The human need to establish and enforce a pecking order, a sometimes invisible and unacknowledged caste system, is, after sex and food, our species’ most powerful urge. All of us do it, sometimes unconsciously, for true democrats of the spirit have never been abundant. They are sports of nature and their defining quality is a quiet, unproclaimed acceptance of others, without the bogus egalitarianism rigidly enforced today. Along with “environmentalism,” our dominant secular religion is militant niceness, a self-serving creed. Dr. Johnson, not unexpectedly, understood our pretensions to equality. Boswell reports him saying:
“So far is it from being true that men are naturally equal, that no two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.”
There’s nothing offensive or intimidating about this state of affairs. I accept with simple equanimity I will never write as well as Jonathan Swift (or as badly as Norman Mailer, etc.) or play piano like Art Tatum – realties that trigger sputtering in some.
In my school, teachers are Brahmins, though most would demur and insist, with much ersatz humility, that students are the crown of creation. The principal is a figurehead, benign but hamstrung by the teachers and their union. Then, inconveniently, come the students. At the base of this irregular polygon is the ancillary staff – office workers, para-educators, the cook and custodians. I recount none of this resentfully. I knew what I was getting into and have shed most of my naiveté about human nature. When I learned a fifth-grade teacher had referred to me as “the help,” a fellow untouchable and I had a good laugh.
In the New English Review, Theodore Dalrymple visits a used bookstore, purchases a volume devoted to the lost art of letter writing, and launches a meditation on the charade of presumed human equality, and other matters:
“An early piece of advice in the book concerns how one should write to one’s social superiors and one’s social inferiors. The very fact that people can be written about in such a way gives one a jolt. But I wonder whether, in fact, this way of speaking, writing and thinking is more honest (and in some ways civilised and psychologically balanced) than our pretence that there are no such creatures as our superiors and inferiors? For it has been my observation that, in practice, the most fervent egalitarians are often egalitarian mainly about the people above them in the social scale; no one is above them, but their conduct often leads one to suppose that they have no difficulty in conceiving of and treating people as their inferiors. With the destruction of the notion of noblesse oblige, behaviour towards inferiors becomes more raw and unpleasant. The pretence that one believes in equality in any other sense than the religious or the abstraction of equality before the law leads directly to cognitive dissonance.”