Universalism is one of those things that you either get right away or you probably never will. The capacity to understand the concept is directly proportional to social conscience. Those who don’t get it are worthy of vigorous shunning. Mostly, they’re arseholes. Some make an effort. But they find the concept elusive. One moment they will have a firm hold on it, the next it has turned to sand and slipped through their fingers.
I wonder if it is possible to truly comprehend universalism and not embrace it with enthusiasm. What manner of creature would it be that could do this? To understand universalism and oppose it is to knowingly and purposefully disadvantage swathes of society. How might this be justified?
I am, of course, referring to social universalism. The term is also used in theology and anthropology in ways that are different but closely related. The common theme in the word and the idea of ‘all’. All are equal. Every individual ultimately belongs in a single common category regardless of how many other categories they occupy. All!
This necessarily implies that whatever applies to or is relevant to that ultimate category must, by force of logic, apply to all regardless of any other category or categories they occupy. It is universal.
Commonly, people misunderstand universalism by supposing that is is something that it is not. That it means something that it doesn’t. It does not mean that everybody is the same. It doesn’t even mean that all are equal. What it means is that all the differences and inequalities cancel each other out. That there is balance. Equilibrium.
Universalism doesn’t mean dragging everybody down to a level. Nor does it mean raising everybody up to a level. It means allowing everybody to find and maintain the level at which they are comfortable. All are equally comfortable. Contentment is universal.
The American Declaration of Independence refers to the pursuit of happiness as one of the rights common to all. An early draft, which I prefer to the one that survives, states,
We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.
Better that it had said pursuit of contentment. Happiness is ephemeral and transitory. No normal human being can be in a state of happiness all the time. Of course, the text actually qualifies this right as the “pursuit of happiness”. Leaving open the possibility that this condition might never be attained. Or might be attained only occasionally and intermittently and not without the effort of pursuit. One might reasonably wonder what kind of right it is that one has to work for. How can something be “inherent & inalienable” and at the same time only available to those who apply themselves to the effort of obtaining it?
Contentment is a very different proposition. Any of us can find contentment as an incidental by-product of our behaviours. We don’t have to strive for it. We may simply happen upon it. Indeed, it may not be definable as contentment if its achievement is effortful. In similar contrast to happiness, contentment readily be imagined as a permanent condition. It is perfectly possible to be content all the time. Indeed, contentment better conforms to its own definition the more permanent it is.
Pursuit of happiness devolves into a constant quest for instant gratification. To whatever extent we believe we have an undeniable right to pursue we take unhappiness to be both a denial of our rights and a personal failure. Circumstances conducive to neither happiness nor contentment. Circumstances conducive only to feelings of insecurity and anxiety.
The task of government, by this argument, is not to defend the individual’s right to pursue happiness but to create and maintain conditions in which all may find contentment. The aim is not to maximise happiness with insecurity and anxiety as by-products but to optimise contentment. By definition, insecurity and anxiety must thereby by banished.
A society pursuing happiness is a frantic society. It is therefore stressed and stressful society. From which it follows that it is a diseased society in the truest of senses that it is a society devoid of ease. It is a society in which the possibility of finding contentment has been reduced to something near zero. It is a sick society within which people tend to get sick. It is a disordered society in which organisations tend to become disordered. It is a corrupt society in which institutions tend to become corrupted. It is a society such as that which we have created for ourselves.
It is a society structured according to a socio-economic system which takes as its source of motive power the tensions created by imbalance. Inequality, inequity, injustice and insecurity – the four horsemen of the stress apocalypse. It is a system which functions by breaking people and breaks people by functioning. It is a system designed to fail because it has to be constantly failing in order to work – as in facilitate the accumulation of wealth by the few while affording the many just as many moments of instant gratification as it takes to convince them that real happiness – an end to anxiety – is only a bit more pursuit away.
Just as Buzz Lightyear wasn’t flying but falling with style, so our socio-economic system isn’t succeeding but failing with profits. No amount of style will stop Buzz eventually hitting the floor in what he will always call a ‘landing’ however little it may be controlled, so our socio-economic system must always fail in ways that its apologist will always refer to as a ‘blip’ or an ‘over-correction’ no matter how much it might feel like a bruising, bone-shattering crash to the rest of us.
Universalism makes a difference. It should be regarded not as a cure for a sick society but as an essential characteristic of a well society. Universalism isn’t a fix for all our problems. But when the concept and principle of universalism is generally understood and appreciated and applied, we will know we have at the very least gone some way towards creating a society with which we may justly be content.
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