Debate: Inescapable Inequality

By Paula Mendez Keil

Is there such a thing as universally equal rights? In a world filled with inequality and the omnipresent subjugation of some minority or group it is hard to truly believe in an egalitarian utopia. With this in mind, the question shifts from ‘are there equal universal rights’ to ‘is the idea of equality even conceptually feasible given the structures in this world of our making?’ This discussion is rendered all the more interesting when looking at gender stratification and its impact on women’s rights.

First I would like to clarify a few things, and I will begin with the lamentable yet essential idea of order. When I think of a structured system I think of organization, of some kind of order in the way we conduct our everyday lives. From the most basic to the most complex of systems, structures are easily discernable, creating a functional order for those who belong to it. Maybe this functionality can be traced back to common principles of utilitarianism, set forth by John Stuart Mill. His philosophy proposes a maximization of the overall ‘good’ of a society, which is ultimately achieved by way of increasing the quality and quantity of individual ‘happiness.’ This can be done, in my opinion, through an equitable division of labour based on each person’s inherent abilities and propensities. This is maximizing function. From this, order is naturally generated and reproduced.

But what then of this ‘natural’ order of things? What do we mean when we invoke nature? Over the past decades there has been a palpable backlash to essentializing notions such as sex. Many argue that not only gender, but also biological sex, is a demonstrated social construction which promotes the subjugation of women in any given society. Yet, there is something to be said of nature and its mathematical (might I even say, logical) ordering, which deters every species’ descent into pure chaos. When such a breakdown is impinging, nature adjusts and re-organizes, adapting to new environmental pressures and circumstances. There is something to be said of the resilience of nature, which inevitably must be attributed to its systematic organization and methodic structure.

Indeed, if we examine the natural world and begin our system of analysis from this ‘natural’ standpoint, we see nature consistently replicating structures of hierarchy. Within packs of animals, and even amongst groups of primates, we see relations of power and subjection in order to organize the collective. So why do we fight this same 'nature' in human beings? Are power relations not intrinsic of nature, and thus humanity? And if so, can we honestly argue that egalitarian societies truly ever existed? Even in the basic, most fundamental structure of the family, one can always find stratification either between men and women or elderly and young. This brings us back to the idea of social organization, an essential component of a well functioning community.

Most order theories, whether they derive from mathematics, philosophy, psychology, or sociology, engage in a rhetoric of duality whereby one extreme opposes the other in a hierarchical fashion. It seems then, that we should resolve ourselves to the necessity of organization, which implies structural hierarchies. Evidently, within these hierarchies it is those at the top who hold the power. Most often this power is exerted by one group over another, thus curtailing the rights of those at the receiving end of that dynamic. Referring back to gender inequality, it’s evident that most societies have promoted a ‘sexual’ stratification, ascribing a dominant and powerful role to men and a vulnerable and weak one to women. These constructions are reproduced and maintained through cultural understandings of gender roles that thrive on control, which is intrinsic to structure and order. Interestingly enough, it seems that we find ourselves in a self replicating hermeneutical circle, from which we cannot break unless we are prepared to exist in a state of pure anarchy.

Ironically, Laurence Peter’s epigram on Aristotle’s politics reflects the dissonance of equal rights discourse, by maintaining that “the worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.” It thus follows that ideals of equality, and more narrowly gender equality, are resolutely that: ideals. In theory we can struggle to achieve egalitarian ground on which to stand, but in practice the human rights of women (and of all) can never materialize in a world where social stratification prevails and engenders a culture of control. To empower one group, inevitably disempowers another, further feeding into a balancing act where one tips the scale at the expense of the other. As such, I do not believe this is a viable, or even logical, path to be taken by women’s rights movements. It is not tenable to promote equality simply by a re-organization of the existing unequal structure, if that re-organization will ultimately always be based on structures of power. Women’s rights campaigners should understand that we are working within an intrinsically flawed system, and the only way to break from it is by creating a new one. I, however, am dubious of whether this can be done. To create a structure where power does not exist, and where notions of control and dominance are inexistent, would entail a rejection of order and structure. We are then left with two options: anarchy or a futile struggle. Personally, I do not ascribe to either extreme, yet my cynicism limits me from viewing a different world from the one which we live in today. So once again, I beg the question is there such a thing as universally equal rights? Given my circle of thought, I find the answer to be no.

Read the answer from Kate Donald to this article. We also encourage you to comment on this article and contribute to the debate. 

About the Author:

Paula Mendez Keil is a 2011 Research Intern at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. She is currently completing a Master’s in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

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