Human Equality: An Allegory

Lori Day writes a Dystopian allegory in a quest for understanding how to talk about equality.

Once upon a time, in a country very much like our own, there was plenty of food, but there were established customs about eating it. People had theories, but no one knew for sure where the rules came from, or who was enforcing them, just that things had been done this way for a long time. The rules were not written down, but everyone understood them, having learned them from their parents, or from society, or perhaps never having learned them well at all, such that they seemed eternally surprising.

No one knew who created the machines that dispensed the food, and if they thought they did, it couldn’t be proven. If anyone complained about the machines, there were some people who agreed with them and some who didn’t, and some who didn’t care much either way. Complaining was a surefire way to start fights, because food was hypothesized to be a limited resource and so discussing it was always a touchy matter.

There was no way to get the people who stocked the machines (whoever they were) to alter the way they dispensed food. You could go up and kick the machines and sometimes extra food came out of them, but just as often, kicking the machines made them jam up entirely, or made other people come along who were angry that anyone dared kick a machine and try to get something extra out of it beyond what was allotted to them. Anyone could talk about the unfairness of how the food was distributed all they wanted to, but that didn’t tend to change things, and won you as many enemies as friends, and sometimes more.

When it was time to eat, people went up to their local machines, stepped on a scale, and pressed their fingertips against a plate of glass. The machine knew exactly who you were, and gave you the amount of food due you. If you were born on an even-numbered date, the machine gave you one-half pound of food for every 100 pounds of body weight. If you were born on an odd-numbered date, it gave you one-quarter pound of food for every 100 pounds of body weight. That was just how it was and how it always had been. The accident of birth determined your fate.

Some people shared their food. Some even-birthday folks gave food to odd-birthday folks, and some Oddies shared food with each other as well, but some Evens did not share food with Oddies because they did not feel the Oddies should be wanting or taking their food. Or making them feel guilty simply for having more food, which was not their fault, since it was just the way it was. And some Evens called the Oddies who wanted one-half pound of food for every 100 pounds of body weight “foodists,” because the whole idea was very irritating to them and so they bullied them. The Oddies had called themselves foodists for many decades, but when they said that word, they used a different tone.

A lot of the people talked about exactly how much food there was, and whether, if you could ever get anyone to adjust the machines so that no matter what your birthdate, you got the same amount of food per pound of body weight, you would use up all the food in the world, and then there would not be enough to go around. Some people thought yes, and others imagined no, but it remained a mystery. Most people believed that some types of food might exist in limited supply, while other types exist in abundance. And there were frequent discussions about whether the distinction even mattered, because a lot of people thought that it should simply be a matter of fairness.

One night, a hungry woman with an odd-numbered birthday was standing by a machine while people lined up for their dinners. She got really angry and started yelling, “Everyone knows that those of us born on odd-numbered days do not get a fair amount of food! We are tired of some of you accepting more than what is fair! We don’t want all of your food, we just want a little bit, so that we all have the same nourishment relative to our body weight!” (Someone in line whispered, “that would mean 3/8 pound of food per 100 pounds of body weight for everyone.”)

Instantly, the Oddies started clumping together. Some of the birthday-blessed joined them. Some did not join, and instead clumped together and started shouting, “Foodists!!! Foodists!!!”

They discussed heatedly and loudly how these Odd people, these foodists, were always complaining about their life, about…being hungry. And about how nothing was ever enough for them, how they wanted more food than those with even-numbered birthdays, how they wanted all the food, how they just wanted to make the birthday-blessed feel guilty for having food, how they were always presenting statistics and studies “proving” they did not have a fair amount of food.

These people with even-numbered birthdates knew that the ones with odd-numbered birthdates had plenty of food—and more than they used to have—and were really just jealous and hoping to starve the Evens to death because they were even-haters. A few of the most clever among them cited studies of their own showing that those with odd-numbered birthdates actually got more food out of the machines than those with even-numbered birthdates, and they were outraged that so few people knew this or would believe it when told.

Every day, everywhere in the country, people struggled to get more food or to protect the food they had. They tried to tinker with the machines; they sometimes tried to destroy them. The system of food distribution made the people turn on each other and split into factions. Lots of times it brought people together. Besides talking about it and fighting about it and trying to hack the machines, no one knew what to do. Sometimes leaders emerged to speak about how the system could be changed. They were respected or hated, lifted up or sometimes killed. There were always some people giving food away, and always some people stealing it. Everyone wanted everyone else to see the truth about food distribution, but everyone had a different truth.

And so it was.

 ♦◊♦

Protagoras: Truth is relative. It is only a matter of opinion.

Socrates: You mean that truth is mere subjective opinion?

Protagoras: Exactly. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me. Truth is subjective. 

Socrates: Do you really mean that? That my opinion is true by virtue of its being my opinion?

Protagoras: Indeed I do.

Socrates: My opinion is: Truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you, Mr. Protagoras, are absolutely in error. Since this is my opinion, then you must grant that it is true according to your philosophy.

Protagoras: You are quite correct, Socrates.

 ♦◊♦

Nota Bene (N.B.): There is a huge flaw in my allegory, but it did not stop me from writing it, because perfection is not possible. The flaw is in the generalization that all people with even-numbered birthdates get more food, and all people with odd-numbered birthdates get less. The machines in this story, to have functioned more like society really does, would have dispensed more food to those with even birthdays on the whole, but not in every instance. And likewise, they would have dispensed less to the Oddies, generally speaking, but not always. They might have dispensed an even tinier portion of food to people born on holidays. But randomly, they might have dispensed a huge amount of food to people born on Leap Day. The system would have vagaries, and those variations in the food-delivery system would have been hotly debated, used as points of deflection, used as false symbols of an imaginary different food distribution custom, etc. The people would have done what people always do: use the exceptions to negate the rule. 

photo: dennajones / flickr

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About Lori Day

Lori Day is an educational psychologist and consultant with Lori Day Consulting in Concord, MA, having worked previously in the field of education for over 25 years in public schools, private schools, and at the college level. She writes and blogs about parenting, education, children, gender, media, and pop culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Comments

  1. Lori – Objectively, the food producing machine is a pressure cooker.

    Subjectively – no matter how the food is presented some will want to add their own sauce. Odd or even, equal or not, even the sauce will be the cause of much debate – by which time the food is cold.

    “People love chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees results.”.
    Albert Einstein

  2. A further refinement for improvement that will necessitate more sophisticated machinery:

    “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need…”

  3. Elissa, agreed, and yet who will adjust the machines and upon what consensus-making strategy?

    • Human morality is the “machines”, is your point, I gather…

      The quote above wad made popular by Marx and highlights some of the weaknesses of this ideal – those with greater skills and capabilities must possess/show greater altruism than those with less of the same. Equality of outcome has a host of unintended consequences as does equality of opportunity – it is not inconceivable of even improbable that the truest utilitarian model possible – one with the greatest good – may have unfairness as a feature that provides the best outcome for the largest possible groups.

  4. I think this allegory gives a great deal of insight into why it is so difficult to have conversations on many of the topics meant to be covered by this allegory.

    It is very telling that the major flaw, in the author’s mind, is that the amount of food privilege was distributed uniformly across of the two groups.

    When I read the allegory, that issue did not occur to me, instead, I saw two different flaws;
    First, the food privilege is, presumably, impossible to earn. This suggests that if this is an allegory for any other type of privilege, the author believes that it is impossible to earn privilege. In my own work (economics) and my own experience, I simply do not find this to be true. Unless the model acknowledges that some privilege is earned, and indeed allows that in the absence of convincing empirical evidence the *majority* of privilege may be earned, it is hard to see a real conversation moving forward.

    The second flaw is that the food privilege can be easily, and accurately, measured. There is no argument about the substance involved (e.g. you have less food, but it is a higher quality). When looking at debates on this website, this is usually the second biggest source of argument. One side will argue “Men occupy all the boardrooms and the political offices, obviously you have the privilege,” to which the other side replies “Men are also disproportionately homeless and incarcerated, obviously they do not have the privilege.”

    So long as one side believes that privilege is “obvious” or can be measured with accuracy, it is hard to see how conversation can be moved forward.

  5. J P McMahon says:

    Ms. Day, Your allegory comes off as little ham handed because it is about food, which might have been appropriate if we lived in the 19th century, but now sounds a little ridiculous because poor people are vastly more likely to be obese than rich people. All I could think of is that the odd people who received less food would be slimmer and live longer than the evens who would be waddling around and dying of heart attacks. That the odds have to eat at McDonalds, and that the evens eat at The French Laundry is a more realistic depiction of the present situation, if you want to use a food allegory. A lot of the odds might prefer the golden arches. How about having the evens all be smart, and the odds all be “slow”, or the evens all be beautiful, and the odds ugly? Intelligence and looks are two issues that are REALLY hard for people to discuss openly when talking about equality.

  6. Mike and JP, allegories are actually kind of hard to write. The spare style belies the complexity of the genre. I’m not an expert by any means. But I think that the purpose of an allegory is to get you to think beyond what’s on the surface. The earliest allegory might be that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I suppose you could pick it apart and talk about how an apple isn’t really that tempting, but chocolate would have been. Or say that a snake can’t really cause Eve to be tempted, because she’d have screamed and run away when she saw the snake. Etc. There simply is no perfect allegory. If you look for flaws, there is no end to how many you can find, suggest, create. So I’m not sure how to respond to your comments here because the whole point of allegory is not to be a precise mirror of reality. It is to be a window, not a mirror. That’s my view anyway. When I read allegories I let them wash over me and see where my brain goes. When I read murder mysteries I analyze them point by point and try to unravel them. Not trying to be defensive, just sharing my view on what allegories are meant to be and do. And you may of course disagree! Thanks for commenting.

    • Lori, for me the biggest problem is that your allegory implies a belief that privilege, in all its forms, is ALWAYS unearned.

      When I let it “wash over me” this was the biggest takeaway: the allegory states that the food privilege is determined by a randomly defined factor, and individual choice does not enter the picture.

      If anything, I believe this to be the best point of the story. Not that there are groups that stand in for “foodists” but rather that there are groups in this world who fundamentally believe that the vast majority of privilege (if not all privilege) is unearned.

      I do not know how I am supposed to communicate with such a group. How can a conversation start when one side has already made up its mind?

  7. This was a very funny article. I enjoyed the allegory that explores how women have been granted, through random assignment, an extra helping of privilege that they are unwiling to share with men, and that any men who ask for an even distribution are roundly condemned and called “sexist.” As are those who even want to discuss the unfairness in the first place!

    You’ve definitely hit the nail on the head. Good job!

    • Copyleft, you win! I had a bet with a friend over how far into the comment thread it would be that someone did this, and I bet it would happen within the first 10 comments. You are #10! It must be so exciting for you!

      • “Did this”? What do you mean? Were you shooting for something else–like suggesting that the unearned privilege was actually in the hands of men? Surely not.

        It’s good to see that inequality can be openly addressed here. I’m encouraged by this refreshing bit of honesty.

        • In all seriousness, Lori, my first post accurately describes my interpretation of your article on first reading. Whenever someone mentions privilege, I naturally and automatically think of women.

          So when you describe a demographic that’s enjoying an unearned privilege and refusing to even discuss sharing things more equitably—well, of COURSE you’re talking about women! Who else could it be? The only other option is Wall Street bankers, and they’re far less than 50% of the populace.

          It wasn’t until the last few lines that the thought struck me—“maybe she’s trying to suggest, somehow, that MEN are the ones with the privilege in our society.” Which is absurd, of course. Then I remembered that in some feminist circles, the notion of men as a privileged class is not only taken seriously—it’s even treated as a proven and unquestioned fact! (Feminists are funny that way.)

          But that’s an assumption on my part. I’d hate to accuse anyone of feminism unjustly… so, just for the sake of clarity, could you explain what you were going for here?

  8. The allegory was designed to be a verbal inkblot. It can work for any sort of institutional privilege…gender, class, race, disability, etc. Nowhere does it indicate it is about “female privilege.” I simply predicted to a friend that one of GMP’s MRA’s would designate it as such. And you did.

    “Surely not?” So you mean that there could be no other interpretation than yours? No one else could have a different view of–or experience in–society?? A different perception of the inkblot? Really??

    The allegory could not be more open in terms of addressing inequality. It was written to allow an open exploration precisely by NOT giving any details that would suggest it is about one thing or another. You are the one that did that. As it is written, it deliberately makes no prescriptions. Truth is relative…or not…as you see fit. Socrates and Protagoras lay this out at the very end.

    • Julie Gillis says:

      Projection is a powerful force no matter who is experiencing it. Of course, given the other articles we could be primed to see an M/F split, but the tale reminded me of Seuss’s Sneetches. That was of course about Race. I think!

      • Julie, yes, we could be primed to see a M/F split. But of course one could view it from either direction, and the “truth” is not that it only goes in Copyleft’s direction, but he does not see that. The Sneeches on the beaches who all wanted stars on thars was about class, I believe, and my husband mentioned thinking of this when he read this piece too! The machines that dispensed stars would put them on anyone randomly, as long as they paid the machinist, so that the upper class sneeches lost their ability to be outward snobs once anyone could get a star, or more than one, or none…whatever was the latest symbol of superiority. The struggle became over how to be seen as superior if the machines did not obey the social order. Wasn’t that a great story??

  9. Side note: I also enjoyed Socrates blowing Protagoras out of the water with his silly notion of “truth is subjective.” I enjoyed it when I first encountered it in college, too.

  10. DavidByron says:

    To make your analogy better you should say that every time one of the Evens asked to actually see for themselves that the Odds got half as much food like some of them claimed, the Odds would hide the food and say “Oh no you can’t see it” and explain that “male privilege” meant that the Evens could never be allowed to see just how much food the Odds really got.

  11. DavidByron says:

    Lori, we get it that you have this weird hang up that you think men are doing better than women. But your delusions don’t have anything to do with reality. If they did then you could actually point to examples of why you think men are doing better than women. Even you admit that the MRAs or I can easily point out facts to prove the exact opposite.

    A few of the most clever among them cited studies of their own showing that those with odd-numbered birthdates actually got more food out of the machines than those with even-numbered birthdates

    You seem to think it some point of honor that you CANT back up your claims. It’s not. It just makes you DELUSIONAL. It’s an entirely reasonable demand that people should be able to back up their claims. The fact that you cannot do that is prima facie evidence that you are talking utter nonsense.

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