Parity between the sexes, harmony between the religions, balance between the cultural differences: these principles all hinge upon the idealistic concept of all things in our human society being equal. In this issue of M/C Journal the notion of ‘equal’ is reviewed and discussed in terms of both its discourse and its application in real life. Beyond the concept of equal itself, uniting each author’s contribution is acknowledgement of the competing objectives which can promote bias and prejudice.
Indeed, it is that prejudice, concomitant to the absence of equal treatment by and for all peoples, which is always of concern for the pursuit of social justice. Although it has been reduced to a brand-name of low calorie sugar substitute in the Australian supermarket and cafe set, the philosophical values and objectives behind the concept of equal underpin some of the most highly prized and esteemed ideals of western liberal democracy and its ideas on justice. To be equal in the modern sense means to be empowered, to enjoy the same entitlements as others and to have the same rights. At the same time, the privileges associated with being equal also come with responsibilities and it these that we continue to struggle with in our supposed enlightened age.
The ideals we associate with equal are far from new, since they have informed ideas about citizenship and justice at least from the times of Ancient Greece and perhaps more problematically, the Principate period of the Roman Empire. It was out of the Principate that the notion primus inter pares (‘first among equals’) was implemented under Augustus in an effort to reconcile his role as Emperor within the Republic of Rome. This oxymoron highlights how very early in the history of Western thought inevitable compromises arose between the pursuit of equal treatment and its realisation. After all, Rome is as renowned for its Empire and Senate as it is for the way lions were fed Christians for entertainment.
In the modern and postmodern world, the values around the concept of equal have become synonymous with the issue of equality, equal being a kind of applied action that has mobilised and enacted its ideals. With equality we are able to see more clearly the dialectic challenging the thesis of equal, the antitheses of unequal, and inequality. What these antitheses of equal accentuate is that anything to do with equality entails struggle and hard won gains. In culture, as in nature, things are rarely equal from the outset. As Richard Dawkins outlined in The Selfish Gene, “sperms and eggs … contribute equal number of genes, but eggs contribute far more in the way of food reserves … . Female exploitation begins here” (153). Disparities that promote certain advantages and disadvantages seem hard-wired into our chemistry, biology and subsequent natural and cultural environments. So to strive for the values around an ideal of equal means overcoming some major biological and social determinants. In other words, equality is not a pursuit for the uncommitted.
Disparity, injustice, disempowerment, subjugations, winners and losers, victors and victims, oppressors and oppressed: these are the polarities that have been the hallmarks of human civilization. Traditionally, societies are slow to recognise contemporary contradictions and discriminations that deny the ideals and values that would otherwise promote a basis of equality. Given the right institutional apparatus, appropriate cultural logic and individual rationales, that which is unequal and unjust is easily absorbed and subscribed to by the most ardent defender of liberty and equality. Yet we do not have to search far afield in either time or geography to find evidence of institutionalised cultural barbarity that was predicated on logics of inequality. In the post-renaissance West, slavery is the most prominent example of a system that was highly rationalised, institutionalised, adhered to, and supported and exploited by none other than the children of the Enlightenment. The man who happened to be the principle author of one of the most renowned and influential documents ever written, the Declaration of Independence (1776), which proclaimed, “all men are created equal”, was Thomas Jefferson. He also owned 200 slaves. In the accompanying Constitution of the United States, twelve other amendments managed to take precedence over the abolition of slavery, meaning America was far from the ‘Land of the Free’ until 1865.
Equal treatment of people in the modern world still requires lengthy and arduous battle. Equal rights and equal status continues to only come about after enormous sacrifices followed by relentless and incremental processes of jurisprudence. One of the most protracted struggles for equal standing throughout history and which has accompanied industrial modernity is, of course, that of class struggle. As a mass movement it represents one of the most sustained challenges to the many barriers preventing the distribution of basic universal human rights amongst the global population. Representing an epic movement of colossal proportions, the struggle for class equality, begun in the fiery cauldron of the 19th century and the industrial revolution, continued to define much of the twentieth century and has left a legacy of emancipation perhaps unrivalled on scale by any other movement at any other time in history. Overcoming capitalism’s inherent powers of oppression, the multitude of rights delivered by class struggle to once voiceless and downtrodden masses, including humane working conditions, fair wages and the distribution of wealth based on ideals of equal shares, represent the core of some of its many gains. But if anyone thought the central issues around class struggle and workers rights has been reconciled, particularly in Australia, one need only look back at the 2007 Federal election. The backlash against the Howard Government’s industrial relations legislation, branded ‘Work Choices’, should serve as a potent reminder of what the community deems fair and equitable when it comes to labor relations even amidst new economy rhetoric.
Despite the epic scale and the enormous depth and breadth of class struggle across the twentieth century, in the West, the fight began to be overtaken both in profile and energy by the urgencies in equality addressed through the civil rights movement regarding race and feminism. In the 1960s the civil rights and women’s liberation movements pitted their numbers against the great bulwarks of white, male, institutional power that had up until then normalised and naturalised discrimination. Unlike class struggle, these movements rarely pursued outright revolution with its attendant social and political upheavals, and subsequent disappointments and failures. Like class struggle, however, the civil rights and feminist movements come out of a long history of slow and methodical resistance in the face of explicit suppression and willful neglect. These activists have been chipping away patiently at the monolithic racial and sexist hegemony ever since. The enormous achievements and progress made by both movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s represent a series of climaxes that came from a steady progression of resolute determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. As the class, feminist and civil rights movements infiltrated the inner workings of Western democracies in the latter half of the twentieth century they promoted equal rights through advocacy and legislative and legal frameworks resulting in a transformation of the system from within. The emancipations delivered through these struggles for equal treatment have now gone on to be the near-universal model upon which contemporary equality is both based and sought in the developed and developing world.
As the quest for equal status and treatment continues to advance, feminism and civil rights have since been supplanted as radical social movements by the rise of a new identity politics. Gathering momentum in the 1980s, the demand for equal treatment across all racial, sexual and other lines of identity shifted out of a mass movement mode and into one that reflects the demands coming from a more liberalised yet ultimately atomised society. Today, the legal frameworks that support equal treatment and prevents discrimination based on racial and sexual lines are sought by groups and individuals marginalised by the State and often corporate sector through their identification with specific sexual, religious, physical or intellectual attributes.
At the same time that equality and rights are being pursued on these individual levels, there is the growing urgency of displaced peoples. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate globally there are presently 8.4 million refugees and 23.7 million uprooted domestic civilians (5). Fleeing from war, persecution or natural disasters, refugee numbers are sure to grow in a future de-stabilised by Climate Change, natural resource scarcity and food price inflation. The rights and protections of refugees entitled under international frameworks and United Nations guidelines must be respected and even championed by the foreign States they journey to. Future challenges need to address the present imbalance that promotes unjust and unequal treatment of refugees stemming from recent western initiatives like Fortress Europe, offshore holding sites like Naru and Christmas Island and the entire detention centre framework.
The dissemination and continued fight for equal rights amongst individuals across so many boundaries has no real precedent in human history and represents one of the greatest challenges and potential benefits of the new millennium. At the same time Globalisation and Climate Change have rewritten the rule book in terms of what is at stake across human society and now, probably for the first time in humanity’s history, the Earth’s biosphere at large.
In an age where equal measures and equal shares comes in the form of an environmental carbon footprint, more than ever we need solutions that address global inequities and can deliver just and sustainable equal outcomes. The choice is a stark one; a universal, sustainable and green future, where less equals more; or an unsustainable one where more is more but where Earth ends up equaling desolate Mars. While we seek a pathway to a sustainable future, developed nations will have to reconcile a period where things are asymmetrical and positively unequal. The developed world has to carry the heavy and expensive burden required to reduce CO2 emissions while making the necessary sacrifices to stop the equation where one Westerner equals five Indians when it comes to the consumption of natural resources.
In an effort to assist and maintain the momentum that has been gained in the quest for equal rights and equal treatment for all, this issue of M/C Journal puts the ideal of ‘equal’ up for scrutiny and discussion. Although there are unquestioned basic principles that have gone beyond debate with regards to ideas around equal, problematic currents within the discourses surrounding concepts based on equality, equivalence and the principles that come out of things being equal remain. Critiquing the notion of equal also means identifying areas where seeking certain equivalences are not necessarily in the public interest.
Our feature article examines the challenge of finding an equal footing for Australians of different faiths. Following their paper on the right to free speech published recently in the ‘citizen’ issue of M/C Journal, Anne Aly and Lelia Green discuss the equal treatment of religious belief in secular Australia by identifying the disparities that undermine ideals of religious pluralism. In their essay entitled “Less than Equal: Secularism, Religious Pluralism and Privilege”, they identify one of the central problems facing Islamic belief systems is Western secularism’s categorisation of religious belief as private practice. While Christian based faiths have been able to negotiate the bifurcation between public life and private faith, compartmentalising religious beliefs in this manner can run contrary to Islamic practice. The authors discuss how the separation of Church and State aspires to see all religions ignored equally, but support for a moderate Islam that sees it divorced from the public sphere is secularism’s way of constructing a less than equal Islam.
Debra Mayrhofer analyses the unequal treatment received by young males in mainstream media representations in her paper entitled “Mad about the Boy”. By examining TV, radio and newspaper coverage of an ‘out-of-control teenage party’ in suburban Melbourne, Mayrhofer discusses the media’s treatment of the 16-year-old boy deemed to be at the centre of it all. Not only do the many reports evidence non-compliance with the media industry’s own code of ethics but Mayrhofer argues they represent examples of blatant exploitation of the boy. As this issue of M/C Journal goes online, news is now circulating about the boy’s forthcoming appearance in the Big Brother house and the release of a cover of the Beastie Boys’ 1986 hit “Fight for Your Right (to Party)” (see News.com.au). Media reportage of this calibre, noticeable for occurring beyond the confines of tabloid outlets, is seen to perpetuate myths associated with teenage males and inciting moral panics around the behaviour and attitudes expressed by adolescent male youth.
Ligia Toutant charts the contentious borders between high, low and popular culture in her paper “Can Stage Directors Make Opera and Popular Culture ‘Equal’?” Referring to recent developments in the staging of opera, Toutant discusses the impacts of phenomena like broadcasts and simulcasts of opera and contemporary settings over period settings, as well as the role played by ticket prices and the introduction of stage directors who have been drawn from film and television. Issues of equal access to high and popular culture are explored by Toutant through the paradox that sees directors of popular feature films that can cost around US$72M with ticket prices under US$10 given the task of directing a US$2M opera with ticket prices that can range upward of US$200.
Much has been written about newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal Australians whereas Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson’s Apology has been somewhat overlooked. Brooke Collins-Gearing redresses this imbalance with her paper entitled “Not All Sorrys Are Created Equal: Some Are More Equal than ‘Others.’” Collins-Gearing responds to Nelson’s speech from the stance of an Indigenous woman and criticises Nelson for ignoring Aboriginal concepts of time and perpetuating the attitudes and discourses that led to the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families in the first place.
Less media related and more science oriented is John Paull’s discussion on the implications behind the concept of ‘Substantial Equivalence’ being applied to genetically modified organisms (GMO) in “Beyond Equal: From Same But Different to the Doctrine of Substantial Equivalence”. Embraced by manufacturers of genetically modified foods, the principle of substantial equivalence is argued by Paull to provide the bioengineering industry with a best of both worlds scenario. On the one hand, being treated the ‘same’ as elements from unmodified foods GMO products escape the rigours of safety testing and labelling that differentiates them from unmodified foods. On the other hand, by also being defined as ‘different’ they enjoy patent protection laws and are free to pursue monopoly rights on specific foods and technologies. It is easy to envisage an environment arising in which the consumer runs the risk of eating untested foodstuffs while the corporations that have ‘invented’ these new life forms effectively prevent competition in the marketplace.
This issue of M/C Journal has been a pleasure to compile. We believe the contributions are remarkable for the broad range of issues they cover and for their great timeliness, dealing as they do with recent events that are still fresh, we hope, in the reader’s mind. We also hope you enjoy reading these papers as much as we enjoyed working with their authors and encourage you to click on the ‘Respond to this Article’ function next to each paper’s heading, aware that there is the possibility for your opinions to gain equal footing with those of the contributors if your response is published.