Negative Equality is No Virtue

After UW-Whitewater’s chancellor, Beverly Kopper, resigned in December, faculty member JoEllen Burkholder objected that Kopper’s resignation would amount to a double standard:

Some faculty members, such as women’s and gender studies professor JoEllen Burkholder, questioned the timing of Kopper’s resignation coming before the report’s release. Burkholder said she sees Kopper’s one-sentence resignation letter submitted to the UW System Board of Regents as an indication that she was likely pressured to resign, saying a “double standard” would exist if she was forced out based solely on someone else’s misbehavior.

There was an ample basis to dismiss Kopper – or ask her to resign – based on her own behavior: she concealed from the campus two separate investigations into her publicly-appointed spouse’s conduct. (The information only became public following a public-records request and a pending newspaper story. A third investigation has now been completed but not yet released.)

Burkholder’s double-standard argument, however, implies – indeed rests upon – the claim that if a male chancellor would not have been asked to resign, then Kopper should not have been asked to resign.

This argument rests on a claim of negative equality: that if one does not address misconduct in one instance, it should not be addressed in other instances (keeping negative experiences equal between genders, races, ages, etc.).

The opposite is how one typically – and rightly – thinks about equality: the extension of positive conditions to more people (of all genders, races, and ages).

One was reminded of Burkholder’s argument after reading Elizabeth Bruenig’s article addressing questions about Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s temperament:

There’s a reflexive kind of defensiveness that comes from the realization that women are judged more harshly than men for the same behavior. It tells us that fairness matters — and it does. But there are positive and negative forms of fairness. Negative fairness is a kind of fairness that reduces everyone to an equally bad position. Arguments that we ought to discount coverage of Klobuchar’s maltreatment of her staffers on gender-egalitarian grounds, for instance, really hold that because we wrongly accept male abuse of workers, we also ought to accept female abuse of workers. But the reality is actually the reverse: We rightly don’t accept female abuse of workers, and we shouldn’t accept male abuse of workers, either. This line of criticism is both gender-egalitarian and aimed at increasing the overall common good by creating a moral expectation that all workers be treated with dignity. That’s positive fairness.

(I’ve no idea about Sen. Klobuchar’s temperament; it’s Bruenig’s remarks on negative equality or negative fairness that caught my attention.)

The justification for Kopper’s departure isn’t impaired by unfairly retaining other failed leaders. On the contrary, other leaders’ lingering presence only stands in greater contrast (and that contrast demands action for their removal).

A better campus, a better city, and a better society will not come through an equal acceptance of misconduct, but instead through an equal redress of misconduct wherever one finds it.

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

As far as I can tell you and Elizabeth Bruenig have nothing in common except one key view: a shared concern about assault.
In all the time you have been writing about this topic you have always advocated a position of maximum concern for the rights of assault survivors. Never wavered to be honest. It makes sense that you and Bruenig would take the same view on a double standard objection. That objection would hold back action in one situation because of inaction elsewhere – and it is obvious that would be objectionable to both of you.
You may have come to this position from very different political, social, and gender backgrounds, but you’ve arrived at the same destination.
In this case I think it shows the strong appeal of your view.