Prince Arthur Herald

I haven’t posted anything for a couple weeks, and I don’t have a new entry today. However, there is news! I’ve been made a contributor to the Prince Arthur Herald, an online national student newspaper based in Montreal. If you haven’t heard of the Prince Arthur Herald before, take a look–I’ve been impressed with the quality of content and their interesting take on Canadian affairs. It’s exciting to be involved. My first article to be published is a version of my recent article The Boundaries of Equality. In the future, my submissions to the paper will be new articles. I will post my submissions here after they’ve been published in the Herald, usually once a week. Here is a link to today’s article:

The Boundaries of Equality

Modern egalitarianism has roots in the French Revolution

Modern egalitarianism has roots in the French Revolution.

A few weeks ago I called a local radio station to let them know I had stopped listening to their programming. It was too explicit for me, and I expected more from a high-profile station. The producer I spoke with took an interest in what I was saying and asked for examples of what I found inappropriate. I told him what I saw when I had checked the station’s website that day–its front page showed a picture of a naked woman covered only by her hands. I said I didn’t appreciate the way it turned her into a sexual object. “Oh,” he answered quickly, as if he had heard the concern a few times, “our website has plenty of pictures of men like that as well. We’re not sexist.” I told him I wasn’t worried about whether men and women were objectified equally; my issue was with the vulgarity itself. He continued to explain how many women the station employed, and explained its thorough commitment to gender diversity. It took me a few minutes to convince him that my concern was with something other than equality.

It sometimes seems as if equality, maybe along with its cousin individual freedom, is the only acceptable barometer of appropriateness in the public sphere. As the radio producer I talked to seemed to understand, most of the criticism directed at the pornographic nature of our popular culture is that is sexist–as if it would be a comfort to women to know that after all, men are degraded just as much. Vulgar language, if it is directed at a certain group in the form of a prejudicial slur, draws quick disapproval from mainstream media, and rightly so. Obscenities that are equal opportunity offenders, however, are mostly acceptable, and as a result common profanities now pervade our popular media.

Egalitarianism has an important place in the heritage of our civilization. When we think of equality, we remember institutionalized racial mistreatment, women as second-class citizens and privileged classes oppressing the poor. These inequalities of course haven’t completely gone away, and the voices promoting equality still need to be heard. But it is worth noting that all of these injustices are unjust for more reasons than inequality: it would be no less immoral to equally apply disenfranchisement and violence to everyone than to apply it to some.

This is just as true for economic inequality. Poverty for everybody obviously wouldn’t be better than poverty for some and prosperity for others. But more importantly, equality is almost completely redundant as an ethic when it comes to economic inequality. Public policy designed to enrich those who would most benefit from the help would do as much to help the poor as policy aimed at equality. The only difference is that equality assigns a positive value to diminishing the wealth of those on top. This can be a psychologically attractive idea, but it adds nothing constructive to our moral approach to the economy.

Other conceptions of equality might be just as redundant. What would be lost by replacing equality with impartiality (avoidance of bias)? It would be enough to turn us away from irrational prejudices like racial intolerance, sexism and snobbishness. But it would allow for sensible inequities. For example, the school principal who, while unbiased, prefers for safety’s sake to hire women as kindergarten teachers. Or the health organization that discriminates amongst blood donors in order to minimize disease. Or the social taboos against polyamory and consensual incest. “Impartiality” acknowledges the distastefulness of inequities that stem from ignorance, but leaves behind the unnecessary (and sometimes obstructive) commitment to equality for its own sake.

You won’t often hear direct challenges to the doctrine of equality. Even gentle questioning grates against the sacredness we are used to giving the principle. But while equality is important, the philosophical justifications for it mostly boil down to the idea that egalitarianism is natural, or obvious. These arguments matter, but they are probably too weak to justify the status of orthodoxy that egalitarianism has in the modern West. Equality may have more value as part of a collection of compromising virtues, alongside charity, moderation, forgiveness, and humility, than as a maxim of its own.

I’ve covered a lot of ground in this post without fully explaining myself. I would welcome questions and comments below!

Pursuing a Heavenly Kingdom

The royal seal of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

The royal seal of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

In 1853, revolutionaries led by the peasant Hong Xiuquan captured the city of Nanjing, in the Chinese province of Jiangsu. The seizure of this major city followed a string of unlikely conquests made by the group, who called their new empire the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. From 1851 until 1864, this “Taiping” (Great Peace) movement took control of a region of China inhabited by 30 million people. In the massive wars they waged against the ruling Qing dynasty, more than 20 million people died.

Stripped of its context, the Taiping movement is baffling. How did a handful of peasants from southern China manage to drum up a movement that would challenge the Qing Empire and change the face of China, when other rebellions for decades had failed?

The answer lies with the founder of the new movement. In 1837, Hong Xiuquan had a series of visions. In these visions he was a royal in a heavenly kingdom, being carried toward a palace. Before he entered, he was laid in a bed, his heart was removed and a new, pure heart was put in its place. He was brought to meet a wise old man with a long beard; Hong realized this was his true father. His heavenly father lamented the corruption and wickedness he saw in the world (China). Feeling despair, Hong begged permission to descend from heaven to rid the world of demons. He was sent down to earth with his wise elder brother.

Hong began to tell his friends and neighbors about his vision. One of them suggested that he read a pamphlet he had been given a few years earlier. In the 1820s, Protestant missionaries from the United States and Britain had begun to translate Bibles and to pass out tracts to the Chinese in the port cities where they were allowed. One of these pamphlets had fallen into Hong’s hands, although he had not read it at the time of his visions. The tract spoke of a Heavenly Father who had sent his son, Jesus, down from heaven into the world to redeem it. It spoke of commandments to shun idols and to worship the one true God.

To Hong this changed the world. He realized the meaning of his visions: he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. The one true God had given him the charge to rid China of idols and demons. Hong was baptized and set out preaching, destroying idols, and prophesying. Eventually he would raise an army that would set out to topple the blaspheming emperor in order to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, ushering in a reign of great peace, free from the troubles that plagued 19th century China.

It was only recently that I heard of the Taiping Rebellion, this strange intersection of Christianity and Chinese civilization. The story was particularly interesting to me–as a Mormon I do not find it surprising that a visionary 19th century prophet could change the course of history.

The Taiping Rebellion is an example of the unique power of religion. The transcendent reaches beyond humanity and for that reason has a tendency to change humanity. It does not take much study to see movements of theology beneath the history of civilizations. As many modern secularists point out, religion inspired many of the famous and destructive wars of the past. However, it was also the force for abolition in the 19th century, the sponsor of science in the Islamic Golden Age and in the form of Confucianism and Taoism, the protector of harmonious family values throughout Chinese history. Even Taiping Christianity, though clearly destructive, declared the equality of women, freed slaves, abolished foot-binding and proscribed alcohol and other drugs.

We can be sure that religion will be the motive for good and evil deeds in the future. As to what determines which effect a religious movement will have on the world, I cannot fairly comment, although I have ideas. What is certain is that religion is not going away, and certainly not for the reasons the new atheists would suggest. It is more than a set of metaphysical beliefs, or a list of moral imperatives, or a social group. It is the heritage of humanity, a response to the transcendent and a spring of peace in the soul. It will likely be the means of healing some of the current challenges of the modern world; the decoupling of marriage and family, new addictions in a world of instant gratification, and the alienation that seems to follow fundamentalist individualism. Because of religion there continues to be great cause for hope for a society that is more virtuous, for the kind of heavenly kingdom imagined by Hong Xiuquan.