How it came to be that “Equality” is now the greatest ally of prejudice is a strange story. Like so many contemporary phenomena, it is a tale that involves the Internet. I suppose we should start at the beginning.
For millennia in the West, entrenched in both popular and academic discourse was the idea that certain people were better than others. So deep and pervasive was the belief that not only did hundreds of millions suffer and die through war, slavery, colonialism and classism, for essentially all of human history, half of the population has had it worse off than the other.
It would be vastly too complicated and controversial to explain why this changed, but at least part of the reason was the joint rise of democracy and capitalism. Once the individual became the base unit of the economy and political system, older ideologies bent on restricting people gave way to the demands of the market and populism. By the time the 20th century rolled around, people were fighting to get the powers-that-be to accept that all individuals are equal under the law, and today in places like Canada, that is much closer to being true than it ever has.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that the rhetoric of individualism so prevalent in advertising and political chatter also underpinned the radical cultural explosion of the Internet. From the idea of bloggers upending big media to the self-expression encouraged by the very structure of Facebook, the valorization of the individual and the expansion of digital technology have been inextricably linked.
The same emphasis upon speaking and the free exchange of ideas have turned parts of the web into crackling arenas of debate. Even the dreaded newspaper comment section can, with shooting-star-like rarity and beauty, turn into a model of critical thought. But along the way and generally speaking, something has gone dreadfully wrong. An ill-conceived, destructive spanner has been thrown into the machine of online debate—and its name is Equality.
The Internet is not a distinct thing, somehow disconnected from society. It is part and parcel of contemporary life and, as such, is rife with prejudice of all sorts, from the simplest and stupidest forms of sexism and racism to the most insidious forms of bias.
The examples are legion, so allow me to demonstrate the ubiquity of such phenomena by simply picking some examples from the past little while. Here’s an awful Facebook comment thread about a rape joke in popular online comic The Oatmeal; here, a misogyny-filled forum thread in response to a Twitter hashtag about sexism in gaming; here, an infuriating Reddit thread about what is and is not racism. There is almost literally no end of choice when it comes to prejudice-filled debate online.
These sites of disagreement are all filled with the same tired statements: it’s feminism that is the problem; “What about men?!”; it’s you who are racist for bringing up race; the path to justice is to treat everyone in the same way—and if you don’t, then you are the issue. Put another way, the idea of Equality—that everyone is the same and must be treated as such—is poisoning online discourse.
Of course, the Internet alone is not somehow to blame for this. Think of the school teacher telling her class that ‘it’s what’s inside that counts’, or the sitcom in which the hoodie-wearing ‘thug’ turns out to be a bibliophile: almost all popular discourse works under the assumption that Equality means that we are all basically the same; the specificities of sex, gender, race, culture or any other number of identities are simply speedbumps on the way to the understanding that difference separates us, while sameness unites. While clearly noble in intent, it is a mode of thinking that not only erases difference, but also tries to hide the power imbalances that are part and parcel of our social structure.
Though arguing against this blank, flat ideal of equality has always been difficult, there is something interesting about the structure of the internet that makes these conversations all the more pernicious. On a practical level, statements of importance are often placed next to jokes, just as the progressive is placed next to the offensive. The markers by which we recognized the layered meaning of something said have now become more difficult to apprehend, requiring the kind of patience and empathy it can be very easy to do away with on mediums like Twitter or Facebook.
Perhaps more importantly is the glut of statements apparently devoid of bodies that do the speaking. While written language has always functioned this way, social media and the mass availability of text-only communication has made more difficult the work of situating written statements in their bodily, lived context. Though in an abstract sense nothing changes, there is a distinct difference between listening to someone’s experience of racism when it is tinged with the pain of their voice, than when it is part of the flow of one’s online reading.
It is nonetheless quite true that the flattening effect of the web has upsides. To temporarily detach one’s words from the way in which bodies are read can be remarkably freeing, particularly for those with marginalized identities. Yet, perversely, this aspect of the web has also become bound up with the misguided goal of Equality. Whether or not it is true, it can frequently appear as if everyone online equally has a voice and is starting from the same point, the sameness of online avatars belying the difference of the identities they stand for. When debate springs up, it is as if one argues not simply against the perniciousness of liberal-humanism, but does so using a technology that seems to have become its ultimate manifestation.
Equality as a concept was essential to the development of human rights. It was only under an ideologically symmetrical argument that also prioritized the grit and freedom of the individual that the Suffragettes could demand the vote, just as Gandhi’s rhetoric of nationalism appealed to British sensibilities of God and Country.
But the ideal that “all are equal” is now a cover for the machinations of power and privilege, a smokescreen that obscures the fact that, despite our equality under law, certain markers of identity confer power, others do not, and that they overlap in complex, indeterminate ways. The Internet has played into this phenomenon by becoming the phenomenal ground on which the ideology of Equality can be used as a blunt instrument to pound the ups and downs of social mobility and cultural capital into a flat horizon on which everyone is the same series of pixels on a screen. It is the way in which ideas and media are interwoven and inseparable that has made the web an integral cog in the machine of Equality.
On the Internet, everyone is free to have a voice and express themselves. This is, inarguably in my opinion, a net good. What went wrong is the idea—perpetuated by the very structure of the sentence as it appears on a screen as a semantic, social island—is that each statement is an independent thing, and not a product of history. It is this strange gap between the visual presence of text and the bodies that produce, and are produced by, language that has furthered the poisonous view “underneath we are all the same” and that the strands of power aren’t constantly tugging on us in each moment of interaction.
What it demands, unfortunately, is a massive increase in cultural literacy that refuses to acknowledge Equality as the highest goal. The Men’s Rights and White Pride activists who hammer away at others in the name of this ideology have found the perfect medium for their dogma, one that makes it appear all words are stones equal in weight, that each inflict the same damage. What we have is the ground for a new kind of public space presented to us in flickering pixels; what we currently lack is the perspective to put those screens firmly where they belong: into the complex, shifting and profoundly unequal throes of history.