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The Right to Discriminate | Tonitrus Tacitus

The Right to Discriminate

I recently came across an interesting monologue during an airing of the Hugh Hewitt Show. Congressman John Campbell (R-CA) was offering some reflections on why the American political climate is so acerbic and polarized. Having noted in my previous post this polarized atmosphere that seems to be getting worse, the topic being addressed by Mr. Campbell piqued my interest and echoed a lot of sentiments I’ve had about the current atmosphere in the country.

Why are we so divided? When we consider the divisions between ‘left and right’, we often tend to list our divisions in the context of individual issues such as opposition to/approval of: Abortion, Same-Sex Marriage, Higher Taxes, Gun Rights, Limited Government, Big Government, and so on. While these issues are representative of the left/right divide there are still some more fundamental worldviews at work. Mr. Campbell touched on two in particular that I think are illustrative of the real problem that often separates us.

Firstly, there are those who tend to value equality above freedom. A clarification of terms is needed here. ‘Equality,’ in this sense, has a somewhat vague meaning: It usually refers to ‘equality’ in a generic sense of the word – i.e., the understanding that there should be no unequal distribution of benefits and rewards. Everyone should be entitled – at least in theory – to all the same benefits and ‘status.’ In relation to this, there is the idea that there should be no differentiation between the status/benefits accorded to rich vs. poor, gay vs. straight, etc.; all people, in some sense, ‘deserve’ some kind of equal playing field, and none should be made out to be ‘second-class’ citizens by being refused benefits that are accorded to other people of a different status. In fact, even the term ‘different status’ itself seems nefarious to this group – it stinks of inequality. In the end, equality in this sense can be understood as referring to equal outcomes, – i.e., outcomes in the form of wages, entitlements, recognition etc. – that are not necessarily in any direct proportion to what a person has actually achieved through work or through the attainment of a certain status. Due to both real and perceived instances of injustice, the pursuit of this ideal of equality is a very important aim for this group, and they are generally willing to sacrifice freedom in order to promote it.

In opposition, there is a second group who tends to value freedom above equality. This too requires a clarification of terms. Though everyone on both sides of this divide is generally interested in ‘equality’, the definition of equality in this instance has a significantly different hue than the definition advanced by the first group considered above. Equality as understood by this second group usually involves an emphasis on the idea of equal opportunity. Rather than focusing energies towards creating equal outcomes, this group prefers to emphasize the value of individual freedom to attain certain outcomes through personal initiative. This group is suspicious of the notion of equality as advanced by their opponents, mainly because in such a notion there is recognized the fact that in order to attain equal outcomes, certain freedoms must be limited or even removed in order to achieve that goal; something must be taken from someone and given to another in order to achieve the goal of equal outcomes.  Concluding that the methods necessary to attain equal outcomes are in themselves a form of injustice and inequality, this second group prefers instead to advance the freedom of individuals to pursue certain opportunities, and they are generally willing to sacrifice the pursuit of a vague equality to get there.

Breaking down the left/right divide to these two core issues may seem simplistic, and in many ways it probably is. However, if you look closely at individual issues of interest to both sides you’ll see that many of those issues fall under one of these two value systems.  Whether it’s a question of wealth distribution, the freedom of religious groups to follow their convictions, or the rights of citizens to have more/less choices in education, healthcare, etc., most conflicts that arise over these contentious issues are at heart a conflict between the two value-systems just spelled out above.

So, which side is correct? Furthermore, what concrete change can be made to help heal the division between the two sides? Instead of spending a lot of time answering the first question, it might be more helpful to offer some reflections on how we might deal with the second question.

I’d posit that a large step forward could be taken by the realization that no one actually lives as if they believe all things are equal. When I say ‘all things,’ I really mean it. People, ideas, food, cars, etc. are all subject to value judgments. No one goes to a car dealership, a grocery store, a news source, etc., without engaging in some form of discrimination. Everyone wants the best people, belief systems,  bananas, and automobile models – and everyone knows it.  Discrimination, in this sense, is normal and healthy.

This is not, of course, a vindication of unjust discrimination, such as would occur in some kind of pseudo-scientific racial theory. It is simply a recognition that we as people make distinctions because we recognize deep down that all things are not equal. We recognize that there are real differences between the things that are in front of us, and we make our decisions for one against the other based on the inequality between the options in front of us. If this is true for the more obvious examples of manufactured goods and produce, there is no reason to assume that it does not hold true for ideas, behaviors, lifestyles and even people.

Positing in this way that the right to discriminate is a pathway to unity might seem paradoxical at best and contradictory at worst. To be sure, there is a lot more that should be said by way of clarification. But, in the interest of time, let’s ask a basic question – is it out of line to insist that much of the division that exists today is actually the result of trying to create a utopia based on some vague sense of ‘equality?’  We all have a right to examine what’s before us and determine its value – if there’s one sense in which we are all equal, that’s it right there. But until there is the realization by everyone that inequality is a normal part of life, and that we all discriminate based on that reality, the futile aim to make all things equal is likely to continue, and there can only be contention and division in its wake. It’s my hope that we all learn to exercise our right to discriminate so as to make the best choices available among the many that are out there.

 

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