How our language reveals our thoughts on equality

Political theorist Anne Phillips at TEDxCourtauldInstitute  (Photo: TEDxCourtauldInstitute)

Political theorist Anne Phillips at TEDxCourtauldInstitute (Photo: TEDxCourtauldInstitute)

A lot of us subscribe to the platitude that “all humans are equal,” says political theorist Anne Phillips, but do we really believe it? At TEDxCourtauldInstitute, Phillips look at the way language reveals humankind’s nuanced, difficult, often-conflicting thoughts on equality over time.

Philips studies equality in political rights at the London School of Economics, a concept that she says is not new, but persists today. Equality shows up in documents like the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, the French Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789, and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1942, but — in each of thees documents — equality is not without its limits, she says.

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These documents included gendered language that revealed the exclusion of women from equality, Phillips says: sentences like, “all men are created equal;” “men are born and remain free and equal in rights;” and “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

“These are not just empty phrases,” Phillips says.”I’m sure you noticed that the first two declarations didn’t just talk about ‘human beings,’ they talked about ‘man.’ And indeed they meant man. If you look at the dates at which women got the equal right to vote with man through generally within the course of the last century, it’s pretty stunning how late some of those dates are.”

Today, what worries Phillips about the way we talk about equality is “explanations, justifications, reasons for human equality.” “We look for some kind of quality that we are all supposed to share as the reason for [human equality] …¬† [This] makes equality conditional and once you make equality conditional, you start having gradations — some people seeming more human than others — and you start having exclusions.”

Phillips focuses on three types of exclusion in equality via language. The first is using an archetypal human “quality” as a reason for seeing one another as equal; the second, only seeing “good people” as worthy of equality, and the third, discounting our differences as individuals when considering equality.

Why Phillips worries about using an archetypal human “quality” as a reason for equality is that often, these qualities are associated with one particular group of people. One of these is rationality, which has historically been associated with men instead of women, and continues to be to this day. “Men have been thought of as ‘reason;’ women have been thought of as ‘feeling and emotion,’ so when people said 250 years ago that because of our shared capacity for reason, we must all be equal, they meant men.”

Another example of conditional equality is the idea of the “good human,” Phillips says. She refers to the banning of convicts from voting in elections in some states in America — saying, “that very fundamental equality is taken away from them because they have been ‘bad humans.”

And in Europe, after a string of sexual assaults and robberies during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, Germany, Phillips notes that an outbreak of xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiment spread across the continent due to the fact that several of the perpetrators had been described as “Arab-looking,” and three of the 58 people people arrested turned out to be refugees,

“For some people,” Phillips says, “it was as though this idea of refugees as human beings like ourselves dissolved completely when it turned out some of those refugees were not perfect refugees … So you don’t just have to be human to qualify for equality, you have to be a very good human.”

Equality can also be limited by expressions like, “‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female; it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white; it doesn’t matter whether you’re lesbian, straight or gay; what matters is that we are all human beings.’ For people who are on the wrong side of the prejudice and the discrimination, it does matter.”

One striking example of this exclusion is the expression, “We’re all the same under the skin,” ¬†Phillips says. “It’s a thoroughly well-intentioned expression of equality and solidarity, but if you think about it, it does suggest that there is something problematic about your skin color: ‘I have to think about you without that skin color; I have to imagine the real you under the skin; or maybe I even have to think of you as having the same skin color as myself in order to really think of you as equal.’”

Phillips says that these issues do not mean that the idea of human equality doesn’t matter, but that we need to examine how we express it. For the sake of human rights, she says, we need stop seeing equality as conditional.

To learn more, watch Phillips’s whole talk below:

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