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Hierarchy of American belief in equality.

June 24, 2016

equaljustice-2

“Despite its proclamation of the equality of all men, the imagined order established by the Americans in 1776 also established a hierarchy. It created a hierarchy between men, who benefited from it, and women, whom it left disempowered. It created a hierarchy between whites, who enjoyed liberty, and blacks and American Indians, who were considered humans of a lesser type and therefore did not share in the equal rights of men. Many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders. They did not release their slaves upon signing the Declaration, nor did they consider themselves hypocrites. In their view, the rights of men had little to do with Negroes.”

“The American order also consecrated the hierarchy between rich and poor. Most Americans at that time had little problem with the inequality caused by wealthy parents passing their money and businesses on to their children. In their view, equality meant simply that the same laws applied to rich and poor. It had nothing to do with unemployment benefits, integrated education or health insurance. Liberty, too, carried very different connotations than it does today. In 1776, it did not mean that the disempowered (certainly not blacks or Indians or, God forbid, women) could gain and exercise power. It meant simply that the state could not, except in unusual circumstances, confiscate a citizen’s private property or tell him what to do with it.

The American order thereby upheld the hierarchy of wealth, which some thought was mandated by God and others viewed as representing the immutable laws of nature. Nature, it was claimed, rewarded merit with wealth while penalizing indolence. All the above-mentioned distinctions — between free persons and slaves, between whites and blacks, between rich and poor — are rooted in fictions.

Yet, it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable. For instance, many people who have viewed the hierarchy of free persons and slaves as natural and correct have argued that slavery is not a human invention. Hammurabi saw it as ordained by the gods. Aristotle argued that slaves have a ‘slavish nature’ whereas free people have a ‘free nature’. Their status in society is merely a reflection of their innate nature.

Ask white supremacists about the racial hierarchy, and you are in for a pseudoscientific lecture concerning the biological differences between the races. You are likely to be told that there is something in Caucasian blood or genes that makes whites naturally more intelligent, moral and hardworking. Ask a diehard capitalist about the hierarchy of wealth, and you are likely to hear that it is the inevitable outcome of objective differences in abilities. The rich have more money, in this view, because they are more capable and diligent. No one should be bothered, then, if the wealthy get better health care, better education and better nutrition. The rich richly deserve every perk they enjoy.
Harari, Yuval Noah . Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (p. 134). HarperCollins.

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