Thursday, 25 November 2010

Tricky Differentials

The word discrimination gets bandied about a lot these days. It probably gets a rather harsh press though. It has had a couple of meanings for well over a hundred years, but one has become far more prevalent of late. In particular, its meaning has become subverted in the last decade or two of political correctness. It is still correct to say "it is hard to discriminate between these two options" meaning just that it is hard to choose between them. That is, in essence, the meaning of the word: to choose or to differentiate. However; that is no longer common parlance, more is the pity.

With a casual glance at a newspaper, one would be forgiven for thinking that discrimination is a crime. That is, choosing one thing over another. Here we come onto the other meaning of discrimination - to choose between two options not based on merit but on the basis of the class or group to which they belong. As much as I would love to launch into the etymology, I highlight the change because I think it indicative of an error brought about by political correctness.

The crux of the matter is that I do not believe discriminating on the basis of class or grouping is necessarily wrong. Before you clap me in irons and declare me a bigot, I shall explain. The law has gone too far in discrimination in that it is a blanket law, not allowing dicrimination, or choosing at all. The law is there, and rightly so, to stop discrimination when it is motivated by a dislike of a particular class or group. It makes no allowance for when that discrimination, or choosing, makes perfect sense and the thrust behind it is sensible and not of malevolent origin.

A couple of examples will perhaps help to clarify the point:

1. An asian man applies for a job as an accountant. He passes all the tests and interviews better than the other candidate. The employer, who hates asian people, gives the job to the second candidate - a lesser qualified white man.

Clearly he has made a choice, he has discriminated and decided why he should choose the second candidate. His motives for employment are broadly: clever, good with numbers, not asian. No issue with the first two, but the motives behind the third make this illegal discrimination - it is unfair because of the motive behind the choice. Some would argue it is unfair because it is not fault of the asian man that he is asian. True, but to use that as the test leads us down a tricky road. See the next example:

2. An asian man applies for a job as an actor. He auditions fantastically well and is the better of the two candidates. The employer, who likes all races of people equally, gives the job to the second candidate - a black man who is a poorer actor.

Again, the employer has made a choice, he has discriminated and decided why he should choose the second appllicant. His motives are: easy to work with, good actor, black. No issue with the first two, but what about the third? Why does he have to be black? Ah, he's casting Martin Luther King. So, it's not the asian fellow's fault he's asian, so by the same logic as some, it is unfair to discriminate against him here. Is it? I think not - if you go with the motivation-based test, the employer's reasoning behind choosing (or discriminating) on the basis of class or group (in this case ethnicity), is not pernicious. It is sensible, as sensible as also wanting the actor to be good or easy to work with.

So, where does that leave us? Is discrimination ok if it is motivated correctly? I think so, but it is certainly a lot harder to legislate for that, but should that be an excuse for lazy legislation?

Other examples:

1. A bar manager runs a bar generally populated by young men. Is it right for him to want a young, pretty girl serving behind the bar to attract more punters? If the law says no and he loses revenue with reduced footfall, is that fair?

2. A foreman runs a working site. Is it right for him to want strong large men, not frail old ladies?

The point is, discrimination makes sense when it is stripped back to simply meaning choosing. The act of choosing always requires thought, subconscious or otherwise - it is one of the things that defines us as sentient beings. It is what motivates those choices that is important. Racism, sexism, bigotry, you name it - all wrong, because they represent sinister reasons behind choices - but don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

This rather leads me onto a general rant about genetics and indeed positive discrimination, but I think I shall leave that for tomorrow...

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