Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States, so I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on one aspect of equality I think is incredibly important: egalitarianism.
According to Merriam Webster, egalitarianism is:
- a belief in human equality especially with respect to social, political, and economic affairs;
- a social philosophy advocating the removal of inequalities among people.
It’s a simple philosophy inspired by the Golden Rule, an ethical code which is central to most major religions:
- Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find harmful.
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
- No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.
- What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. That is the entire law; all the rest is commentary.
Heck, even Confucius said “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself”.
With so much emphasis on treating others with the sort of respect that we would like to be given, you’d think that inequality would be a non-issue. Obviously that’s not the case.
For centuries, we humans—even those of us who ascribe to these and the other countless Golden Rule abiding religions and philosophies—have failed to recognize ourselves in others and have erected barriers (both physical and societal) to their ability to lead the sort of happy, fulfilled life that we want for ourselves and our families.
Almost every way we mistreat others—from rude or snarky comments to genocide—stems from our inability to empathize with another person or group of people. It’s hard to connect with people who are different than us—people who have different life experiences, people who have different perspectives, people who are challenged in ways we have never been—and when we struggle to create a connection, it becomes easy for us to view them as “the other”. And when we begin to look at other people this way, we lose sight of their humanity and we lose sight of all of the things that make us similar.
While it is completely true that I have a very different life than a woman growing up in Dharavi, I have to believe that we have a lot in common too. We both want a good life for our families. We both want to feel safe. We both crack jokes. We’re both human. Our respective societies may view us very differently, but she is no less valuable than I am.
And this is why I am so passionate about the philosophy of egalitarianism. It grounds us in the notion that we are all equally valuable and should be granted equal opportunity to all that life has to offer.
John Rawls has a great thought experiment that I often cite in my talks on empathy. In it, he would ask you to imagine your ideal society. It could be a monarchy, anarchy, capitalist, or communist. It could be ruled by people of one particular gender or color. It could be governed by people of a particular tribe. It could be Panem. It could be Erewhon. It could be Brobdingnag. The choice is yours.
Once you’ve been ruminating on this a bit, he drops the bombshell: You have no control over or knowledge of where you fit in this society. This is called the Veil of Ignorance, a creation of John Harsanyi (an economist and early father of game theory). Rawls found that, with the Veil of Ignorance in play, people who participated in this thought experiment gravitated toward creating the most egalitarian societies possible.
It makes complete sense: What rational human being would create a society that enslaves people if they themselves could turn out to be a slave? Who would create a society that excludes women if they might be female? Who would build a world full of stairs if they could be in a wheelchair?
I love this exercise because it makes it easy to create at least basic connections between you and a wide variety of people who are different than you. It helps you realize that we are all equal and all worthy of consideration.
What is interesting about egalitarianism, as opposed to similar sounding philosophies like modern communism, is that it recognizes that equality of opportunity does not necessitate equality of outcome. In other words, while pushing for equality, it simultaneously recognizes that we have differences in capability, capacity, and interest.
We are different. We are similar in more ways than we are different, but to ignore our differences is to deny us our individuality, our personhood, our true selves. But recognizing differences is not the same as assigning a value to those differences. That’s an incredibly important distinction and bears repeating: Just because you recognize that someone is different does not imply you should view or treat them as any more or less human on account of what makes them different. That said, recognizing differences is the first step towards being able to create equality of opportunity.
This is such an important concept in life, but I was not a philosophy major, so I’ll stick to discussing it in terms of what I know a lot about: The Web. Specifically, Web accessibility.
For a great many of us, ensuring our websites are accessible is an afterthought. We talk a good game when it comes to “user centered” this or that, but often treat the word “accessibility” as a synonym for “screen reader”. It’s so much more than that. “Accessibility” is about people. People consume content and use interfaces in many different ways, some similar and some not so similar to how we do it.
Sure, people with visual impairments often use a screen reader to consume content. They might also use a braille touch feedback device or a braille printer. They probably also use a keyboard. Or they may use a touchscreen in concert with audio cues. And yes, visual impairment affects a great percentage of people, but they are only part of the “accessibility” puzzle.
The dimensions of interactive elements—links, buttons, etc.—and their proximity to one another is an important factor in ensuring an interface actually registers our intent (i.e. it helps us avoid fat fingering). Design is an accessibility concern.
The color contrast between text and the background is an important factor in ensuring content remains readable in different lighting situations. Color is an accessibility concern.
The language we use on our sites and in our interfaces directly affects how easy it is for our users to understand what we do, the products we are offering, and why it matters. It also affects how we make our users feel. Language is an accessibility concern.
The size of our Web pages and their associated assets has a direct affect on how long our pages take to download, how much it costs our customers to access them, and (sometimes) even whether or not the content can be reached. Performance is an accessibility concern.
I could keep going, but I’m sure you’re starting to get the point. “Accessibility” is ultimately about ensuring people have equal opportunity to access your content while simultaneously recognizing that we all have special needs—physical limitations, bandwidth limitations, device limitations, etc.—that lead us to have different experiences of the same Web page.
Accessibility is egalitarianism.
We are all different, but we all human. We all deserve respect. We all deserve to be treated equally. To be treated fairly.
We need more egalitarianism in this world and the good news is that we can make it happen.