by Apr 18, 2015Culture, Linguistics1 comment

I saw this sidebar at The Atlantic not too long ago. Notice the first item:

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 4.05.51 PM

The article itself doesn’t use the word “discriminate,” and I have no idea who wrote the headline. But I do think it’s interesting that the article itself discriminates against many groups that, as best I can tell, are not represented despite their right to ressentiment. If I were the editor at The Atlantic, I’d do a series:

  • How DMVs Discriminate Against Blind Drivers
  • How the Olympics Discriminates Against Fourth-Tier Athletes
  • How Beautiful Young Women Discriminate Against Ugly Elderly Suitors

Now to be serious, I do feel real compassion for people with long-standing medical conditions who need insurance coverage to afford treatment. I don’t feel qualified to speak to the issue of whether or not a government of a wealthy nation might want to find ways of ensuring that many or most of these folks get care. That’s not my point.

My point is this: “discrimination,” as a concept, doesn’t mean anything until you place it within a situation, a context. Who is discriminating, and between or among which options? And when it comes to the kinds of “discrimination” that most often make the news, that context may be as big as your worldview. A worldview gives you the framework which allows and requires you to make discriminations; it provides the big picture on the front of the box which helps you realize where the little puzzle pieces are supposed to go.

Now I recognize that discrimination, as a lexeme, has picked up an additional sense—”the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.” Linguistically, that’s just fine. Words can pick up new senses. And I’m not arguing that we go back to the old sense in all cases. I’m arguing that we examine the list of “grounds” commonly assumed to go with the new sense.

I agree fully that, with respect to employment, losing a job because of your race is discrimination—except, of course, for those very rare jobs like Abraham Lincoln impersonator and Booker T. Washington impersonator in which race (I prefer “ethnicity”) is a relevant factor. I also agree that, with respect to employment, losing a job because of your age or sex could very well be illegitimate—unjust, prejudicial.

But we can’t avoid the tricky conversation of exactly which jobs are rightfully limited to a person who fits in a certain ethnicity, age-bracket, or sex by some appeal to general principle. It may be generally true that losing a job offer because you’re black, or 75, or a female is “unjust or prejudicial treatment.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Grandma Betty’s failure to make it into the NFL is discrimination. We have to ask: discrimination on what grounds, in what circumstance, for what purpose?

Where’s Stanley Fish when you need him? He wrote a whole book about The Trouble with Principle. There are no neutral, empty, merely procedural principles, he’d say. Trotting out the word discrimination is a way to avoid necessarily substantive discussions about the way things ought to be. It’s a lazy, hectoring way of winning an argument. And the lazy hectorers do appear to be winning at the moment.

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1 Comment
  1. Elijah Wilcott

    During the 2008 Olympics, Westerners who flew into the country on Chinese airlines were outraged that the stewardesses were all beautiful. The airlines were bewildered. They had worked hard to “put their best foot forward” for their foreign visitors, and the honored guests were inexplicably offended.

    Culture plays a big factor in deciding legitimate and illegitimate grounds for discrimination.


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