Why Don’t People Know What Discrimination Is?

Definition-of-DiscriminationI’ve been a part of a long-running discussion on discrimination this week and I’m surprised how many people either don’t understand what the term means, or are all too willing to simply make exceptions for their favored groups.

I’ll go ahead and spell this out as easily as I can.  If you take race, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation, indeed anything about the individual’s look, background or preferences, into account in hiring, firing, promotion, membership, grading, scholarships, etc., then you are being discriminatory.  It doesn’t matter how you rationalize it, it’s still true.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s illegal to do, or even necessarily wrong to do, it’s still discrimination.  I doubt many people would disagree with the policy that only allows girls to join the Girl Scouts.  It’s still discriminatory.  The same with the Boy Scouts, although they’re traditionally more discriminatory on a lot more factors.  I have no problem with the Boy Scouts being restricted to boys and the Girl Scouts being restricted to girls, or the YMCA being restricted to men and the YWCA restricted to women, so long as these are private organizations that do not receive government money or preferential treatment.

The problem is, a lot of people seem to think that the only people who can discriminate are white males and everyone else can do whatever they want, but you can never call them racists or sexists or whatever.  The idea that “these people were victimized in the past so now, they get to victimize other people” is idiotic.  If discrimination was wrong when group A did it, it’s still wrong when group B does it, whether they were the victims of group A’s discrimination or not.  You cannot solve a wrong by committing another wrong and it doesn’t matter what that wrong is.  Affirmative action programs are wrong.  They artificially require that people from a once-discriminated-against class get extra rights and privileges so that they can achieve equity.  It sets up quotas and confuses the equality of opportunity with the equality of outcome.  Here’s a newsflash for people, 100% equal outcome is a logical impossibility unless you’re going to have someone standing there with a clipboard rejecting people for not fitting the necessary mix of social factors.  Black?  Check!  Female?  Check!  Not handicapped… ahem… handicapable?  Bzzzt, go somewhere else, you don’t fit the profile.  Next!

While it should be really obvious that this kind of thing doesn’t work, there are a lot of people who cling to the absurd idea that it’s the only thing they ought to support.  They don’t allow for people to self-select what they want to do.  More men than women are drawn to work in some of the hard sciences.  This is a fact.  It may be genetic, it may be cultural, but it is undeniably true.  Why would we want to force women into a field of study that they have no interest in studying, just to make the numbers artificially equal?  By the same token, more women then men take to hobbies like needlework and scrapbooking.  Do we have to round up men and force them to engage in these hobbies so everything is equal?

Where does it end?  Do we task the TSA, while they’re groping your genitals, with making sure that every flight has the correct mix of race, religion, gender and preference?  “We have room for 2 more people on this flight, they must be gay, half-black, half-eskimo, left-handed and one has to limp.  We’re not leaving until we find those people!”

Is this really the kind of world we want to live in?  Just when are people going to recognize the absurdity of discrimination on any scale?  We can do better and we should.

4 thoughts on “Why Don’t People Know What Discrimination Is?

  1. What's presented here is a simplistic caricature of Affirmative Action. It's not primarily about making sure that an institution is a representative microcosm of society, but more about providing a counter-balance to societal discrimination. So knowing (for example) that there are more young black men in prison than in college, and that children of college graduates are more likely to go to college themselves (and children of prisoners to prison), some colleges have decided that the greater hurdles faced by young black men trying to go to college have to be taken into account. Is there a perfectly fair way to do this? Probably not. But it doesn't mean colleges (or other institution) should stick to a grades-only system that inevitably favours certain sections of society.
    Similarly, with women in the sciences (and other subjects), it's not about making sure that everything is 50/50 all the time. The ideal is to simply not pay any attention to gender. But who can do that?! Girls are turned off certain subjects at every level, from elementary school and up. At each stage, casual or insitutionalised sexism means some girls and women give up. At higher levels, women are a clear minority. So, if selecting, say an advisory panel made up of ten senior scientists, should gender be taken into account? You can ignore it and hope that women are at least treated fairly in the selection process. You can deliberately and scrupulously avoid taking gender into account, and if you're successful, will end up with a panel representative of the gender imbalance at high levels in science. Or you can decide that a certain minimum number of panelists need to be women, and take advantage of the obvious fact that as those women have had to fight damn hard to get where they are, they're probably better than average.
    We don't live in an equal society and pretending that we do is irrational. Countering inequality sometimes means more than simply telling people not to be sexist or racist.

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