Equality of Opportunity means the Freedom to Fail

On Twitter the World Bank has been tweeting about women and equality, with the hashtag #thinkEQUAL.  There have been many responses; I suggest reading some of them.  It is interesting to see what other people think equality means and how to go about achieving it.  I have responded a time or two, but Twitter has this annoying habit of limiting me to 140 characters - not even words.  So, I am going go take this opportunity to expand on this topic and write a little post about it.

Equality for everyone means having the same opportunities, regardless of any factors.  It gives the individual the ability to choose what to do next, and lets everyone pursue their own dreams without being fenced in at all.  Equality of opportunity - this is how I define an equal existence.  A lot of people see equal opportunities as meaning everyone has the same right to succeed.  True, they do have that same levelling point.  But what I feel is all too often ignored in discussions about equality, opportunity, and chances to succeed is the very important opportunity to fail.

Having the resources and opportunities necessary to succeed is certainly something I have had my entire life, growing up in a developed Western nation a part of a white collar middle class family.  My entire life I have been aware of how lucky I am to have these chances, that I can not only go on to study higher education but I can also decide how I want to use my life.  Not everyone can, and I know that.  It pains me to think of the people who cannot choose their own paths, and while they seem to be mostly women (I would assume the statistics are still just rough guesses based on crude amounts of evidence) I do not categorize this as a woman's issue alone.

The first reason for this is simple - if we, as a species, are ever going to overcome gender or sex based discrimination, then we must learn to see past these lines.  While we talk about equality for women, are we not forcing them into a state of inequality by categorizing them?  Men, too, by pitching them against women in this sort of battle.  I am in no way saying men and women are treated equally everywhere - anywhere, even - but instead am trying to point out the biggest flaw in this campaign.  So long as lines are used to divide people, no matter how or why, or even what the intentions, the groups will exist as separate from each other by the very nature of the whole thing.

Promoting equality is good, but what are you really promoting?  Is it what you want to promote?

Now, for the second part of this post on equality, and back to the idea of equality of opportunity to succeed.  Success is marvellous and certainly should be the goal, but as we all know, life does not always go that way.  Even with opportunities and resources, sometime success just does not happen.  Then what?  Most people would say to try again, to learn from the experience and apply it to the future.  Sounds good, certainly advisable - but what if you cannot?

Equality is more than just having the same opportunities to succeed - it also means having the freedom to fail.  Not long ago the UN posted an article about a Somali refugee who was fleeing the famine.  Like most, her story was one of incredible survival; it nearly brought forth tears.  But what really got to me was not how inspiring the tale was; the part that has continued to haunt  me since I read it is her response to her ordeal.  She kept going because she had no alternative; she survived because she had to.

This refugee, a brave and inspiring Somali woman, did not have the same opportunities as I did at that same time.  While I was trying to finish my dissertation so I would not fail it, she saw only one option in her life - survive.  Me, I had many opportunities at that exact same time, including the chance to succeed.  More importantly, I had the opportunity to fail.  I could do wrong, mess everything up, and I would still be aliveand relatively okay.  But her?  She could not fail; it simply was not an option.  And that hit me the hardest out of everything - having the opportunity to succeed is wonderful, it lets you overcome difficulties and challenges that stand in your way.  The opportunity to fail, however, is what makes the attempt possible.  Surviving failure is what gives that leap of faith a chance.  Without it, risks come with costs far too high - mostly, life.

When you think about equality and what it means to you, please remember these points too.  Dividing lines cannot exist alongside equality, and it is the opportunity to fail that truly defines the freedom to succeed, which is the aim of equality.

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