Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (Equality)

Most people are not even aware of their need to conform. They live under the illusion that they follow their own ideas, and inclinations, that they are individuals, that they have arrived at their opinions as the result of their own thinking – and that it just happens that their ideas are the same as those of the majority. The consensus of all serves as a proof for the correctness of “their” ideas. Since there is still a need to feel individuality, such need is satisfied with regard to minor differences; the initials on the handbag or the sweater, the name plate of the bank teller, the belonging to the Democratic as against the Republican party, to the Elks instead of to the Shriners become the expression of individual differences. The advertising slogan “it is different” shows up this pathetic need for difference, when in reality there is hardly any left. 

This increasing tendency for the elimination of differences is closely related to the concept and the experience of equality, as it is developing in the most advanced industrial societies. Equality had meant, in a religious context, that we are all God’s children, that we all share in the same human-divine substance, that we are all one. It meant also that the very differences between individuals must be respected, that while it is true that we are all one, it is also true that each one of us is a unique entity, is a cosmos by itself. Such conviction of the uniqueness of the individual is expressed for instance in the Talmudic statement: “Whosoever saves a single life is as if he had saved the whole world; whosoever destroys a single life is as if he had destroyed the whole world.” Equality as a condition for the development of individuality was also the meaning of the concept in the philosophy of the Western Enlightenment. It meant (most clearly formulated by Kant) that no man must be the means for the ends of another man. That all men are equal inasmuch as they are ends, and only ends, and never means to each other…

In contemporary capitalistic society the meaning of equality has been transformed. By equality one refers to the equality of automatons; of men who have lost their individuality. Equality today means “sameness,” rather than “oneness.” It is the sameness of abstractions, of the men who work in the same jobs, who have the same amusements, who read the same newspapers, who have the same feelings and the same ideas. In this respect one must also look with some skepticism at some achievements which are usually praised as signs of our progress, such as the equality of women; but the positive aspects of this tendency for equality must not deceive one. It is part of the trend toward the elimination of differences. Equality is bought at this very price: women are equal because they are not different anymore. The proposition of Enlightenment philosophy, “l’ame n’a pas de sexe” (The soul has no sex) has become the general practice. Men and women become the same, not equals as opposite poles. Contemporary society preaches this ideal of unindividualized equality because it needs human atoms, each one the same, to make them function in a mass aggregation, smoothly, without friction; all obey in the same commands, yet everybody being convinced that he is following his own desires. Just as modern mass production requires standardization, so the social process requires standardization of man, and this standardization is called “equality.”

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