If I make the statement that “Inequality” is one of the most pervasive issues of our time, then most of you will probably agree.
It seems like everyone is always talking about inequality politics, especially when it comes to race, gender and income.
Now, if you’re like me, then talking about politics is really boring and superfluous unless you make sense of it with movies and philosophy, two of the greatest things in the world.
Fortunately for us, The Incredibles is a movie that exists, and it even provides us with some basic philosophy that sheds some insight into how we should honestly make sense of inequality in the real world.
As you hopefully recall, The Incredibles is the story of a super-powered family in a world where superheroes used to be commonplace.
Years after superpowers are effectively banned, the remaining “supers” are forced to live in secrecy, and they must go to extreme lengths in order to conceal their powers.
A central theme of the movie is that you should celebrate what makes you special. Mr. and Mrs. Incredible come to odds at this.
Mr. Incredible tells Dash that his powers are a good thing, and being different is something to be cherished, not diminished.
This is a common thread of objectivism, Ayn Rand’s celebrated philosophy of individualism and uninhibited industry. This is the stark contrast to utilitarianism, which is the belief that negative consequences should be avoided.
According to utilitarianism, Dash shouldn’t play any sports because it would be “unfair” to the other children. Disenfranchising the other children would elicit a negative consequence from Dash’s happiness, making it undesired by utilitarians.
This philosophy is regarded by a lot of us as the “Everyone gets a trophy” mentality. Yeah, I hate that mentality too.
This conversation can be difficult to navigate because we can spend a lot of time comparing the positive and negative effects of each philosophy.
You can point out many ways in which objectivism is fantastic and helpful, while you can also point out how it may have harmful outcomes. And the same goes with utilitarianism.
So let’s scale the conversation back. We can’t really determine which is “better” without taking an uninformed stance, but we can see how The Incredibles makes sense of this problem.
In the end, Dash is allowed to play sports. In fact, the “evil plan” by the movie’s villain, Syndrome, is to make everyone in the world have superpowers.
He even says, “If everyone is super, no one is.”
Because this is a children movie, there’s little complexity to who is bad and who is good. The good philosophy here is that inequality is not a bad thing. But making everyone equal will make everyone worse.
So, how does this apply to real life?
People like to talk a lot about income inequality. Paul Krugman, an economist I typically disagree with, claims that inequality is the “defining challenge of our time,” citing how the wealthy disenfranchises the poor.
There’s definitely some truth to this. As we see in The Incredibles, some supers use their powers to oppress others. Some people are villains.
But a problem with this outlook that I can’t shake is that we point to inequality as the problem, not the weapon used by villains.
Making assumptions about people in different classifications is us saying that if everyone is equal, things will be better. We’ll be happier because there are less bad things.
We know that this issue has been very pervasive during our upbringings, especially if you are my age. It seems like we’ve been having this debate for years, and the premise always seems to be that inequality is the root of the problem.
Racism and sexism come to mind. Fairness and equality are staples that our President frequently (actually constantly) cites as being the motivation behind many of our nation’s policies.
In fact, our founders even said that we are all created equally, giving us free access to basic rights. This means that being different does not mean laws apply to you differently.
I have to be honest though. Fairness is overrated.
When I was growing up, I was often told that life isn’t fair. Interestingly, the same people who like to say this will also find it grotesque when something unfair happens to them.
In my own opinion, dwelling on fairness is extremely harmful. People will do terrible things to us, but we should focus more on the consequences and actionable solutions, not the philosophy behind it.
You know what type of fairness isn’t overrated, then? Fairness that comes from compassion. The outward actions we take to elevate others who may or may not deserve it.
This is the fairness that spurs superheroic actions from the people who are super and want to help the ones who aren’t.
In other words, it’s more effective to raise people up than lower others down. Instead of hating inequality and bringing down the “haves,” we can bring the “have nots” up.
Will this make everyone super? No. Inequality will always exist because not everyone wants to be super or is willing to do what it takes. But what we can do is make the path to greatness a reality for many people without bringing others down.
Just remember that the path looks different for a lot of people. Making the path equal for everyone is also a weird pipe dream that won’t always be a reality.
This is where I disagree with the President and other individuals who claim that in order to make sure everyone has a “fair shot” and gets their “fair share,” we have to bring certain individuals or groups down.
This is a slippery slope that invites a backlash you’re probably all familiar with. When we start believing that everyone should be super, we end up believing that no one should be. It’s the only logical conclusion to this approach to inequality.
You see, The Incredibles taught me to celebrate what’s different about people. We all have different “powers” and the playing field isn’t always fair.
But I believe that we become super when we rise above an unfair playing field. It’s that much more impressive when we overcome our circumstances, whatever they may be, to enrich our lives and achieve something unimaginable. And that may even inspire a few other people to do the same.
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8 thoughts on “What ‘The Incredibles’ Teaches Us About Inequality”
Very good article. I wish more people would think like this. I completely understand trying to provide equal opportunities to people, but, like you said, not everyone can or is willing to do what it takes to follow those paths. Bringing down those who can to a level of those who can’t/won’t doesn’t help anybody.
I would think that “unfairness” should inspire people to do better. If I didn’t “get a trophy” while someone else did, that just means I’ll have to work harder if I really want it. That’s not going to hurt me. If everyone got a trophy, then there would be no more motivation to do anything better.
I think the bigger problem with our society is that people WON’T do. My grandmother runs her own tax business and raises three of her grandkids by herself… no help. She doesn’t receive as much (or maybe not any) government assistance because she makes “too much” money by running her own business. However, there are people out there who can work, but don’t, who receive way more than she does. It’s makes me mad thinking about that. >:(
After a first read of your article, I think I completely agree with it. If I read it more I might see something that I didn’t see before, but oh well.
Another thing that I like from the alternate opening was that Helen defended being a stay-at-home mom vs. being career woman. I think that is also another problem with our society, that women don’t stay at home to raise their children, but I guess that’s the subject for a different article 😉
I guess I’m done with my 2 cents, but one more thing. I think
“We’ll be happier because there are less bad things”
“We’ll be happier because there are fewer bad things.”
Thanks for the article.
Thanks for the great feedback! I’m glad we agree on most counts, and I noted your grammar correction (good catch!) Since I’m a man, I doubt I could speak much on the housewife mentality in a very helpful way, though you’re right that the movie touches on that theme plenty as well, especially with how Elastigirl develops over the movie. She’s one of the few characters keeping everything together and exhibiting honest contentment during the beginning, at least from what we can see.
Great blog Jon! I agreed with you at many parts and always think about inequality when I watch different movies but espacially The Incredibles.
Did anyone send this link to their congressmen? The president? It’s just common sense, but it’s not so common any longer!
Anyone read the book “The Giver” it talks about utilitarianism. How everyone is the same but in the end a small boy is intrigued by the The Giver who was around during our current time and needs someone to select to carry on after he dies. Short book, I first read it in 7th grade. Im 30 now and always remember about how I was too little and too small to do things. Now as a man I fear my kids would fall into that same realm and therefore my wife says I have little man syndrome. Maybe I do but at least I can show my kids that having an opportunity to show what they can do to everyone is better than just settling to be the norm. But then that’s easier said than done. I still have a fear of not being accepted deep down.
I get that you are trying to keep things simple, but this is an utterly misleading depiction of utilitarianism. Bentham and Mill were very anti-egalitarian, and utilitarianism plays a very important role in capitalist economic theory. “Greatest pleasure for the greatest number” doesn’t equate to everyone getting equal treatment or an even playing field.