I write in praise of inferior. I want to defend inferior and protect it from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Honestly, I want a lot more than that. I want to deepen and expand the thing. I want to proliferate it until the word rings sweetly in every mouth, on every occasion, everywhere: “Inferior to this.” “Inferior to that.”
And yes: “Inferior to them.”
I nail my theses to the church door in despite of the popes and cardinals of contemporary culture. They, who should embody this distinction, now groan under the weight of it, and pretend that it has no meaning, and incite the multitudes against those who dare to bring up the subject in public.
Inferior is awkward to the democrat. If you believe in equality, the word sticks in your throat. More importantly, if you are a member of the elites, the word gives away who you are. Inferior entails superior, and superior smacks of privilege and entitlement. Nobody cares to go there – least of all the privileged and entitled. Better to clench a fist, strike a radical egalitarian pose. You evade invidious comparisons and troublesome questions about human worth.
And didn’t Jesus say, in two Gospels, “Judge not, that ye be not judged”?
Yet we can’t avoid judging or being judged. Even to say that we shouldn’t is a judgment. My praise of inferior, therefore, begins with this trivial observation: it’s inescapable.
At every turn, we encounter choices. Some are mundane: should I buy the black shirt or the white? Some are moral and life-deciding: should I cheat on my wife with this hot female? Others are political, commercial, geographical, health-driven, career-oriented, cosmic. Possibilities are limited only by the scope of the imagination. But the sum of such choices amount to what we mean by “a human life.” Far more than any ethnic or sexual givens, they determine identity: who and what we are.
Now suppose that no standards existed for choosing. Every moment is wide open: pick this or that, doesn’t matter, anything goes. How can I hope to become me, under such conditions? In that unbounded existential space, identity must be pulled apart. Behavior must turn indecisive and random. I might take a year to decide which shirt to buy. That would resemble a certain kind of brain-damaged behavior. More likely, I might follow any impulse to destructive or even suicidal action, in the manner associated with borderline personality disorder.
The lack of standards I have supposed opens a trap door into the void. We will grasp at any distinction, cling to any boundary-post, to escape that great fall.
So I apply the principle of inferior. On some scale of values that I find persuasive, I rank an object (say, the white shirt) below another (the black shirt). That’s all inferior means: “below” or “under.” It’s a locational term, always relative to some other point on the map. I choose the black shirt over the white.
But choosing isn’t an automatic process: an algorithm. Inferior arises out of feelings and reasons. I know inferior because I hate it. I loathe being below. Conversely, I love what is higher and better. Those feelings guide my behavior and marry my identity to the social and natural worlds. And I am compelled to explain them, if only to myself. I offer reasons for choosing. Even if I say, “It’s a matter of taste,” that’s a reason – a piece of rhetoric open to public debate and contradiction.
Where does the scale of values come from? More about this in a minute, but the short answer is: it varies with the situation. In poor or desperate places, most choices are driven by necessity. The scale of values measures life and death. In affluent and safe environments, choices will turn on some interpretation of the ruling culture, including the fashions and tastes of the moment. The scale then measures social standing. Despite our romantic notions of selfhood, we never invent or create our values. We discover them – and ourselves – out of a pre-existing menu, in the act of choosing.
My praise of inferior collides head-on with one of the ruling orthodoxies of the day: the cult of difference or diversity.
At the aggressive extreme, this faith renders harsh judgments against “white privilege” and particularly white males. Grand inquisitors hurl anathemas that can be accepted or disputed on merit. It is the passive interpretation of diversity, however, that has become canonical in activities as varied as Federal hiring practices and Hollywood movie plots. It forbids judging as a mortal sin and proclaims inclusiveness to be the cardinal virtue in human affairs. All origins and beliefs and conditions are said to be created equal. All cultures are of identical worth. All body shapes are indistinguishable. Differences aren’t to choose among but to embrace. Nothing human, on principle, can be below or above.
In a few short steps, we are removed from the valley of the shadow of choice to a flat featureless plain, on the very rim of the void.
There, the beatific vision is of a world in which all individuals “feel valued for their unique qualities.” Prayer takes the form of lengthy litanies of stereotyped human difference: “We embrace and encourage… differences in age, color, disability, ethnicity, family or marital status, gender identity or expression, language, national origin, physical and mental ability, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, veteran status, and other characteristics…” One can almost hear in this recitation the monophonic tones of the Gregorian chant.
Because diversity partakes of the sacred, arguments hinge on who you are, not what you say. For the same reason, however, personal identity is reduced to the display, at critical moments, of a multitude of differences, in the manner of a peacock fanning out its tail: “I am queer, trans, Chinese American, middle class, and able-bodied.”
The social function of this strange assault on choice and identity can be debated. What began with a humanitarian impulse long ago became a mechanism of institutional stereotyping and control. “I am queer, trans, Chinese American” is a quick-draw argument-killer. My own guess is that the abolition of inferior leaves elites comfortably justified in their dealings with inferiors. They needn’t bother to do much about any, since all, in the end, can be dismissed as “unique.”
The dogma of neutral or passive diversity rests on a fallacy. It starts with a grand judgment – that all human differences are equal and equally good – but then proceeds to block all further judgments. How can we know that all differences are good? The original judgment feels a priori and is plainly contradicted by empirical reality. In the Levant today, large numbers are dying because of small differences. But to say “The persecution of difference is wrong” is to condemn a certain kind of difference. It’s a judgment that must be based on something. The a priori argument collapses under the weight of contradiction. To defend diversity we must enter the realm of feelings and reasons: that is, of choice, and true identity, and the recurrence of inferior.
In all this I follow the wise Charles Taylor, who affirms: “Mere difference can’t itself be the ground of equal value.” A sound defense of equality, Taylor writes, must in fact “override” differences and look to “some properties, common or complementary, which are of value.” Similarly, the affirmation of diversity demands more than a belief in diversity: “we have to share also some standards of value on which the identities concerned check out as equal.” By any standard, some identities will be judged inferior to others. So we will have to choose.
But many, I’m guessing, are fearful: and this widespread fear of choosing goes far to explain our present predicament. Today we disagree about everything except the moral depravity of society. On basic questions of respect for life, the sexual bond, and truth-telling, we seem to have lost our bearings. We judge not but somehow rant a lot. Inside our comfortable skins, we feel constantly offended and irritated. We crave answers, direction: a reformation of manners and morals.
I praise inferior because it alone can get us there. And the first and most important step is to apply the principle, not to others, but to ourselves.
The reformation of the world begins when I judge myself. I must wrestle my identity free of cant and stereotype, and ground it in what Martin Luther King would call the content of my character.
It isn’t enough to say “I am queer, trans, Chinese-American.” Those are descriptors, not moral qualities. Nor does it add much to assert, as the same author does, “I stand with others against white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy.” Those are mere opinions. Parading one’s virtues is a low trait, in any case – the mark of the hypocrite and the Pharisee.
In judging myself, I am aware of hating what is inferior in me. Yet none of us can measure our true worth: I’m aware of that too. I can only conduct my life in the hope that those around me will think, “He’s an honest person,” or “He’s kind to the helpless,” or “When the powerful struck, he had the courage to stand his ground.”
Such statements speak to generally discoverable moral truths. We have always possessed Taylor’s shared “standards of value” – always loved the highest and hated the lowest – even when we pretended otherwise.
From the reformation of character the next logical step is the public affirmation of those conditions to which a good character should aspire. I would do this in all humility and guided by truth as I perceive it. In truth, fat is inferior to fit, for obvious reasons. Alone is inferior to together – together is inferior to together for life. Barren is inferior to fruitful. Weak is inferior to strong. Let me shun the one and seek the other, knowing that, in truth, we are flawed vessels, and hostages to fortune, and will often fail to attain our highest selves. But all can inch toward perfection.
Wielding the force of inferior, we can, together, reform public and social life around the standards and conditions we have affirmed. In the process, we will come to accept that all societies are not created equal. The Aztecs of Montezuma, say, were inferior to the Athenians of Pericles. From the latter we got democracy, science, and the theater – from the former, Chihuahuas and chili peppers. Beyond history, I can say that life in many countries right now is inferior to life in the United States. I know that because 95 languages were represented at my daughter’s graduating class.
In the last phase of my reformation of morals, I would weigh our elites in the balance. The function of the class is to embody our aspirations: to be the best of us. Against that standard, the Boomers are inferior to the “Greatest Generation,” but the present crowd has fallen a vast distance beneath the worst in living memory. From the president and his Republican friends to the Democratic opposition and its allies, from business leaders to academic scholars, from thinkers and writers to athletes and artists – who among them can we point to as a model for our children, in either life or work? How can those who have risen highest sink so sickeningly low, and expect to retain our trust?
They will be swept away. Or I should say in honesty: we can sweep them away, and all their works and pomp. The moral collapse of the old guard is already apparent even in those image-obsessed cities, Washington and Hollywood. Whether these people are ushered out of history at last, and who or what will take their place – that will depend largely on our choices.
Inferior, I say, is the lever that can move the world. But it will be up to us to give the necessary push…