“To be nobody but yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” — E.E. Cummings
Most of us agree that inequality is wrong, but equality means different things to different people.
In human rights terms, we often prefer to speak about equity rather than equality. Equity recognises that we do not all start from the same position. Within enlightened leadership conversations, we are beginning to agree that having an equal number of women/people of colour/others in decision-making positions is not the goal, rather, we need different forms of leadership.
But to most people, this is not the case. “Today we talk a lot about equality,” Erich Fromm said, “but I think what most people mean by it is sameness. That everybody is the same.” He cautioned us to view progress on equality with some scepticism: “The positive aspects of this tendency for equality must not be deceiving. It is part of the trend toward elimination of differences.”
And this happens on two levels. In capitalist society, standardisation of everything – including us, as the consumers – is much more efficient. We get organised into categories, such as ‘those who bought this also bought this.’ As citizens, we are also organised into categories, such as how much we care about the environment or who and what we hate.
On a more personal level, we seek community. Social identity theory suggests that our sense of personal identity is drawn from our belonging to social groups. For Fromm, this is linked to our fear of loneliness, and of separateness. “If I am like everybody else, if I have no feelings or thoughts which make me different, if I conform in custom, dress, ideas, to the pattern of the group, I am saved; saved from the frightening experience of aloneness,” he wrote.
And belonging to a community or group will almost always require a certain level of conformity from its members, whether through threats, propaganda or suggestion.
In The Expulsion of the Other, Byung-Chul Han says we are in a society of positivity. We all have to outperform ourselves, have a ‘can-do attitude,’ be entrepreneurs, healthy, attractive, and reject negativity. This is a world where the Other no longer exists (the Other as pain, desire, temptation, secret); “the negativity of the Other now gives way to the positivity of the Same.”
While the proliferation of the Same presents itself as growth, Han warns, a system of positivity, which rejects negativity, is self-destructive. So we can travel everywhere, see everything, accumulate information, ‘friends’ and ‘followers’, but we do not experience anything, nor do we gain insight. And crucially, he says, we never encounter another person; we may have connections, but not relationships. This leads to all kinds of ills, from depression to burnout to self-harm.
And in our bubbles of sameness, we no longer encounter the unknown, we become less curious. Han says it “draws us into an endless ego loop, ultimately leading to an ‘auto-propaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas.’”
The alternative to sameness, however, is not authenticity. Authenticity, for Han, is yet another neoliberal advertisement which mostly only directs us to compulsively question ourselves, which intensifies our narcissistic self-reference. Striving to be oneself means constantly comparing ourselves to others.
This narcissistic self-referencing creates feelings of emptiness and loneliness. “To escape this tortuous emptiness today, one reaches either for the razor blade or the smartphone,” Han says. Such behaviours are increasingly prevalent among teenagers: where boys are more likely to direct their aggression outwardly, girls are more likely to self-harm or develop eating disorders.
A recent global study estimates that one in five under-18 year olds are at risk of developing an eating disorder. “Eating disorders are among the most prevalent, disabling, and potentially fatal psychiatric illnesses, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated their burden, with a 15.3% increase in incidence in 2020 compared with previous years,” doctors warn. This increase was almost solely among adolescent girls.
Girls who feel a need to conform are more at risk. A study on the link between body image concerns, eating disorders and the internet identifies a number of contributing factors. Peer influence is an important example. Girls “who conform to social ideals of appearance are typically more popular and provide an example of the rewards of conformity.” Participating in certain sports activities can also be a factor. A study in England found that high numbers of girls drop out of sports because of body image concerns and the outfits they are forced to wear, which many said made them feel “sexualised.”
While the internet offers opportunities for diverse voices to express themselves and for many to seek help, there is still a homogenising patriarchal discourse that dominates cyberspace. Media discourse perpetuates images of what a woman’s ideal body should be, alongside advertising for weight loss drugs. And advertising to girls is almost exclusively for cosmetics and beauty products.
So what can we do? As the internet and social media become increasingly important for sociocultural influences, “increasing our understanding of the ways in which engaging with the online world can be helpful or detrimental is critical,” the paper concludes.
For Han, this digital order leads to a disembodiment, from ourselves and others; we no longer inhabit the world poetically. This sameness has also led us to unlearn wonder. But art can save us from this state, because a negative tension is essential to art. Art explores and embraces the strange, the Other.
A crucial art form we can all get back to practising, he says, is the art of listening. Most of us have lost this ability because the “noise of communication makes it impossible to listen.” Perhaps in the future, he ponders, there may be a profession known as ‘listener.’ It is only through listening that we have relationships. Listening is hospitality. It is “a bestowal, a giving, a gift. … Community is listenership,” he says.
Words, Veronica Yates and Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes
Edward Estlin Cummings, who was also known as E. E. Cummings, (1894 – 1962), was an American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright. He wrote approximately 2,900 poems, two autobiographical novels, four plays, and several essays. He is often regarded as one of the most important American poets of the 20th century. Cummings is associated with modernist free-form poetry. Much of his work has idiosyncratic syntax and uses lower-case spellings for poetic expression.
Erich Fromm (1900 – 1980) was a German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, humanistic philosopher, and democratic socialist. He was a German Jew who fled the Nazi regime and settled in the US. He was one of the founders of The William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology in New York City and was associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory.
Byung-Chul Han (born 1959) is a South Korean-born philosopher and cultural theorist living in Germany. He was a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts and still occasionally gives courses there. Han studied metallurgy at Korea University in Seoul before he moved to Germany in the 1980s to study philosophy, German literature and Catholic theology in Freiburg im Breisgau and Munich. In 1994 he received his doctoral degree at Freiburg with a dissertation on Stimmung, or mood, in Martin Heidegger.
[Source: Wikipedia and writer’s own]
‘Erich Fromm: To Have or To Be, The Mike Wallace Interview: Erich Fromm (25 May 1958),’ Online Philosophy.
The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm.
The Expulsion of the Other, Byung Chul Han.
‘1 in 5 Kids at Risk for Eating Disorder: Study,’ Lisa O'Mary, February 22, 2023, Medscape.
‘Anorexia Nervosa in Adolescent Patients: What Pediatricians Need to Know,’ Susan D. Swick, MD, and Michael S. Jellinek, MD, 12 May 2022, MD Edge Pediatrics.
‘The Relationship Between Body Image Concerns, Eating Disorders and Internet Use, Part II: An Integrated Theoretical Model,’ Rachel F. Rogers, Adolescent Research Review, volume 1, pages 121–137 (2016), download pdf here.
‘Truly alarming’: girls put off sport in UK by clothing requirements,’ Ed Aarons, 7 April 2023, The Guardian.
The Art of Listening, Erich Fromm.
‘The trouble with equality: feminism and the forgotten places of power,’ Bayo Akomolafe, author’s own website.
‘The Equality Conundrum,’ Joshua Rothman, 13 January 2020, The New Yorker.
Anomalisa, Film by Charlie Kaufmann, 2015.
Momo, Michael Ende.
“I believe that he who hates is destroying himself.” — Jorge Luis Borges
“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking.” — Henry David Thoreau
“Everything that needed to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” — Erich Fromm
“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” — Soren Kierkegaard
“The world right now needs the most vivid, transformative universe of words that you and I can muster. And we can begin immediately to start having the conversations we want to be hearing, and telling the story of our time anew.” — Krista Tippett