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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Discrimination isn't Just Wrong, it's Stupid

Two weeks ago, I asked you to investigate the REAL justification for opposing discrimination.  For those of you who need a refresher, the dilemma proceeds thusly: When confronting topics like racism or sexism, many people will argue along the lines “Group A is just as capable as Group B, so it’s wrong to discriminate against them.”  This appears to be a good reason to reject discrimination, and is in fact a reasonable statement when the initial claim holds.  But when the initial claim falls apart – particularly when disabled people enter the picture – we find our argument falling apart.
Yet at the same time, most of the people who employ this argument when combatting racism or sexism will also insist that it is wrong to discriminate against disabled people.  Still more intriguing, these people are often extremely opposed to the idea that it would be okay to discriminate against, say, the Irish, even if it was determined that Irish people tend to have lower IQs, lower stamina, or weaker verbal skills.  If we take away the foundation of the argument, the assumption of equal capability, we find that many people are still against discrimination.  The question is, why?
This is the path my thoughts took me some years ago when I really started noticing that the way people talked about discrimination just couldn’t be applied to disabled people.  So I poked around a bit trying to figure out what kinds of discrimination people reject the most, and what kinds they are more okay with.  Here are three important observations I’ve made:
-When Group A is less capable than Group B only or primarily because of discrimination, people are against denying Group A an opportunity.  Furthermore, these people are also against the discrimination that is inhibiting Group A’s capabilities.
Example: Racial minorities in the US suffer from underfunded public schools because their families are typically poorer.  This causes many such minorities to average lower scores on academic assessments.  This is a major issue that anti-racists want our society to address.
-When Group A is on average less capable than Group B, but there are still members of Group A who are adequately competent, it is not okay to deny Group A an opportunity.
Example: Short people tend to be at a disadvantage when playing basketball, yet there are some short yet amazing NBA players.
Note: It sometimes considered okay if the opportunity given to Group A is segregated.  This is almost exclusively seen in sports, which provide both women’s and men’s leagues.  This has been ruled as 'not okay' when the segregation is based on race, though a large part of the rational for that was that 'colored' facilities were just plain shitty.
-When members of Group A are all literally incapable of a task, it is perfectly acceptable to not consider them for membership.
Example: Nobody complains about people assuming that a surrogate mother can’t be a man, nor does anyone complain about sperm banks not accepting donations from women.

The third point is key, because it taught me that there actually is a narrow circumstance where discrimination is permissible.  Is such permission justified?  I think so.  And with this realization, I had identified a transition point – a situation in which my views on discrimination would change.  I don’t find anything wrong with sperm banks refusing applications from women looking to donate, because even if they did accept such applications it wouldn’t lead to any female sperm donors.
So let’s ask ourselves the golden question again, what happens when the justification goes away?  What if we found some men who were capable of carrying a baby to term?  (Don’t ask how, just roll with the hypothetical.)  Would it still be okay to bar them from being surrogate ‘mothers’?  To this I would say no.  And I would say no even if only a very small percentage of men had this capability.  And where’s the harm?  Denying some men the opportunity to do something that they are actually capable of.
This analysis is consistent with the three observations above.  It does not, I repeat, does not require equal capabilities between groups.  Even if Group A tends to be far less capable, the existence of some competent members of Group A means that discrimination will cause harm.  Only in the case where literally zero members of Group A are sufficiently competent will discrimination be harmless.
And you know what happens in such cases?  Discrimination begins to look like non-discrimination!  Even if an abortion clinic decided to start offering abortions to men, I wouldn’t expect it to actually perform any.  Because whether or not an abortion can even be performed relies on things like “Carrying fetus?”  And for men, the answer to that question is always a no. So “Is male” is all the information you need.  Sure you could gather more, but that would just increase costs.  Since “Is male” gives us a perfectly reliable measurement of “Carrying fetus?” there’s no need to look any further.  And since no more information is required, nobody blames abortion clinics for rejecting patients based solely on their maleness.
And this is what makes most forms of discrimination not just wrong, but downright dumb.  When you bar women from trying out for your football team, but judge the men based on their performance, you are using a measurement of “Is female?” in place of a measurement of “Is good at football?”  That’s a shitty measurement.  Heck, even if 90% of women who want to join your team would fail to pass muster, you’ve still got a serious error in your analysis.  So if you already have tools for measuring “Is good at football?” directly (and you do, because you’re using it for the men), you should just go ahead and make that measurement.  It might even find you some stellar players!
And remember that even when discrimination is okay, when the correlation is 100%, you would still reach the same conclusions by not discriminating.  This tells us that even when we think the correlation is 100%, we should hold off on discriminating until we are damn sure.  So if you really, truly think that no man will ever be competent enough to join your dance team, let the men try anyway.  If you’re right, you’ll have a bunch of men showing all the naysayers just how incompetent they are.  But if you’re wrong, then allowing male applicants will let you strengthen your team.
If there are competent male dancers out there, barring them from tryouts isn’t just causing them harm, it’s also hurting your team.  By relying on a shitty measurement like “Is male?” instead of a more accurate measurement like “Can dance?” you are forcing yourself to make decisions on unreliable information when you could easily obtain more reliable data.  And that’s not just wrong, it’s stupid.

PS: The next time you respond to discrimination with a claim that sounds like "Group A is just as capable as Group B," try adding "And even if they weren't it would still be wrong."

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