What do I think of when I think of equality? A good question, and, no doubt, one able to give us as many answers are there are people willing to answer it. “The multi-faceted issue of equality is ubiquitous and incredibly relevant,” writes editor Paul Alan Fahey in the introduction to “Equality, A Collection of 25 Personal Essays,” (Vine Leaves, 2017) which covers sexuality, age, race, gender and more.
It seems that statements like Fahey’s are becoming more correct with each passing day. The issue of equality, what it means, who gets it and who has the power to hand it out is ubiquitous because contemporary technology allows us to see, in real-time, the unfair disparities between certain peoples, while allowing us to voice our opinions more efficiently than ever. It is an incredibly relevant issue because despite its ubiquity, it’s a problem that’s not going away.
The collection allows itself to meander in and out of the political and the personal, the joyous and the angry, the optimistic and the pessimistic, while not letting one reign supreme. This is a testament to the freedom Fahey, the editor, has obviously given his contributors. It also gives the collection a full, energetic feeling, as you do not know where you will be taken next.
Take Christopher Bram’s essay, for example, which takes no prisoners as it dismantles the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. As Bram states, though “all men are created equal” and endowed “with certain inalienable rights” this didn’t seem to apply to slaves, women, or anyone who wasn’t a white male. In fact, it seemed to be just a fleeting mention of equality to allow these slave-owning leaders to brag that they were just as free to do what they wanted as any king was. That’s the kind of honesty we need in political debate nowadays.
Once you’ve experienced this kind of affront to your existing knowledge of what equality means and who cares about it, seeing the writers chisel away at one’s image of a tolerant society becomes a sort of guilty pleasure. Guilty, because with each essay one sees the struggles of individuals that one likely has been oblivious to or has been able to ignore. Pleasurable, because experiencing viewpoints that one doesn’t often experience should always be relished. If that were a more common thought, then there might not be as great a need for books like this. Minds and prejudices are only changed by the free flow of information, from one person to another, from the oppressed to the powerful.
There are too many highlights to list in this book, and too much talent and passion to cover with any review, but one moment that did make me wonder if I had hit upon the feeling that the book intended for me was in Barbara Abercrombie’s essay, “The Last Acceptable Prejudice.” Her words on how people are happy to stereotype and disregard the elderly without the equivalent guilt that comes with racism and sexism, for example, unsettled me. I hadn’t given any worthwhile amount of thought before to the inequality that older people must feel, and, as the author says, their invisibility. But greater than this realization was my own inclination to disagree with some of her essay.
The accusation she makes concerning the way advertisers define her age group “by our health problems, our infirmities” seems unfair to me. Without deliberate assumptions and stereotypes, advertising would cease to be able to exist, surely? Can it be discrimination when advertisers have to show older people as infirm? If the advert showed a woman using her bath-with-a-door-in-the-side-of-it with ease, then it wouldn’t work as a sales pitch. If it’s the infirm and, statistically, elderly, who need it, then can you argue with that portrayal? Can you? Once my inner monologue had finished, I reflected that perhaps it is causing these inner arguments that is the book’s raison d’être. Perhaps the greatest review I can give “Equality” as a result is that it has made me bring my own opinion into question. The greatest consequence any book can have.
And that’s the crux of it. A white, straight male myself, I don’t have to think about equality. I must be confronted with it in order to realize that my opinion is fallible. “Equality” is this confrontation and an effective, charming one at that. Because of the book’s inspired use of story-telling, there are no rants here. No soap boxes or declarations of war. “Equality” is not a celebration of difference or a judgement or an offering of consolation or reprieve. It is stories, told by those who want to tell them and are driven by that writer’s desire to disturb the pond water and reveal the murk, mud and tangled weed beneath the surface.
Only once or twice did “Equality” fail to stop itself becoming too self-accusatory and unfocused. Some authors slipped into indulgent self-criticism in a way that seemed to this cynical reader like egoistic intrusions into space which could have been better used (by disabled writers, perhaps, because the references to disability, for a book of this length, are fleeting). Some seemed to trivialize the larger battles people must fight by comparing them with their own, relatively unimportant struggles with personal prejudices. Perhaps it’s my own politics interfering, or the inevitable side-effect of a twenty-five essay collection, but begging forgiveness for one’s impulse to make judgements about another driver for speeding seems out of place in such a sincere and important book.
For the fight for equality to mean anything, surely, it has to be focused and outward-looking, which this book, as a general rule, is. The moments of powerful research and frank confession that go into the best of these essays, and the genuinely moving advice that comes from those with first-hand experience of the worst kinds of unequal thinking, more than make up for the questionable moments. This book is a pleasure to read, and a pleasure to be unsettled, prodded and pained by. What we need is more like this, bigger and stronger, growing more demanding each time.
The message of “Equality” can be best summed up by a line from Victoria Zackheim’s essay, “Stirring Frustration Stew”: “As much as I’d like to write about equality in a positive way, I’m finding it difficult.”
And it is difficult, but she writes in spite of that. Doesn’t that say it all?