DISCRIMINATION: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY – With another day of social media outrage and counter-outrage about Sarah Sanders being refused service at a restaurant in Virginia, I feel like a bit like this guy:


Nevertheless, discrimination is an interesting topic to consider.

Some, like my friend Jeff Jacoby from “The Boston Globe”, argue that individuals and businesses should have the right to discriminate. This is essentially the libertarian position: government or any authority should not force people to interact and do business with other people they do not want to for whatever reason. This is the world where a wedding cake maker can refuse to decorate the cake for a gay couple*, Sarah Sanders can be turned away from a restaurant, a golf club can have a “no Jews” policy, and a sign on the door “No dogs and Irish” is quite legit.

(* in all the bakery cases, as far as I’m aware, no gay couple was refused the opportunity to┬ápurchase any of the cakes on display; what was refused was custom decorating a cake, which you would think also raises the First Amendment issues.)

Others, a great majority no doubt, argue that no one should be allowed to discriminate against others; that such discrimination is ugly and dehumanising and has no place in a modern society. Hence the raft of legislation we have in the Western countries protecting various minorities and other groups and prohibiting discrimination against them.

There is also a third school of thought that is against some forms of discrimination but not against others. It distinguishes characteristics one is born with, such as gender, race, appearance, or otherwise has no control over, like disability, and considers discrimination on these grounds to be unfair, unjust and unjustified. On the other hand there are person’s ideas or actions, which are a matter of choice. Thus, discriminating against people based on their political, religious and other beliefs is in a different category and should be allowed. If you consider a belief X to be odious, you should be able to discriminate against a person holding that belief because such treatment might force them to re-evaluate and change their beliefs (that’s the theory at least). Interesting in this context is the position of sexuality. For millennia people have debated whether sexuality (and specifically homosexuality) is something that you are born with or a choice you make. The consensus now seems to be that there is a large genetic component to homosexuality, which puts it in the same “no discrimination” category as gender or race. In all the debate around the recent controversies and the charges of hypocrisy and double standards, I have not seen anyone on the left using this perspective to distinguish the wedding cake cases (discrimination bad because concerning inborn traits) and the Sanders case (discrimination OK because concerning chosen political beliefs) even though it seems quite obvious.

Arguably, there is a fourth way of looking at discrimination. This is a neo-Marxist perspective that looks at the society through the prism of power relationships between various groups. Some groups have power, some don’t. As a result, prejudice and discrimination are built into every aspect of our societies. In response then, it is OK to discriminate against those “powerful”, by way of reducing their power and lifting up the oppressed, as well as a way of achieving some sort of a historical pay-back and revenge. The softer versions of this view justify affirmative action (or “positive discrimination”) policies, while the harder one would applaud telling white people, males, heterosexuals, or conservatives to get lost.

Which position do you take?