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Americans have many cultural traits that endear us to people from other countries. We have many cultural traits, many of which are currently in play, that seem to make other people not like us. Of late, the image of America in world opinion seems to have switched to that of an arrogant, willfull storm trooper.

There is a difference between America and other hegemons of the past, which is that America, both in our own culture and in our dealings with other cultures, is very egalitarian. A thirst for egalitarianism would seem to be a good trait in a people who seem to be on the verge of world conquest. Perhaps this egalitarianism is not apparent to those in other nations whose only knowledge of the United States is information about our agressive foreign policy; and it may be even less apparent to people who live in America and take it for granted.

Anyhow, it would seem on the surface of it, that egalitarianism is right up there with fraternity and liberty, and should be a cultural trait to be embraced without hesitation. I, however, have to disagree with this. I think that perhaps if we lived in a world where true equality was possible, egalitarianism might be a good idea. However, living in a world where people experience large differences in the amount of power they have, clinging to the illusion that we are all equal ends up just hiding these power differences, and allowing them to be abused.

I suppose most of the repugnance that many Americans feel at the notion of hierarchy is that it offends our secular sensibilities. Over a millenium of European tradition made all power ultimately grounded in divine authority. The foreman on the ditchdigging crew got his authority from the town council, who got their authority from the local bishop, who got their authority from the pope, who got his authority from God. Thus, accepting any kind of power relationship at all is equivalent to subordinating yourself to being a cog in a universal machine. Personally, I don't think this kind of explanation is needed to explain why authority exists. My own experience has been that in any undertaking that people do, whether it is trivial or a serious matter, there is always some kind of system of hierarchy, whether it be loosely organized or strictly defined. My experiences in making both the the 48 hour movie and its recent sequel has shown me that even in very loose, freewheeling creative projects, some idea of authority and order are automatically formed by the participants.

The fact that authority is a natural factor of human (and, for that matter, other mammals) relationships is one reason why it shouldn't be denied in our social lives. Another is the fact that the lack of any clear cut authority gives people the impression that what they do is occuring in a vacuum. This has to do with another great American myth: the myth of the level playing field, that we are all individuals existing in a neutral social sphere, and that we are merely fulfilling our desires, unemcumbered by other factors. I feel that in real human life, there is never a "neutral" space, that we are always living in a situation that is designed or controlled in one way or another by some person or idea. When no person admits to being in charge, however, it seems that we could indeed be living in a neutral world, which just makes the lack of neutrality harder to spot.

On a less theoretical, and more practical level, I think that positions and structures of authority are very helpful, not because they grant people power, but because they limit people's powers. As I said above, authority seems to spontaneously generate in any social situation. Often authority generates around a charismatic leader. However, a charismatic leader in some fields might not be the most capable, or even ethical leader in other fields. For example, a coach may have the minds and souls of his players on the field. However, the fact that he is called by the title "coach" hopefully lets his players know that he can only exercise authority or power over them while they are training and playing, and not on a personal level. Although their are certainly many exceptions, I think that investing people with well defined positions of authority actually decreases their ability to abuse their subordinates on a personal or sexual level.

Also, in my experience, having someone who knows what they are doing, who is willing to do it, and will take responsibility for it is a very good thing. While buck passing may be a way for a lot of people to refuse responsibility, refusing to have the buck passed to you is just as much of a way to shirk responsibility.

So, in other words, I believe that the American insistence that everyone is always so equal is not a totally good thing.

And no, this is not directed at you specifically.

The American obsession with egalitarianism (or equality, or whatever one wishes to call it) tends to suffer from a certain fuzziness about exactly what we are supposed to be equating (or equalizing). For all I know, the same thing happens in other countries. I don't know so much about it, though, so I will focus on the situation in America, where egalitarianism is championed but very rarely defined.

Suppose I were a math teacher in a secondary school. Most people would enthusiastically agree that I should treat males and females equally. Knowledgeable people might point out that math teachers have at times behaved in ways that explicitly or implicitly discouraged females from pursuing mathematics. Other people might suggest that I be videotaped so that I and others can review my performance to ensure that I really am treating people equally.

Fewer people would be able to provide an operational definition of the word "equally." But if I am a teacher, this question is central. I need to know how I should act when I enter the classroom each day. How precisely should I behave to satisfy the requirements of equality?

Perhaps I should try to make sure that my responses to females are identical to my responses to males. It so happens that I am a reasonable actor; therefore, I can craft a standardized, preset response to a student (male or female) who commits a careless error while completing a problem on the blackboard. I would look it over, frown slightly, and ask the student to check his or her work, adopting a slightly chastising tone that suggests that he or she is really a better student than that and should be more careful. I believe that I can use the same words, the same facial expressions, and the same tone each time.

I suspect, however, that males and females might react in different ways to this treatment (on average--of course there will be exceptions). If a female student really has gathered the impression that math is for boys, perhaps she will find my criticism quite devastating; perhaps it will reinforce a stereotype that I would rather combat. Perhaps a male will not be so devastated--perhaps instead he will shake his head, grumble at what a nitpicky bastard I am, and fix the mistake. Conversely, if I use a much gentler and more comforting tone, the females might find it less devastating (again, on average), while the males might dismiss me as a softy.

If my students react in either of these ways, I have established equality of treatment, but not equality of outcomes. This problem stems from the basic truth that different people respond differently to the same stimulus. Incidentally, we need not posit gender differences in responses--if I were teaching a class comprised entirely of females, I would still expect a diversity of responses to a given approach.

I could try to create equality of outcomes, but it would seem to require inequality of treatment. I could, for example, tend to chastise the males while supporting the females. Better still, I could avoid treating students by gender and tailor my response to the individual student, chastising students who would benefit from chastisement and comforting students who would benefit from comfort.

Anyone who has ever dealt with children--a category that seems to exclude certain educational researchers--will know that kids will immediately pick up on differential treatment and demand to know the reasons for its existence. Individual students may take something of an extreme view and wonder why they have been singled out for abuse or coddling. Worst of all, even if I try to fit my responses to a particular student, instead of a particular gender, it might still be the case that I end up chastising more males than females, and comforting more females than males. Students will notice this too. If their parents hear about it, I will of course be in deep politically-correct doo-doo.

Demanding equality without defining it is like asking my math students to solve an equation with no terms on either side. It is a logical impossibility, and creates a problem with no hope of a solution.

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