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