On discrimination

For nothing is more democratic than logic; it is no respecter of persons and makes no distinction between crooked and straight noses.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Languages are never static, and words change their meaning; sometimes they come to mean the opposite of what they originally did. People now use literally to mean metaphorically, as in: “My head has literally exploded,” which presumably it hasn’t if I can say or write those words. Sometimes these shifts of meaning imply a change in moral import: what was to be approved of is now to be scorned. Rather depressingly, many of our words for “stupid” originally meant something rather nice. Discrimination is another word that has undergone this reversal.

Nowadays it is a well-known fact that discrimination is a Bad Thing. In this country, we even have laws against it, as do many other of the so-called developed nations. But this is an example of the sloppy use of language, because what these laws are trying to address is not discrimination but prejudice.

We all have prejudices. I myself have a quite irrational prejudice in favour of the Irish, despite the fact that back in the seventies there were Irish people trying to blow me up. It is impossible to legislate the existence of prejudice away. Prejudice is a shortcut; people are always going to take shortcuts. The way to deal with your prejudices is to be aware of them and to make allowances. This used to be part of a process called “growing up.”

It is good that there should be legal redress for people on the receiving end of negative prejudices. Equal pay for equal work, to take one example. strikes me as simple justice. What is not good is conflating prejudice with discrimination.

For what is discrimination? It is the power to distinguish one thing from another, especially when the two things are superficially very similar. Back when being considered a person of discrimination was a compliment, it meant something like having good taste. Someone placing a bet on a horse-race will attempt to discriminate between the runners. A punter of discrimination will, in theory, pick more winners.

This is a good thing, unless you happen to be a bookmaker. It is likewise a good thing that I shall not be representing my country in the 100m at the next Olympics. This is because I am old and fat and slow, and the selectors rightly discriminate in favour of those who are not. If they failed to do so, they would not be doing their job.

You don’t actually need to be able to do much discriminating in order to express prejudice. A misogynist only needs to be able to tell if the person they are dealing with is female. Yes, there are tricky edge cases, but most of the time it’s pretty straightforward. In any case, the mere perception that So-and-so is female is quite enough to trigger the prejudice in someone that has it.

You do find an approximation of discrimination when prejudice is embodied in legislation. Apartheid South Africa was a political regime that was driven largely by racial prejudice, but the rules to determine to which racial category an individual should be assigned could be said to define a mechanical sort of discrimination. The Mischling Test is another example, and so for that matter are a lot of “anti-discrimination” laws. But in reality genuine prejudice is quasi-instinctive: when you see the object of your prejudice, you normally recognise it without effort.

Does it really matter that we call this by the wrong name? I think it does, because one thing we could certainly do with more of these days is discrimination, and in order to call for it we need to be able to use the word correctly. We need, in fact, to discriminate between prejudice and discrimination.

The reason I think this is so important is that a person who lacks discrimination is easily misled. I do not think there has ever been a time in human history when so many people have been lied to so often and so thoroughly. Lying used to be a small-scale, one might almost say artisanal, business; today it is a heavy industry. We can only hope that Abraham Lincoln was right to say that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, because there are interest groups prepared to give that the old college try.

Politicians have always lied, of course, because governments need the consent of (most of) the people and that consent sometimes needs to be manufactured. This is as old as history. The battle of Kadesh back in 1274 BC did not go anything like as well for Ramesses II as his inscriptions would have you believe. Advertisers are also cavalier with the the truth – after all, if their product really was so wonderful they wouldn’t need to try so hard to persuade people to buy it. Now that political and corporate interests have largely captured mainstream journalism, there are few correctives available. One has to search them out.

This goes a long way to explain the increasing popularity of conspiracy theories. If you can’t believe the official narrative, then you will look elsewhere for an account of the world that you can believe. Conspiracy theories are a low-effort alternative, because they explain everything with one straightforward story, for example that it’s all the fault of the space lizards. There’s something comforting in the notion that everything is under control, even if the beings in control are evil monsters.

Unfortunately – or fortunately – everything is not under control, or at least not under one unified control. One has to discriminate between competing narratives. What is being brought to your attention? Who is doing that, and why? What other things are going on that they are keeping from your attention?

These questions don’t have simple answers. We need to be able to bring discrimination to bear on our news sources, whatever those may be (and if you only have one, I strongly recommend that you fix that). A useful technique is to compare and contrast news from a range of sources with known prejudices. Facts that they all agree on are likely to be true; the broader your range, the fewer facts are likely to fall into this category, but the more likely they are to be true.

Interpretation is important. The Reichstag fire is a case in point. Certainly the building caught fire. Almost certainly the man arrested for the crime was the person who set it. The Nazi government claimed he was preparing the way for a Communist coup, and used this as a pretext to tighten their grip on power. The Communists denied it had anything to do with them, and that he had acted alone. It has been claimed that he was a government stooge. The current consensus is that he acted alone, but the construction that the government was able to place on his actions at the time had far-reaching results.

Notice also what is considered important. It is the tendency of all news media to obsess over fluff, because (they hope) fluff is entertaining and will bring in viewers. A thing is not news just because it appears in a newspaper. Notice also the lifecycle of news stories. Often there will be a topic which is picked up and discussed intensively for while – the Syrian civil war, say – and then without explanation is simply dropped. There’s probably a reason for that. You may not be able to figure it out, but it’s worthwhile to consider what it might be.

The same goes for advertising. I’ve touched in an earlier post on some of the rhetorical techniques advertisers and others use to try and persuade you to buy their product. Much political discourse these days is basically advertising. A party or an individual politician is treated as a brand (some of them even have their own app – download at your own risk). Look for what you aren’t being told. Sometimes you’re being told essentially nothing; just the other day I saw billboards featuring a photo of some bloke in a suit, his name, and the words: “Your next mayor of London.” There isn’t even a statement of which party he represents, apart from the fact that he’s wearing a red tie (the colour of the UK Labour Party).

These things are designed to seep into your mind without your noticing – indiscriminately. Don’t let that happen, unless you actively want to be controlled. These people are not your friends. In a world of snake-oil salesmen, discrimination is your best ally. Cultivate it and use it.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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