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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsThe sentence "All people should be equal" can be interpreted in two opposite ways. On the one hand, it has a clearly positive and progressive meaning. Human beings are born equal and the law should treat them equally. This is, of course, a key concept in modern democratic societies. For instance, we can find it in two foundational documents of political modernity, the United States Declaration of independence, 1776, and the Declaration of the Rights of Men, the manifesto of the French Revolution, 1789. On the other hand though, the sentence can also be read in a negative light. That's to say society will crush the differences between human beings. Or even worse, those who resist standardisation will be excluded from societal life.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 secondsNow this darker side of equality is also often associated to the notion of modernity. In 1947, Adorno and Horkheimer famously defined this process as "Repressive equality," and traced its roots back to the Enlightenment. In other words, modernity is also seen as a time in which individual diversity suffocated and the differences between people are levelled by conformism. This is a central aspect of the tension between individuality and society which has already been identified as a key feature of modernity by Florian Lippert earlier this week.

Skip to 1 minute and 30 secondsEmblematically, the exultation of positive equality during the French Revolution coincides with the origins of the fear of uniformity, so negative equality as a refrain in European culture, which gets more and more common throughout the 19th century. "In modern society, the peculiar characteristics of each individual will soon be lost in the general aspect of the world," Tocqueville. "Society has now got the better of individuality," Mill. Or "The sacred motto is you must be like everybody else," Theophile Gautier. Similar statements can be found in the classics of the 19th century novel such as Dostoevsky or Balzac.

Skip to 2 minutes and 9 secondsAnd indeed, the exclusion of weird or original individuals on the part of a uniform society is a key theme in the modern novel as a genre. This widespread fear of homogenisation is ideologically ambiguous, and it is shared by liberal, radical, and reactionary authors alike. Some, for instance, blame political centralisation, while others blame the spirit of capitalism or the tyranny of the masses as a uniforming factor. This ambiguity becomes even more evident in the early 20th century where similar statements are made by very different thinkers from a leftist like Virginia Woolf to a reactionary, to say the least, like Martin Heidegger. In this era, the anonymity of the mass-man becomes a real obsession, embodying the dreary, standardising side of modern society.

Skip to 2 minutes and 58 secondsNow this opposition between individual originality on the one hand and social conformism on the other is quite deceptive, as individuality is in fact always the result of a mediation between originality and social conventions. Nonetheless, it points to a contradiction that lies at the heart of European and Western modernity. On the one hand, freedom is presented as a key value for communal life. On the other, something within modern civilisation seems to threaten not only individual diversity, but all kinds of cultural diversity. This is still visible in our everyday life where we constantly have to deal with two contrasting messages. Stand out from the crowd and express yourself on the one hand, and be like everybody else on the other.

Skip to 3 minutes and 43 secondsThe world of advertising is a clear example of that. To sum up, since immediately after the French Revolution, the history of modernity is that of a continuous tension between diversity and homogenisation. This conflict is, of course, all the more relevant in the world we are living in right now. Welcoming diversity as a resource and using it as an antidote to any unilateral form of globalisation is one of the great challenges of our times.

(In)equality and diversity

On the one hand, the sentence “All people should be equal” has a positive and progressive meaning: people should not be discriminated against on the basis of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, and so on.

But, Dr Alberto Godioli argues in this video, ‘all people should be equal’ can also be interpreted as a statement against standing out of the crowd. Freedom is championed in modernity, but at the same time individual diversity is threatened.

In other words, modernity is about balancing the individual with society. Diversity can be a resource, but not an unlimited one.

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European Culture and Politics

University of Groningen

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