Canada is a society that prides itself on equality. We constantly tell ourselves that we live in a free country where we are all equal to one another. Further, we take gratification in our national projects, like public health care, that provide citizens equal access to essential public goods. The right to equality is so important to Canadians that it has been enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Equality, however, extends only so far. The equity we pride ourselves on is equity based on social ideas and constructs. That is why we are equal before the law, equal before the state and equally entitled to the social benefits that flow from being citizens of Canada.
People, however, ignore the fact that on a fundamental and biological level, we are inherently different, and thus unequal from one another. And while we can try out best to mitigate these differences — through distributive justice programs like Canada’s progressive tax regime and state-maintained social benefits — such efforts will never ever equalize the most fundamental differences between us — genetic differences.
What I mean is that despite our society’s laudable mission to guarantee equality among as many citizens as possible, our quest for equalization has certain biological limits. And while we pride ourselves on equalizing much in our society, that equalization has yet to tackle the uncomfortable biological issues that make you and I different from each other in ways in which we do not (and quite possibly cannot) equalize against.
I’m talking about the role genetics, biology and natural selection play in each and all of our lives; and how the media treats this issue superficially at best, and ignores it completely at worst. Specifically, I wish to discuss the role attractiveness measured through aesthetic beauty, and how it is something the nation-state does not take into account in its attempt to create an equal society.
Some people are blessed with gifts of genetics, including physical traits that cannot readily or easily be altered. In most areas of life, you can improve yourself through practice, education and hard work. The same, however, cannot be said when it comes to altering hardwired genetic characteristics about your body, especially in terms of how you look. It’s difficult to talk about attractiveness, because again, it is for the most part an inborn trait that you either have or you do not have.
We can see the effects of this sad-but-true, human reality everywhere in our culture. Models are so desperate to achieve a physical standard of beauty that they starve themselves of food to be thin, and alter their bodies through surgery to defy age. For many, many people, they can try all they want to achieve a socially-defined level of beauty, but only those with natural, evolutionary blessings can achieve success at the highest levels possible. Gisele Bundchen, Brad Pitt, Playboy bunnies — these kinds of stars are not made, they are born, and they do not have to do too much to hone their aesthetic blessings.
It all comes down to one thing — nature versus nurture. What kind of advantageous genetic traits do we get from nature that cannot be changed, and what kind of advantageous genetic traits can be nurtured or socialized during our upbringing?
This leads back to the problem — equalizing differences. Our society readily follows the principles of John Rawls’ liberalism, as we try to “maximize” the position of the “minimum” of those who our society deems disadvantaged. We collect taxes and then redistribute wealth through social programs and tax incentives on this basis, yet our tax system does not take into account the aforementioned biological traits of physical attractiveness directly. Perhaps it is time it should. The process of quantifying beauty for tax purposes against those lucky enough to be blessed with such traits is a topic that should be more readily discussed.
The problem, of course, is that it’s taboo, unconventional and politically incorrect to discuss such an issue because it makes us realize that people, quite frankly, are unequal. Calling someone “short” or “ugly” are insults based on biological traits, and carry more venom than calling someone “stupid” or accusing them of “sleeping around.” Those first examples are characteristics that are difficult to alter, while the second are things most people can endeavour to change. These ideas relate to sexual appeal and thus our biological purpose of reproduction, which is what makes them so difficult for society to address openly.
While discussions like this can lead down a dark path that Western society has not touched since the Second World War — the theory of eugenics and the self-direction of human evolution — it is nonetheless a topic that should be discussed more openly.
–Michael Silicz is an alumnus of the University of Manitoba.