In some regards, life on Earth seems to depend on some basic inequalities. For example, differences in size, height, strength, speed and endurance advantages some and disadvantages others. Depending on another for survival is another type of inequality. Being able to adapt to change increases one’s likelihood of survival as well.
In this regard, inequality is natural, a normal part of existence. In fact, the exploitation of such inequalities supports and perpetuates life on this planet. Darwin said as much. Evolutionary theory does as well. At one point, we, homo sapiens, replaced our Neanderthal cousins. Lions kill and eat gazelles. Some iguanas in the Galapagos Islands were able to become great underwater swimmers in order to reach edibles; those who couldn’t died.
In such cases, this natural inequality is an example of power-over. Yet, it hardly seems fitting to call out a lion for killing what it needs to sustain itself or one iguana for swimming better than another. There are many theories as to why homo sapiens surpassed Neanderthals, but I doubt it was out of some master plan to eliminate the competition. I guess what I’m getting at is: power-over can function in a morally neutral way.
But not all forms of power-over do. Neither are all forms of inequality natural. Perhaps, the biggest perpetrator of such exploitation of inequality is patriarchy. But, it hasn’t used only inequality as the basis of its exercise of power-over. Basic differences, such as skin color, age, sex, religion, geographical locations and so on, have become additional types of inequalities. So, too, have the differences between humans and animal and nature and culture. Patriarchy morphed these ‘inequalities’ into injustices.
As forms of injustice, these socially constructed differences have three basic outcomes. First, they create a hierarchical system which privileges a select few. Second, this system threatens our survival and the health and welfare of the planet. Third, in order to perpetuate this system and its privileges, efforts are taken to control others and reinforce this type of power-over.
Perhaps what is most disturbing about the socially constructed understanding of inequality under patriarchy is that we are often led to believe that these inequalities are natural when that couldn’t be further from the truth. For example, patriarchy argues that men’s inherently larger size and strength give them power over women. Two outcomes of such fallacies are rape and domestic violence. These also happen to support patriarchy’s efforts at control.
Likewise, patriarchy encourages racism and even suggests that racial differences are something ‘natural’: enter scientific racism and race theory. Patriarchal racism warns of the dangers of black people, particularly young black men, which has led to the murder of countless of black people in the United States by members of law enforcement. Anti-Semitism is another form of such racist thinking. Jews have been killed on account as well as Jewish homes, synagogues, cemeteries and other places have been damaged. Skin color and religion here are the basic differences that have become inequalities and injustices.
Patriarchy also suggests that it is ‘natural’ for humans to eat animals. ‘Scientific’ evidence suggests that since humans have (two small) canine teeth, then we must have eaten animals in the past. In addition, human diets require protein and the ‘best’ source of said protein is animal meat. A basic difference has become an exercise of killing, control and power over.
I could continue with examples ad nauseam, but I won’t. Rather, I want to focus on a keyword in this discussion: natural. We seem to have two distinct understandings of the term. First, natural means that we can observe some inherent differences between various forms of life on this planet. These natural differences may confer some advantages or disadvantages. Yet, this inequality operates within what one could call a morally neutral position.
Second, patriarchy’s concept of ‘natural’ is anything but morally neutral. Even the most basic of differences are laden with value judgments and distinctions of superiority and inferiority. It is clear that patriarchy has concocted an elaborate tale to make these differences turned into inequalities seem ‘natural.’ ‘Natural,’ here, is socially constructed to bolster power over and control.
At the same time, these ‘natural’ inequalities affect our lives, our opportunities and our experiences. Being cognizant of the effects of these socially constructed differences is crucial. Working against the injustices of such inequalities is essential.
Perhaps one day soon we’ll be able to say the following about inequality: differences such as skin color, religion, sex, species and the like aren’t attached to value judgments. They are just facts. Like, today is it cold, my shoes are two different colors, or my sweater is blue. For a long time now, our differences haven’t had an elaborate system of inequality in place to mitigate them. Differences make us unique but they don’t make us better. We celebrate and embrace our differences. Everyone and everything is different and that makes us all equal.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses.