Looking back on 2014, part 5: the question of ‘equality’

A marker for discrimination…

Amongst the series I followed this year, there were two that touched on the question of equality and inequality, but as one left a much poorer impression on my mind, I will only talk about the other here, it being The Irregular at a Magic High School (aka Mahouka). Not surprisingly, the way Mahouka tackled this issue generated a lot of controversy, as people argued over whether this incredibly average (to be generous) anime and light novel had treated this rather sensitive topic in an appropriate way. The vast majority of people ended up giving it a huge thumbs down. I contend, however, that the author of the original work, Satou Tsutomu, has raised some interesting questions about ‘equality’.

Let me start with a brief overview of how the issue is introduced in the show. Basically, the magic high school that our protagonists attended is divided into two streams: one for those who excel, and one for students who don’t. The course content for the streams is the same. However, belonging to the second stream has several drawbacks. First, due to an insufficiency of qualified instructors nation-wide (a fact not actually revealed in the show), students receive no personal instruction. Second, and more insidiously, because the uniforms for the second stream do not have the school crest on them, students can see at a glance who belongs to which half of each class. As a result, separation and discrimination has become the norm at this school.

The controversy over Mahouka’s treatment of equality and inequality arose with the presentation of the students who felt that they were discriminated against. When given a platform to voice their complaints about the system and proposals for its rectification, the dissatisfied students in question only showed they hadn’t really thought about it. Instead, the floor was taken by the student council president, who said that she was going to try to eradicate one of the ‘real’, institutionalised points of inequality in their school: the fact that the student council president can only choose students in the first stream to join him or her in the council (the president is the only person who is elected). However, she could only do it through a vote by the entire student body at the next presidential election. But as disgruntled viewers pointed out, one other real and easily rectified point of discrimination is the fact that the uniform of second stream students is bereft of the school crest. Although Mayumi was arguably correct in pointing out that the separation and discrimination works in both directions — with a significant number of first stream students looking down on their less able peers, and some from the second stream losing themselves to anger and envy — this incredibly visible distinction makes it far too easy for the resulting discrimination to be perpetuated. The fact that the second stream students were reduced to lame ducks who could not even raise this suggestion irritated many viewers, and they never let everyone else forget about it.

However, I contend that focusing on the issue of discrimination obscures the far more salient questions that Mahouka raises about equality and inequality. And this is important because the latter arguably comprise some of the more significant causes of the former. This point is raised, albeit somewhat unsuccessfully, in episode 4 of the TV series, when Tatsuya asks Miyuki to consider just what kind of ‘inequality’ is the focus of the group behind the disgruntled students. The answer in the case of this story is that the within-country critics, non-magicians dissatisfied with the current system, are focused on an inequality of outcomes: only magicians are able to aspire to certain, really prestigious and high-paying jobs. However, though the anime failed in making this clear, these jobs also have their consequences, for they are often dangerous: in the world of Mahouka, magicians are often employed in positions related to national and personal security. Furthermore, they also have many restrictions placed on them: there are jobs that they cannot aspire to (such as becoming a politician, lest magicians try to take over the country), nor can they travel overseas freely. And finally, because of these two structures, there are actually many magicians who, unable to obtain the most prestigious magic-related jobs, end up much worse of than their non-magician counterparts who can aspire to a wider range of occupations. In other words, the inequality in the system actually works both ways, depending on how one perceives the institutions that govern one’s own society, and what one does about it. Unfortunately, the heavy focus on the discrimination that often results from such imperfect institutions often masks this salient underlying question: just what do we mean by equality and inequality?

The reason I prefer to focus on the question of equality/inequality instead of the issue of ‘what to do about discrimination’ is because of the relevance it has for our own world. When we speak about the ideal of a more equal society, are we talking about equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome? Which of these should we be striving to achieve? Or should we be striving to achieve both? If that is even possible, that is. The thing is, if we strive for what we think is equality of opportunity, then what we often try to ensure is that the same public resources are available to everyone. However, in many societies, private resources are often used to help people get a leg-up in society. For example, children of wealthy families can afford the extra classes that may help them score better on their schools exams, or the training that allows them to excel at a particular sport, and thus get into the better universities on the scholarships that are meant to be accessible for anyone as long as they work hard. Furthermore, wealthy parents are often more well-educated than their poorer counterparts, and the environment they provide at home is typically more conducive to raising children capable of making use of the opportunities available to them. Generally speaking, it is more difficult for children from less well-off families to grasp those same opportunities.

However, what would our society look like if we tried to address the inequality that private resources would introduce into such a system? The logical answer is to aim for equality of outcome instead, by giving more public resources to those with fewer private ones. In doing so, hopefully, children from both wealthy and less well-off families will be able to develop roughly the same abilities, in which case, all that sets individuals apart will be some degree of specialisation made possible by their genes and their efforts to make use of it. In a sense, this system involves taking money from the rich in order to give it to the poor, in the belief that the final outcome will is more equality across society.

Capitalism vs. Socialism…

Do these descriptions look familiar? I hope so, for one can describe the ideal of the capitalists as one of equality of opportunity, whilst it is the socialists and communists who strive for equality of outcome. I’m not trying to argue for one or other extreme, for I personally think that neither is perfect. As the last two paragraphs have indicated, there are pros and cons to each. I also recognise that I have conveniently avoided the last and arguably most controversial link that Satou introduced to the issue, which was the alleged exploitation of the discontent within Japan by a foreign entity seeking to reduce Japan’s national power. That issue is a whole other can of worms, and I can confidently say that such conspiracy theories do exist. They may even have elements of truth in them, though I am reluctant to say that they are entirely true. But that’s something that needs its own in-depth treatise. The point I want to make here, is this:

Have you truly thought about what you mean by ‘equality’?

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

One Response to Looking back on 2014, part 5: the question of ‘equality’

  1. will says:

    much more thoughtful than the show. The anime did not express the situation clearly and left a bad taste in my mouth so I felt the need to see what other people thought of this show.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: