An oft-heard argument in response to a grievance about perceived inequality between two groups of people, hence the injustice one of them suffers, goes something like this:

I'll grant you that these groups people are indeed different from each other, but that's no cause for concern. Their differences are not a liability. Rather, they enrich each group's experience, and make each group unique and special. The injustices you perceive as a result of these differences are not really there. Instead, society treats these two groups differently because these two groups are different. This is inevitable and the natural state of affairs. In the end, all the differences balance out. Each group has its own advantages and disadvantages. Vive la différence!

This argument and its many variations, I call the "different but on equal footing" argument, or different-but-equal for short. It is a widespread and attractive line of attack against those who protest about a particular injustice in society. There are many reasons why an individual would like to uphold the different-but-equal reasoning. For one, because it appears to be a liberal and open-minded position to have. Not only are we recognising the differences, so that we cannot be accused of distorting the truth to suit our needs, we are furthermore celebrating these differences for the benefit of all parties considered. Second, it endorses a very desirable society, where each group's particular difference contributes to the greater good, like specialised ant or bee colonies with their workers, their foragers, and their queens. A final point of attraction is that it negates the very unpleasant accusation of injustice against a particular collective.

It is precisely these points in favour of the different-but-equal argument that make it so dangerous. It is very easy to fall into its trap, close your eyes to the wrongs of the world, or even to believe in a justification of these wrongs. Beware. Hardly ever is it safe to uphold the different-but-equal argument without aggravating the evils that oppress a group.

In literature, the different-but-equal argument is frequently satirised and attacked in dystopian novels. George Orwell famously states it as "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" in his singular retelling of the Russian revolution and its aftermath. The pigs in Animal Farm justify the privileges they give themselves over the rest of the animals by saying that their particular difference, their natural gift for brainwork, burdens them with labour even more fatiguing than the physical labour that the other animals must endure, and thus entitles them to certain privileges in compensation. In Brave New World, each class of Aldous Huxley's carefully stratified society constantly repeats the message that they are in the best possible stratum, because higher strata have unpleasant mental tasks, and lower classes have equally unpleasant manual labours (not to mention that they are ugly and stupid). Huxley presents us with a society where the different-but-equal argument actually works, via a macabre mechanism of mind control and with a grisly outcome. Even H. G. Wells jumps into the fray with The Time Machine, warning his contemporary supporters of the "necessary" class differences of early twentieth century English society. He tremendously exaggerates those differences until they become the dystopic Eloi and the Morlocks many centuries into the future.

It is a sad situation that these literary appearances of the different-but-equal argument are reflections of real instances of it in the world. Under Stalin, communist propaganda did indeed attempt to infect all Soviet citizens with a belief in a different-but-equal argument, much like in Orwell's story. During the late nineteenth century and up until the civil rights movement of the sixties, in the southern United States the argument was stated as separate-but-equal in justification of racial segregation. The argument can take a different twist as in the case of the "don't ask, don't tell" attitude towards homosexuality. Yes, they accept you're different, so they are granting you the privilege of loving who you will in spite of that difference. (Just don't tell them about it.) Sorry, this is not equal footing. If this is their best intention, it needs improvement.

In places with a stark separation between a working class and a bourgeois leisure class, the argument often makes an appearance sometimes in the form that the working class is genuinely satisfied with its difficult position à la Brave New World, other times in the form that a working class is necessary and natural for the entire sustenance of society, and that it should be proud of its servile position. All around the world, the argument is also a particularly popular explanation for the different tasks and positions men and women occupy in society. Not even the most liberal of countries with the longest history of feminism are free of struggle with different-but-equal. It still rears its head now and then, and must be dealt with accordingly.

So how to deal with it? Sometimes citing the very real harm that ensues from preaching it isn't enough to convince its proponents of its faults. They will dispell these injuries as inexistent, necessary, or compensated by other benefits. Here I favour the counter argument given by Marxist feminists as formulated by the Combahee River collective. It rests on the simple observation that those who hold the different-but-equal view are hardly ever members of the group that contests the fairness of the current makeup of society. Therefore, unless you find yourself in the unlikely situation of being able to belong to both groups whose equality is in question, you have no grounds on which to declare them to be truly on equal footing despite their differences. It is not fair to attempt to silence a person who yells in pain with any kind of rhetoric, because pain is subjective. Similarly, the complaints of a particular group need no validation beyond the complaint itself. Do not attempt to silence the victim just because you cannot feel pain yourself.

This has to be qualified somewhat, since sometimes a group pretends to represent more people than it actually has. In the situation of Marxist feminists, the liberal feminists such as Betty Friedan through The Feminine Mystique mostly speak about white, middle-class American women. In trying to include all women under a single voice, they end up unwittingly silencing groups such as women of African origin. For this reason, lower-class American women defected to Marxist feminism during the late sixties. It can sometimes happen that a group who fights against a different-but-equal argument ends up committing the same fault against another group.

The reverse can also happen when a group tries to include too many people under its banner. Aggressive labour unions may force some workers to go on strike when they really are content with job conditions and do not feel that their differences with management truly put them at a disadvantage. Another possible situation is that a group actually does exaggerate its victimhood and makes unreasonable demands. Perhaps giving Canadian First Nations special privileges because of their peculiar history and present is not the right choice and everyone should be subject to uniform laws in the interest of justice, perhaps the privileges are worsening the situation, and they would benefit from equal treatment. Or perhaps it is the right choice, because they are not different-but-equal.

Nothing is ever clear-cut. There are grey areas for everything. I cannot exhort anyone to always reject a different-but-equal argument, because it does have its points of attractions. Oh, how I wish that it were true that despite our differences, we are all on equal footing! Fairness is a beautiful thing, and differences make us interesting. Unfortunately, the world seldom works that way. Be on guard. Next time you catch yourself making a different-but-equal argument, take a moment to ponder if you are not making the situation worse for someone, despite your best intentions. Don't pave a road to hell.