The Nightmare of Total Equality – A Warning to The World

“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote a short dystopic story entitled Harrison Bergeron, the main theme being the nightmare of total equality. People are not allowed to be smarter, better-looking or stronger than anyone else. Equality laws are enforced and citizens who display special attributes must be handicapped. Those who are good looking are forced to wear disfiguring masks, those who are intelligent must wear ear radios that emit loud noises disrupting their thinking, and those who are strong are forced to wear heavy weights. People begin to dumb themselves down or hide their special attributes for fear of punishment.  Equality is finally achieved, but at the cost of freedom and individuality. One’s utopia is another’s dystopia.

Chesterton writes:

“When all are sexless there will be equality. There will be no women and no men. There will be but a fraternity, free and equal. The only consoling thought is that it will endure but for one generation.”

Chesterton, G.K.’s Weekly: The Equality of Sexlessness

Disorientation and nihilism

This seems increasingly less farfetched in today’s world. But what could explain the increasing promotion of equality to the point of it being absurd? If one scratches beneath the surface, one factor may be what Viktor Frankl calls the “unheard cry for meaning” that plagues modern society. The modern age is characterised by a sense of disorientation of not knowing what to do with one’s life.

Nietzsche foresaw the rise of this and wrote extensively about nihilism, which he considered as the lack of higher values brought about by the death of God, the answer is lacking to our “why?”. He writes:

“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? … God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement? What sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §125

Nietzsche’s proverbial and tragic proclamation of the death of God is prophetic in the sense that modernity has replaced God with public opinion and the entertainment culture. Scientific rationality has advanced the human species, but at the cost of showing our smallness in the cosmos, that we are but the product of evolution, of an accidental birth in the flux of becoming and perishing, and that we should remain sceptical about the idea of an afterlife and God.

We all go about our daily routine until something makes us stop and contemplate. Albert Camus puts it perfectly:

“Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm – this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why‘ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Living a Meaningful Life

Bishop Robert Barron tells us that to have a meaningful life is to be in a purposive relationship to a value: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Religious value, on the other hand, is a life lived in purposive relationship to the summum bonum (the supreme value or highest good), the source of goodness, truth and beauty – which is God. A value nests in a higher value, and so on indefinitely. But there must be a summum bonum that is motivating us. That is religious meaning.

The Problem of Relativism

Contrary to former times, modern man is not told by traditions and universal values what he should do, he thus risks falling into relativism with the absence of objective truth, where there is no absolute right or wrong, but solely the truths by what the individual or culture happens to believe, we fall into the ego-drama that we are the centre of everything, causing a clash of independent and subjective wills against one another, the most powerful will establishing itself as authoritarian.

This creates the perfect storm for totalitarianism (doing what others tell you to do) and conformism (doing what others do).

Totalitarianism and Conformism

One of the best examples of how human nature and social systems work to build a totalitarian regime can be seen in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Orwell depicts a story where animals are treated harshly by humans. The animals gather together to rebel against them, and eventually they overthrow their masters. The animals sing in victory and look forward to a society where all animals are equal, happy, free and have enough to eat.

Following the rebellion, the pigs who are well-read and educated slowly take the role of leaders of the animal farm. The pigs who are in power preach equality for all and speak of a great utopian society. As time progresses, however, the pigs become more and more corrupt and abuse their power for personal gain, controlling the other animals to remain in power, establishing a dictatorship.

The original message “all animals are equal” turn into “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” In other words, the promotion of total equality paradoxically leads to inequality. This book is an allegory on human nature whose main message rings true even today.

However, any appeal to the objectivity of truth and value is a threat to tyrants, whenever you appeal to an authority outside the will of the most powerful, you are limiting that totalitarian instinct. Chesterton writes:

“It is only by believing in God that we can ever criticise the Government. Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God.”

G. K. Chesterton, in Christendom in Dublin

Conformism is another result of disorientation which may promote totalitarianism. People simply back an idea to look good in the eyes of others and do not truly believe in the cause they publicly support, and those who do not preach what they do are punished and frowned upon. Stephen Fry states:

“It’s a strange paradox, that the liberals are illiberal in their demand for liberality. They are exclusive in their demand for inclusivity. They are homogenous in their demand for heterogeneity. They are somehow un-diverse in their call for diversity — you can be diverse, but not diverse in your opinions and in your language and in your behaviour. And that’s a terrible pity.”

Stephen Fry, Munk Debates: Political Correctness: A Force for Good?

Preachers of Equality

Nietzsche calls these the “preachers of equality”, who exercise revenge and insult all whose equals they are not. However, those who call themselves “the good and the just” and wish to punish and impose their views on others are not to be trusted.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes about the preachers of equality in his famous parable “On the Tarantulas”, who wish to spread the poison of revenge:

“Look here, this is the hole of the tarantula! Do you want to see the tarantula itself? Its web hangs here; touch it, make it tremble. Here it comes, willingly – welcome, tarantula! On your back your triangle and mark sits in black; and I know too what sits in your soul. Revenge sits in your soul: wherever you bite, there black scabs grow; your poison makes the soul whirl with revenge! So I speak to you in parables, you who cause the souls to whirl, you preachers of equality! Tarantulas you are to me and hidden avengers! But I want to expose your hiding places to the light; therefore I laugh into your face my laughter of the heights. Therefore I tear at your web, so that your rage might lure you from your lie-hole lair, and your revenge might spring forth from behind your word “justice.” For that mankind be redeemed from revenge: that to me is the bridge to the highest hope and a rainbow after long thunderstorms.”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part II “On the Tarantulas”

To the preachers, equality is life and justice. To Zarathustra, equality is vengeance and death, and its preachers “the tarantulas” are to be torn from their webs. They preach revenge against all those who are not their equals, wishing to impose a new virtue, a “will to equality”, everything that has power will thus be despised. However, this is opposed to our instincts. Just as a tree will naturally seek to grow its roots and gain resources, so will a person seek to develop his health, wealth, strength and status – which are all expressions of his will to power.

“You preachers of equality, the tyrant’s madness of impotence cries thus out of you for “equality”: your secret tyrant’s cravings mask themselves thus in your words of virtue!”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part II “On the Tarantulas”

It is the madness of impotence and vanity that makes them cry out for equality, erupting like a flame from the madness of revenge.

“Mistrust in all whom the drive to punish is strong! … Mistrust all who speak much of their justice!”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part II “On the Tarantulas”

Zarathustra, however, does not want to succumb to their revenge.

“Alas! Then the tarantula bit me, my old enemy! … “Punishment and justice must be” – thus it thinks. “Not for nothing shall he sing his songs in honour of hostility here!” Yes, it has avenged itself! And alas! Now it will also make my soul whirl with revenge! But so that I do not whirl, my friends, bind me fast to this pillar here! I would rather be a stylite than a whirlwind of revenge!”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part II “On the Tarantulas”

Zarathustra does not want to be mixed and confused with others. Some preach the doctrine of life but are at the same time creatures of equality and tarantulas. Zarathustra preaches the doctrine of life, but not of equality.

“For justice speaks to me: “humans are not equal”. And they shouldn’t become so either! What would my love for the overman be if I spoke otherwise?”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part II “On the Tarantulas”

Pathos of Distance: The Overman and The Last Man

Nietzsche’s overman is the ultimate form of man and the meaning of the earth. He is in constant becoming and self-overcoming, and unlike the preachers of equality, who seek power over others, the overman seeks power over himself. It is clear, however, that not everyone can become extraordinary, that would seem a utopia for Nietzsche, he calls the chasm between the ordinary and the extraordinary a “pathos of distance”. But that should not be a reason for the ordinary people to eliminate all traces of the extraordinary, the strong, the aristocratic and noble, out of sheer spite. This is Nietzsche’s main critique of the preachers of equality.

The dystopian scenario for Nietzsche is the mediocrity and conformity of the Last Man, who not only does not want to be different, but is perfectly happy to be virtually the same as everyone else. This is “levelling” par excellence, that is, putting everyone at the same level and missing all the subtle complexities of human identity.

Orwell’s Warning: 1984

And it is these who are most prone to fall prey to totalitarianism, which Orwell masterfully portrayed in his book 1984, with the perfect totalitarian society. Psychological manipulation, mass surveillance, control of mind and body, control of information and history, control of language and eradication of individuality.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

George Orwell, 1984

Freedom and individuality is key, and we mustn’t get carried away by the siren songs.

“If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

George Orwell, The Freedom of the Press, Literary Supplement


The Nightmare of Total Equality – A Warning to The World

In Harrison Bergeron, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. describes the nightmare of total equality, a society in which equality is finally achieved, but at the cost of freedom and individuality. One’s utopia is another’s dystopia.

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