Defending discrimination

“Give therefore your servant an understanding heart to judge your people, that I may discriminate between good and bad: for who is able to judge so great a people as yours?”

1 Kings 3:9

 

The word “discrimination” is kind of like a briefcase. It carries a meaning inside, as all words do. But it’s one of those words that we carry around with us often enough and rarely both to open. Instead, whenever the word might come up, we’re more likely to beat people over the head with it, never once considering that we could open unlatch the briefcase and think about what we’re actually talking about.

If you have ever been online before (as I will assume you have if you’re reading this), I’m rather confident that you have seen this actually happen. People accuse other people of discrimination, other people defends themselves from the charges, and within moments someone has a bruise on his skull that looks an awful lot like the corner of a briefcase. To whomever the charge of discrimination sticks comes defeat and shame.

But this way of things is itself quite a shame. For, if we unpack the suitcase, we’ll find ourselves reminded that discrimination is not all bad. Discrimination can be and usually is good. It is only our modern politics which has kept us from recalling this rather obvious fact.

Perhaps you don’t get what I mean. To explain, I’ll point out that the dominant usage of the word discrimination today is quite different than it has been in the past. The top two definitions which appear on Google are as follows:

  1. The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex
  2. Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another

The first definition is obviously what most people mean today, but the second used to be far more common. And in today’s mad blindness to plain realities, the second is often mistaken for the first. If you don’t recognize the real differences between two things, you’re likely to consider any way that you treat them differently as unjust or prejudicial. This is what we love to do today.

The difference between these two definitions of discrimination—between good and bad discrimination—is determined by what you are doing and whether the different treatments you give are reasonable for that purpose. Let’s take an example. If you are trying to draw a realistic castle, you would probably discriminate against your bright purple colored pencils in favor of grey ones. This would make sense and be very right, because the color of the pencil is very important to what you’re trying to do. On the other hand, it would make no sense to discriminate against a pencil simply because it had been touched by the truck driver who delivered it to the Walmart you bought it from is a Trump supporter. Even if you dislike Trump supporters, the fact has nothing to do at all with your project to draw a castle.

This extends every bit as well to people. If you are in charge of hiring an engineer for a nuclear plant, you will discriminate against a 17-year-old kid who dropped out of high school and knows basically nothing but how to play World of Warcraft. You will instead prefer someone who has training and knowledge that will help him be a nuclear engineer. This is discrimination, but it is good discrimination. The reason for picking one kind of person over the other is a based very directly and reasonably on what you’re trying to accomplish. On the other hand, if you were to favor a white Alabamian over a Rwandan man, despite equal credentials in nuclear engineering, you are probably discriminating badly, which means injustice. Or, speaking of race, it is perfectly legitimate to discriminate against white women in favor of black ones if you are casting the lead for a movie about Rosa Parks.

The problem for us is that, in an era absolutely obsessed with equality, we can lose sight of real differences between people and things. So people can be accused of unfair and unjust discrimination even when their reasons for discriminating are very right. A major example of this is marriage. Up until recently, society discriminated against gay couples in favor of straight couples. Then, in the blindness of modern society, we forgot the real reasons for this discrimination, and people started to believe that it is wrong. Soon enough, we stopped discriminating and gave gay and straight couples equal access to the institution of marriage.

This was a big mistake. Like I said before, whether a certain kind of discrimination is right or wrong depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. So what is marriage for? Why did humanity originally choose only straight couples for marriage? The answer would have been easy to most of the world for most of history: babies. The most important kind of sex, when it comes to broader society, is the heterosexual, because it is the kind that actually creates new human beings, which is what society is made of in the first place. Society in general, and its institutional form called the “government,” has little reason to care about what goes on in the bedroom between gay people, because it won’t make new human life. But if straight couples can create people, then it’s hugely important. That’s the biggest reason why marriage had to be made an official, recognized part of society and government. Marriage discrimination against gay couples was never arbitrary or unjustified, because the key point of marriage as a formal part of society was that it was meant to protect the place where humans come from. Babies and their parents need special privileges and protections, thus we have heterosexual marriage. To extend it to gay couples is an example of a failure to discriminate when it is needed, kind of like putting a white Neo-Nazi in charge of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration out of “fairness.” It’s not right. It’s forgetting that discrimination is sometimes good and necessary.

So I propose that we end the pointless stigmatizing of discrimination in general. Let that first definition become second, and make the second one first. Discrimination is an essential part of human life. The only question is whether we will discriminate with wisdom and justice or foolishness and injustice. If we forget all of this, we are sure to do the latter.

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