I did not anywhere see him claim that some animals are “more equal” than others. Again, he apparently could have communicated better, but I just didn’t see this perspective in his piece.

    • ?

      nobody is pretending everyone is the same, so what was powers’s point? also, doesn’t the term “differently abled” exactly acknowledge that “people have different abilities,” as you said?

      • TheRationale

        His point seemed to be that people are actually pretending and that there is too much PC. Call things for what they are. People aren’t “differently-abled,” they’re disabled. Yeah, it’s different, but nobody’s calling Usain Bolt “differently-abled.”

        • ‘`*-.,_,-*’`*~-.,.~*’*~ (2014)

          there are two discernible threads i’m picking up in powers’ piece. one is related to PC-ness: that we can’t simultaneously use language to deny disadvantages and simultaneously pick out disadvantaged groups in order to legislate measures to assist them. this point makes sense only when you consider powers’ (mis)understanding of the way we use “equal,” as johnson explains here.

          the more disturbing undertone of the piece is that powers seems to think that our measures to “level the playing field” are misguided in the first place. while ostensibly using the example of the ADA to demonstrate that first point — that we need to acknowledge inequalities in order to address them — powers edges into social darwinism territory and implies that perhaps disadvantaged people don’t deserve extra accommodations because, hey, they lost the genetic lottery and that sucks for them:

          “The causal root of these individuals’ suffering is their genes. A business’s lack of handicapped parking isn’t ‘discrimination’ against the disabled, but a refusal to help a victim of the genetic lottery. The business’s passive existence does not make the individual worse off.”

          the best part was the nod to eugenics at the end of the article: “Both genetics and environment affect the courses of our lives, and it’s distressing that one of these factors is almost entirely beyond our control. Perhaps in the future this will no longer be the case.”

          lolol

          • ‘`*-.,_,-*’`*~-.,.~*’*~ (2014)

            …and this is all not to mention that powers may also be building up an argument for the converse of ‘nature leads to (appropriate) social stratification’: that the inequalities that currently exist in society are due to natural limitations.

            johnson sums this up perfectly in his last sentence:

            “To explain inequality with genetics and social Darwinism only serves to make America’s widening opportunity gap permanent and to further divide our already polarized country.”

          • TheRationale

            Again, I just don’t see the eugenics here. I think people are reading too much into this and in the wrong direction at that.

            I read the last quote “Perhaps in the future this will no longer be the case,” as a hopeful nod to advancing medicine that will hopefully one day allow us to make genetic disorders a thing of the past. But plowing down all the “genetic inferior?” Really? You really read that? I think that’s excessive.

          • ‘`*-.,_,-*’`*~-.,.~*’*~ (2014)

            lol ok maybe he didn’t mean that, yr interpretation is equally likely

            (but i mean why should we even bother trying to advance medicine?? we should just let nature take its course, survival of the fittest!!!)