You want to hear a confession? Today I committed blatant discrimination. I did it knowingly and on purpose. And it wasn’t the first time. In fact I practice discrimination regularly and without remorse.
But I’m not the only one. I know for a fact that other people do it, too – ALL other people, yourself included. How could I make such a charge? I’m not trying to offend people unnecessarily. The title of this blog is not a typo. Everyone discriminates, necessarily and rightly so.
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Like most words, “discriminate” has a long history. Its usage predates our contemporary social and political context in which it is almost always meant as a damning accusation of bigoted mistreatment of a person or group. My initial confession was not as bold or scandalous as the impression it probably gave, since I was not admitting to the kind of wrongful discrimination I just described.
How Do We Discriminate? Let us Count the Ways
Life would be extremely difficult for the person who is unskilled at the practice of discrimination. Look up the word and you will find that its Latin root refers to discerning or making distinctions. These “dis-” words are more or less synonymous. When you discriminate between things, you distinguish them, you discern between them. The verb is versatile enough to be ‘transitive’ (taking a direct object, as in “It was hard to discriminate Lucy from her twin Lacy.”), or ‘intransitive’ (needing no direct object, as in, “When it comes to hiring new employees, we do not discriminate”).
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But enough of the grammar lesson. What I want to impress upon you is that “to discriminate” is not always wrong. In fact, given the plain meaning of the word, apart from the connotations reinforced in popular media today, discrimination is a requirement for all sane people. We cannot help but do it all of the time. Here are some reasons we do it …
Matters of Taste or Preference
One kind of discrimination is simply our personal preferences. The basis of this kind of discrimination is totally subjective. No argument can be made, nor need be made, to justify these regular decisions whereby we favor one thing over another. Why did I put the Willie Nelson track on my playlist today and exclude the Neil Diamond tune? I have no sophisticated argument for this decision. I just felt like it. I was going to be “on the road again” and did not want to “turn on my heartlight” today. What can I say?
Why did I discriminate against Taco Bell and in favor of Burger King when lunch time rolled around? I don’t know—I was just in the mood for a burger in this instance. On what grounds did I opt to watch the game and not watch American Idol? I just wanted to watch the game. Get the picture? It’s as simple as that. It’s discrimination based on preference.
Logical or Practical Reasons
Another reason we discriminate is because it makes more sense to favor one thing over another. As we all learned in school, some subjects demand “right” answers. Regardless of how postmodern you fancy yourself to be, basic mathematics remains the same. The ‘times tables’ your kindergartner learns today – you know, the one that starts at the top with 1×1=1 and then covers the entire page as it goes through all of the numbers? That table will look just like it looked when kids did it five generations ago. Every math problem is asking you to choose or give preference to one number among trillions.
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The demands of logic are, like math, inescapable. Some conclusions, decisions and actions I choose because of the dictates of reason. If you ask me, “Why did you choose this little pill from your medicine cabinet over that one?”, my answer will not be the same as those in the category of the subjective. I will not say, “I was just in the mood for this pill today.” I will answer that I favor the one medication over the other and make careful discrimination between them because one boosts my health and the other possibly jeopardizes it; one can heal me in some way and the other can harm me in some way.
A reasonable person will thus practice responsible discrimination on a daily basis. She will decide among numerous options regarding what to do with her time. As a consumer she will discern between products and prices. As a parent she will choose carefully when it comes to her kids’ meals, medicines, entertainments, etc.
Discrimination on the Grounds of Belief
Everyone has some deeply held beliefs. The ones that run deepest are usually religious and moral beliefs, and here we are stepping into a more contentious realm. The beliefs that we hold in these areas are to the exclusion of others. We think certain propositions are true, and other propositions false. We discriminate between them.
It would be inaccurate to call religious and moral beliefs merely subjective, but also wrong to say that they are simply logical and/or practical. It is far more complex and involves more factors—factors including experience, plausibility, larger worldview framework, authoritative voices, etc.
Whatever the combination of factors, we decide to believe certain things and—more to our point—to disbelieve others. If beliefs about God, man, life, death, sin, creation, evil and the afterlife were job candidates, then for each one we would accept a view and we would reject countless others.
Question: Is there anything wrong with the kinds of discrimination that I have described so far? I suspect nearly everyone sees the obvious inescapability of the practice of discrimination in the ways I have thus far described, and finds no legitimate reason for controversy in them. Now it’s time to discriminate between these legitimate forms of discrimination and wrongful discrimination.
When is Discrimination Wrong?
When it comes to people, the basis for our giving preference to one individual or group over another becomes a major issue. The distribution of goods and the application of justice will certainly involve discrimination, but it must be of a legitimate sort. If discrimination in these areas is of the illegitimate sort, we have an unfair system.
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Discrimination that is illegitimate is based on factors that are irrelevant to the context of the situation. If a company is hiring a network manager for its I.T. department, then education, experience and knowledge of the subject are relevant bases for discrimination among candidates, whereas hair color, brand of shoes, regional accent or body mass index are not relevant and thus wrongful bases for discrimination among candidates.
The justice system must discriminate carefully when it comes to punishing citizens with fines, jail time, etc. The only basis for deciding who will be fined or jailed is genuine guilt under the law. Justice is supposed to be “blind” when it comes to all of the irrelevant factors like race, gender, income, education level, attractiveness, and so on.
Discriminating between Discriminations
To discern when discrimination is wrong, the context has to be consulted so that we know what factors are relevant. Imagine an aspiring young actor named Juan Pedro tries out for a part in a Doritos commercial. It is a non-speaking part for a young guy sitting at a sports bar eating chips. That could be any guy. When Juan Pedro doesn’t get the part, he may wonder if they passed him over because of his thick Cuban accent, even though there were no lines so it should not have been relevant. If in fact they did not hire him simply because of a dislike for Hispanics, clearly that would be wrongful discrimination.
Imagine again that Juan Pedro goes for an audition, but this time it is to try out for a part on “Downton Abbey.” Once again he is rejected. Unlike the commercial, this role demanded a lot of dialogue and his thick Cuban accent made a world of difference. Did the casting director discriminate? Of course. Was it wrong? No. The show is a period piece about an early 20th Century aristocratic British family and its household staff. Those are relevant factors. A guy sounding like Al Pacino in “Scarface” simply does not fit into that context. No scenario exists in which Juan Pedro could portray any of those characters.
It would work the opposite way as well, by the way. If Hank has a deep southern accent he may be right for a cowboy role but should not expect serious consideration for the lead in a biographical film about Fidel Castro. For that, Juan Pedro’s accent would be a huge advantage.
The point of these fictitious examples is that we have to be able to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate discrimination. Put another way, unless we can discriminate between those two, we have no business accusing anyone of any other kind of discrimination.
What if I can’t tell what kind of discrimination a person has practiced? What if someone voted against Obama in both elections and I just can’t know for sure whether the voter discriminated between candidates on the basis of their ideas vs. on the basis of ethnicity, the first being legitimate discrimination and the second being illegitimate? My answer is that if the voter explains why he or she voted for the other candidate, and the reasons are political / ideological, then decency and charity dictate that you should take the voter at his/her word. Unfortunately a rampant strain of idiocy in the current social and political climate will not allow for this kind of decency and charity, and wrongful discrimination is often assumed regardless.
Discrimination from a Christian Point of View
Everyone discriminates for numerous reasons. Even God practices discrimination, often on grounds that are inscrutable to us. Election, however you construe it, is a form of discrimination. Abram was chosen, but I can’t say exactly why. Joseph was favored by his earthly and heavenly fathers. Jacob was selected over Esau, Moses was spared from the infanticide, the runt David was picked as king over his seemingly more qualified brothers. And on it goes.
Christians are told explicitly to discriminate: choose life, choose wisdom over folly, choose this day whom you will serve. We can’t live without practicing discrimination, and we won’t thrive if we are foolish in the practice of it. So please discriminate. Do so wisely. And where people are concerned, practice the kind of discrimination that is based on legitimate factors, discrimination that is fair and righteous, rather than discrimination based on shallow and illegitimate factors, which is an unjust discrimination and therefore a sin. Christians, I remind you, are exhorted repeatedly to refrain from showing unjust favoritism or giving preferential treatment (Luke 14:7-14, Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6, Ephesians 6:9, I Timothy 5:21, James 2:1 and James 2:9).
And one more thing: can we stop throwing the word “discrimination” around like a weapon with which to socially intimidate or politically punish people with whom we disagree? For those who persist in this nonsense, I urge everyone to discriminate against them when it comes to which voices you heed and allow to influence you. Choose people who can reason and argue like mature adults over people who abuse the meanings of words and call people names.