The Context Of Equality

Equality is a pretty word, but for a thing that everyone agrees upon is desirable, nobody seems to agree on what it looks like.

I want to divide equality into two concepts – context and contextless.


Contextual Equality
is equality that tries to equalize the outcome while taking into account all the associations of the situation – history, culture, demographic, etc. – or “contextual body.”

For example: Joe and Marsha go to high school. Joe has a hard life – abused by his parents, a learning disability, not a morning person. Marsha has a pretty good life – loving parents, intelligent, eats vegetables.

Joe and Marsha both fail a test and come to the teacher begging for a retake. Should they be treated equally? Maybe – but contextual equality would take into consideration the fact that Joe’s failure of the test is more understandable, and that allowing him to retake the test would be more helpful to him. Marsha has no good excuse for her failure – she has everything going for her already – a good ‘contextual body’ – and refusing her a retake might be the best option.

Contextual equality is behind ideas like power structures, privilege, and affirmative action. It does not view human interactions as happening in isolation, but rather more like two huge contextual bodies summarized in a small point of contact. Calling a black person a racial slur is worse than calling a white person a racial slur, because black people (in the US) were enslaved and white people weren’t. Contextual equality is less for equal treatment and more for equal outcome – if the treatment does not result in similar outcomes, then we must modify the treatment to get everybody in the same position by the end.

Contextless Equality is the exact opposite. It doesn’t care about the surrounding history and culture, it cares about a process that works independently from the personal stories of the people going through it.
Contextless equality would say that Joe and Marsha should both be denied or approved the text retake. Sure, maybe Joe would benefit more, but that’s not the point. The point is to give the children an escape from the weight of their contextual bodies, an environment where it doesn’t matter. It encourages solidarity and community between children by treating them the same, and to promote the feeling of fairness. So many aspects of the world are blind to your personal stories, so getting used to it now will help later on.

Contextless equality is behind ideas like blinded hiring practices – hiding the names on resumes to prevent bias in hiring for jobs. It’s behind standardized testing, behind tolerance of all religious clothing regardless of the oppression it might symbolize. It is more for equal treatment, not equal outcome. It cares about the interaction itself, and whether that interaction is consistent with all interactions. It views the contextual body as irrelevant.

I think the solidarity that comes out of contextless equality is underappreciated by the more liberally minded. Have you ever entered a system where your past didn’t matter, where the standards for you were the same as they were for everyone around you? Various forms of ritual does this – religious ceremonies and military training, for example. Cutting off your contextual body can be incredibly freeing and allow strong bonding with those around you.

I also think the empathy and recognition that comes from contextual equality is underappreciated by the more conservatively minded. Privilege and discussions of power aren’t always an attempt to shame, they’re attempts to recognize and comfort those who feel unheard. It’s how people with ‘worse’ contextual bodies voice their hurt at the difficulty of being around people with ‘better’ contextual bodies.

I personally suspect that intimate interactions are better done with contextual equality, and large systemic interactions are better done with contextless equality. The strength of contextual equality is that it is warm, personal, and it’s very difficult to maintain that effectively on a larger scale. The strength of contextless equality is that it promotes a sense of systemic unification, which can seem very cold when seen close up.
This is why I like the idea of blind hiring practices (contextless and systemic) but not affirmative action hiring practices (contextual and systemic). It’s why I like using trigger warnings with my friends (contextual and intimate) but not telling my friends they should just deal with it like everyone else (contextless and intimate).

I think usually those who look like they’re against equality are really just for a different sort of equality than we are. Most humans want good shit, in the end.

10 thoughts on “The Context Of Equality

  1. I’ve never seen equality separated this way, and it’s given me a lot of food for thought. I would love to repost this on my own blog to start a discussion there. Is that something you would be open to?

  2. This seems like an important and valid point, and succinctly put. It also plays into my contention that liberal-mindedness is strongly correlated with what we might call “deterministic” thinking (which goes hand in hand with empathy but has the potential to be disempowering).

    There are all kinds of other issues with the term “equality” (although I believe you struck the biggest one here). Consider that same-sex marriage being illegal would bring about equality in one sense because everybody would have the right to marry someone of the opposite gender, while in another sense it’s obviously a form of inequality. Or consider the question of how income tax should be calibrated to treat the poor and the rich “equally”. I move that we try to avoid evoking the concept of “equality” in political arguments whenever possible.

  3. Really I think the idea you call “contextless equality” is better thought of not in terms of any sort of equality at all, but rather in terms of orthogonality. It’s not about making things equal but rather about unbundling things, ignoring irrelevancies, hugging the query.

  4. Loved this.

    Is there another thread here as well? Contextual equality often seems to go along with a progressive view of history: that we are increasingly better understanding our world and ourselves, and we will at some point soon arrive at a place of “true” equality which we can then lock in by top-down mandate. A cyclical view of history and human nature would say that we repeat ideas, progress, and errors by generations, and so contextless equality is a recognition of the need for each generation to struggle with and solve basic human issues. Maybe contextless equality provides not just systemic unification but also basic building blocks of understandings we want to endure through time?

  5. Part of why contextual equality works so much better in smaller, more intimate settings vs large public ones is moral hazard. Contextual equality in a large setting can’t really account for personal context, it can only look at visible proxies of context, like gender or race. This creates bad incentives for everyone to exaggerate the oppression of their visible context markers and exaggerate the privilege of everyone else’s visible context markers. What starts out as compassion based on an attention to context devolves into dishonest, rapacious coalition politics. On the other hand, in a more intimate, personal settings we know much more about people as individuals. We know the details of their context, so we don’t need to rely on proxies and we are much harder to deceive by exaggeration.

    1. Agree that this is an excellent point. Your comment led me to think of how this happens in organizations. Quality expert Edwards Deming recognized the business value of measuring and improvement taking place at the smallest/most-local level, since attempts to measure, understand, and take action are increasingly divorced from reality the further they are from the actual point of production… thereby leading (in a business setting) to the kind of bad incentives you describe. Perhaps both the political and business are therefore arguments for “human scale” or “small is beautiful” thinking in human arrangements.

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