Tuesday, June 10, 2008

In Praise of Discrimination

(News-Herald, April 2003) Discrimination is not always bad.

Discrimination, after all, is simply the business of spotting distinctions between things. We used to praise someone with “discriminating tastes”—that was a person who could tell the difference between good stuff and junk.

Now, there’s no question that there’s such a thing as bad discrimination. That’s when we discriminate on the basis of clues that can’t possibly tell us what we want to know. When trying to select a real estate broker, we could discriminate on, say, the basis of height, but we’d be dopey to do so. And some businesses encourage us to discriminate poorly. Used car dealers love buyers who discriminate on the basis of clean floor mats and nice paint jobs.

It was dopey discriminating that gave the term a bad name in the first place. The history of discriminating on the basis of race is a sad one, all those long stupid years of thinking that the trait of race could tell us what we needed to know about brains or ability.

But the fact of bad discrimination does not indict the whole process any more than the fact that there are bad doctors means we should do away with all surgery.

Discrimination not only can be good—it can be necessary. If I can’t discriminate between good food and poison, I’m in mortal danger. If I can’t discriminate between a good deal on a home and a bad one, I’ll end up living some place scary.

You’d better believe that I’m going to discriminate when it comes to doctors. I doubt that anyone out there is willing to say, “One surgeon is as good as any other; just send in whoever’s handy to rearrange the various lobes of my grey matter.”

Even in daily life, I need to discriminate between the people who are actually concerned about me and those who couldn’t care less if I ended up stuck under the ice at Two Mile Run.

There are people who believe that discrimination is bad, that the world will be a better place when no one anywhere ever discriminates. I think these people are absolutely wrong.

For instance, schools not only can discriminate, they have an obligation to discriminate. It’s part of our job.

Now, part of our job is to discriminate in ways that are fair and ethical and meaningful. Schools should not, for instance, say that since this child has blue eyes, she must get lower grades in physics. But if we’re going to recognize the best physics student, we should be able to discriminate based on ability to discern who that student is.

This runs counter to some of the looney educational wisdom that’s been out there for a while. We’ve all heard the occasional stories about systems designed to keep little Euridicia Hypothetical from feeling bad that she can’t do physics very well.

We have mistakenly concluded that we can do this by rewarding Euridicia as if she had earned straight A’s in physics. It’s a dopey conclusion.

If we have a race and give everyone a blue ribbon, we do not convince everyone that they have won. We convince them that the blue ribbon is meaningless because anyone can get one just for showing up with a pulse.

I’m sorry that some people feel bad about not winning a particular race. I don’t think they should feel bad for losing, but that’s not the same thing as believing that the winner shouldn’t feel good for winning.

Discrimination is an essential life skill. We need to be able to tell good from bad, safe from dangerous, insightful from stupid, able from incompetent. We need to learn what standards of discrimination work well, and which do not.

And we need to learn that losing a race does not mean that we have been publicly declared stupid and ugly and worthless. Nothing is gained by insisting that those who can win the race stop trying. Truth is, there are a thousand different races to run, and nobody is suited to win all of them. In the Constructing a Sentence race, I do well enough; in the Transplanting a Spleen or Farming a Few Acres races, I finish dead last. That doesn’t make me any better or worse than the Spleen or Farm winners, but someone who needs food or a new spleen or a letter of recommendation had better be able to discriminate between us. And what we all have to do is learn to discriminate between the races that will break us, and the races we were born to run.

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