We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…
I was reminded last month that it’s 50 years since Martin Luther King called on these words, from the US Declaration of Independence, to remind his nation that the aspiration of equality was so far from being accomplished that he could only speak of it as a dream.
For the 56 Congressmen who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, “all men” referred to a limited number of white male property owning citizens who had the right to vote. “Men” did not include indentured labourers (mostly white) nor slaves (mostly black) nor Native Americans (described in the Declaration as “merciless Indian Savages”). It certainly did not include women of any race.
I suggest that who we include in our notion of “all men” is a measure of our humanity. Who do we regard – and treat – as persons of equal worth to our own? The long and continuing struggle of those whose origins, habits and circumstances do not fit some imagined norm to claim their place as equals in society, is a testament to the limits of our imagination and compassion.
Even by saying “their place” I am guilty of a kind of othering for it implies that my origins, habits and circumstances are somehow normal; my inclusion in “all men” is unquestioned; my role in the story is sanctioned and legitimate; I am a fully rounded character with purpose and agency whereas they are caricatures, circumscribed and defined by some aspect of their being that is less than (and certainly different from) mine.
Holding a truth to be self-evident is not the same as blind faith. It means consciously choosing to live as if something were true, taking responsibility for the consequences of doing so. The acid test of our claim to live a moral life is not the truths we declare to be self-evident but the truths that are evident in our actions and in our efforts to live congruently with what we hold dear.
In one of my favourite books, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin, the character Genly Ai is sent as a lone emissary from a more advanced civilisation to observe and make contact with the inhabitants of the planet Gethen. I have often wondered what such an observer would make of human societies if sent to Earth.
I somehow doubt that Genly Ai would be able to deduce from the way we live, the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal, let alone endowed by their Creator with the unalienable right to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. He might also ask us (as the dominant species) to what extent we honour the rights of other-than-human life to thrive on our planet?
I can’t think of an honest answer that doesn’t make me feel ashamed.