It may be one of the most famous quotations in the English language: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Orwell wrote Animal Farm as an allegory about the Soviet Union. His point with that quotation was that all totalitarian states, no matter their original intentions, eventually start discriminating against disfavored groups, making a mockery of the whole notion of equality. He could equally well have said (pun intended), although in a much less interesting way, that “favoritism-based equality is an oxymoron.”
Keep Orwell firmly in mind as you read the New York Times’ home page description for this article about the Supreme Court’s coming term:
Four blockbuster cases before the Supreme Court highlight the tension between formal equality and a more dynamic kind of equality that takes account of historical injustices. (Emphasis added.)
The article itself is less crudely Orwellian, but also seeks to redefine equality:
The extraordinary run of blockbuster rulings due in the space of a single week will also reshape the meaning of legal equality and help define for decades to come one of the Constitution’s grandest commands: “the equal protection of the laws.”
If those words require only equal treatment from the government, the rulings are likely to be a mixed bag that will delight and disappoint liberals and conservatives in equal measure. Under that approach, same-sex couples who want to marry would be better off at the end of the term, while blacks and Hispanics could find it harder to get into college and to vote.
But a tension runs through the cases, one based on different conceptions of equality. Some justices are committed to formal equality. Others say the Constitution requires a more dynamic kind of equality, one that takes account of the weight of history and of modern disparities.
The four major cases yet to be decided concern same-sex marriage, affirmative action in higher education and the fate of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which places special burdens on states with a history of racial discrimination.
Formal equality would require that gay couples be treated just like straight couples when it comes to marriage, white students just like black students when it comes to admissions decisions and Southern states just like Northern ones when it comes to federal oversight of voting. The effect would be to help gay couples, and hurt blacks and Latinos.
With regard to gay marriage, the article implies that all “couples” are equal, cheerfully lumping same-sex couples in with traditional heterosexual couples. They’re not the same at all, because nature has designed the matched set to be AB, not AA or BB. Pretending that all three formulations are identical is sophistry. This isn’t to say that one cannot make an argument to the effect that a couple equals any pair of human beings, regardless of biological gender reality. It’s just to say that it’s strikingly dishonest to pretend that such pairings are the only possible “equal” pairings.
Orwell, was not just a former ardent
communist “democratic socialist,” whose love of true equality and freedom turned him away from an ideology he realized was inherently corrupt. He was also someone who loved the English language with passion and ferocity. It was he who understand best that the truth can only set you free if there if the language is sufficiently uncorrupted to enable one to speak truth — and the first thing that totalitarians do is to corrupt language to destroy truth.