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May 21st 2017 print

Anthony Daniels

Equality, Resentment, Violence

I have heard it said that snobbery is only a minor fault, but the truth is that it breeds a resentment that causes people to seek revenge even at great personal cost to themselves. Resentment soon turns to paranoia, with every act, every opinion or taste other than one’s own taken as a slight

max murrayMax Murray (left) was an Australian author, mainly of detective novels, who is now largely if not entirely forgotten, though he was not entirely unsuccessful in his lifetime. His wife, the prolific romantic novelist Maysie Greig, has an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, but he does not. Whether this omission is an act of posthumous injustice I cannot say.

Murray (1901–1956) led an interesting and varied life, among other things as a foreign correspondent for the News Chronicle and writer for the BBC. When he was twenty, with five shillings in his pocket, he left Australia and circumnavigated the world, financed mainly by working his passage on cargo boats. In 1927 he published an account of his year-long journey titled The World’s Back Doors, written in a style clearly influenced by Hemingway. Here is how he describes leaving New York on a cargo boat to Europe:

It began to blow, and we worked hard to keep warm. We slipped down the river and the tug let go, and the tall buildings of New York that ranged along Manhattan Island dissolved into the fog. A rainstorm came sweeping over from the west, and completely blotted out the United States.

But it was his description of his return to Australia after a year’s absence that interested me most:

Here was Australia [this was 1922] as I had left it, the lean faces were there, and the dreadful popular black hats, and the Australian-English that astounded me. It sounded like a dialect. There was even a strike on. It was the last proof to me that I was home.

My wife feels the same when she returns home to France, when the baggage-handlers or the air-traffic controllers suddenly go on strike, mainly because they feel they need an extra day off from time to time, or a short working day. The strike in Australia wasn’t serious either: “Nobody cared a jot for it, not even the men on strike. They were all on their way to a football match.”

During his year-long absence, Murray had mixed mainly with drifters, labourers, the casually employed and sailors, men who lived from hand to mouth and who, when they had a little money in their pockets, blew it all on immediate pleasures. “They are,” he wrote, “of a brotherhood, from one end of the world to the other. They are unselfish because they are unaware they have anything to be selfish about.”

These men, says Murray, “are bitter against those who succeed, but they have a wonderful kindness for those who do not”. The ostentatious exhibition of wealth or leisure is “the bitterest experience in the world” to those who earn a pittance by the sweat of their brow.

Of those who fall into the latter category:

Perhaps the Australian is the freest of them all. His union stands between him and his employer. It voices his defiance and it tyrannizes him, but he feels that it is himself. Here is a bad condition. It hampers work, but he sees it as the citadel of his independence. He cannot abandon it because of his pride. Because he would rather have it crush his individual ambition, so long as it lets him retain his defiance. It allows him to be continually demonstrating his equality with other men. It makes him forget that no one doubts this equality.

It is always very difficult, of course, to gauge the accuracy of a grand sociological generalisation such as this, but what Murray wrote seems to have at least some initial plausibility: it listens, as the Americans say. Whether any of this somewhat touchy attitude persists in Australia today (assuming that it ever existed) I am through ignorance unable to say.

But certainly the passage from Murray’s short book (written when he was only twenty-six) is a valuable reminder of the power of the word equality to move people, even against their own interests. On the assumption that no one believes that people are equal in the sense that they are identical in all respects, a belief that would not be worth the trouble of refutation, there are four senses I can give to it:

  • Equality of reward irrespective of merit, talent or effort;
  • Equality of opportunity;
  • Equality under the law; and
  • Existential equality.

The arguments against equality of reward are so well-known and so obvious that they hardly need rehearsing. Such equality, besides being incompatible with justice, would deprive life if not of all of its meaning, at least of one possible and common source of its meaning, as much for those who would benefit materially from it as for those who would be deprived materially by it.

Equality of opportunity is an odious concept, worse even than equality of outcome, for if aimed at seriously rather than used as a slogan to decry any given situation, it would necessitate that parents played no part in the upbringing of their children and furthermore that children were cloned. Every child would have to be brought up under identical conditions, good or bad; indeed, a complete absence of opportunity, provided only that it were universal, would satisfy the desire for equality. Equality, then, is like originality, one of those desiderata that cannot be free-standing: for just as originality is not of value irrespective of what is produced by it, so equality is not of value irrespective of what is equalised.

Equality under the law is so universally conceded as a desideratum that it is not necessary to argue for it. Needless to say, there are difficulties concerning boundaries, as there always are in a world of continua rather than of perfectly discrete categories, for example in age or intelligence; but no one believes that there should be different laws for different people according to whether they were born on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, or according to some other utterly arbitrary or morally irrelevant consideration.

The last type of equality is precisely the one that the Australian who adheres so stubbornly and so seemingly against his own best interests to his union is most concerned with. He wants to assert his essential humanity thereby; he wants not to be taken for granted, not to go unnoticed by others, not to be treated by them as if he were furniture, expendable, replaceable at a moment’s notice, inferior and of no account. His fundamental demand is not to have as much money as the boss or the factory owner, which is unrealistic, or even for his children to have the same chances in life as his, but to be recognised as a full member of the human race. His means of asserting his humanity may be counter-productive—he has, after all, to sink his individuality in the collective identity of the union—but no one who has witnessed with what disdain men of inferior position may be treated by superiors will altogether fail to sympathise with the type described by Murray.

In my experience, at any rate, it is the small acts of personal disdain rather than the large but abstract and distant injustices that infuriate people and drive them to violence. I saw this in Africa. No better way exists of enraging someone than to express obvious contempt for him, especially for something over which he has little control. This is one of the reasons manners are so important: the mannerly may disdain, but not show it. I have heard people whose opinion I respect say that snobbery is only a minor fault, but in practice it breeds a resentment that causes people to seek revenge even at great personal cost to themselves. It renders men insensate.

Resentment soon turns to paranoia, which looks at the whole world through its distorting lens. Every act, every opinion or taste other than one’s own, is then interpreted as a slight, whether intended or not (in fact the unintended slight is worse than the intended, for it supposedly reveals just how deep runs the disdain it expresses). There is no assuaging resentment once it has stewed long enough in the slow cooker of the mind, and of course it has its own sour compensations. We all of us need to find reasons for our failures, and resentment provides us with an inexhaustible mine of such reasons.

Modern politics, indeed, seems to be little more than the periodic orchestrated channelling of resentment, which in two-party systems results in effects that are usually equal and opposite. Disdain has a lot to answer for. If only we could always keep in mind that “Man … fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.”

Which is the one true equality.

Anthony Daniels’s latest book is Migration, Multiculturalism and its Metaphors: Selected Essays (Connor Court), published under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.