How Shall We Then Discriminate?

Friday, Mar 13, 2020
Jim Sutton

Discrimination/distinctiveness/categorization/classification all have implications when the words are used in a conversation, but would you say they all essentially convey the same intent? Our eyesight depends on us discriminating the difference between a stationary object and a fixed one. For instance, a moving car, and one that is at rest. But we can also tell the qualitative difference between a red car and a white car. Some, through experience and assimilated information can recognize the difference between a Ford and a Mazda, or a Dodge and a Ferrari. They can do this because there is a distinctiveness that is observable and repeatable with a person’s investigation of the attributes of a Ford and a Mazda. To discriminate between a 1965 Chevy Impala and a 1966 Chevy Impala, however, requires more detailed knowledge of both of those car models and their unique attributes. One can have an opinion on whether a given car is a ’65 or a ’66 model, but unless they have accrued the ability to recognize the distinctiveness between those models, their opinion may be wrong. Our ability to hear is much the same way. We are able to discriminate between each person’s voice based on the attributes our minds store and recall of that voice.

The ability of a person to classify the objects and methods of a given profession among the engineering/medical/flight sciences/legal and other professional fields is a desirable attribute. Certainly, in this technological age, this capability has been fundamental to the world’s accoutrements we enjoy and depend on today, like roads, air travel, electricity, and so on. So, when a categorization emerges in our society that defies normative, historical and obvious attributes, how should we react? In my mind there are four alternatives to analyzing categories:

  1. The categorizations are based on discovering attributes that were previously not observable or understood
  2. The categorizations are based on ideas that are not verifiable or consistently defined
  3. The categorizations are based on a false premise

The reason for understanding where a given set of classifications are derived from may start to become obvious to some. If the classifications are derived from alternative 3 or 4, one could legitimately question whether the categorizations of a subject are valid or appropriate for universal acceptance.

You may have noticed by now that I have used all four terms I introduced in the first sentence in an interchangeable manner, and that the meaning of the sentences were not maligned by the term I chose to use. But in our minds, I believe we do understand the implications between the terms, and the use of a specific term may be intentional at times to hide the basis of categorical assignments. For instance, it is it is generally considered bad to discriminate, but not to categorize. In the political field we seek out the distinctiveness of a candidate, but it can be ambiguous to classify a politician with terms like “liberal” or “conservative” unless those terms have been well defined (which they are usually not). The term that is used when one wants to obfuscate potentially damaging categorization implications is “moderate” in this situation. This classification seems to fall into the third alternative above, which is a categorization based on an idea that is not verifiable or consistent.

Could it be that when someone uses these terms, they intend to convey a personal preference about the topic of discussion? For instance, when one wants to cast dispersion on a person for their ability to distinguish qualities, one would say that they are “discriminating against …”. If one wants to market a person’s ability to distinguish qualities, one would say they are able to “tell the truth” against an idea that is anathema to their target group. Sound familiar? It should in today’s culture.

The take-away is partially this: if we are to give an audience to someone’s categorizations, it may serve us well to question what the categorizations are based on. There’s a verse in the Bible that states: “Who can know the heart (mind) of a man?” If the categorizations in use during the conversation are based on unsubstantiated or undefined categories, we should not be swayed to accept their conclusions unless we can frame the subject in categorizations that are based on true and verifiable attributes. Otherwise one has to presume upon a person’s inner motivations for the meaning, and consequently “who can know the heart of man”?

For instance, the classifications of male and female have been substantially observable via methods of sight and function as long as humans have been distinguishable from other forms of life. Function pertains to the innate potential each gender has at birth; sight is the mature result of a person’s unique physical characteristics. We have been carrying these classifications through every culture which builds up a body of law regarding each gender based on cultural understandings of the attributes regarding each gender. There are other less dependable distinctive qualities that are used to discriminate between male and female such as temperament, physical strength and proclivities toward certain illnesses of the body.

So, what do you think the new so called “gender identities” are based on: 1, 2, 3 or 4? This would be a great framework to conduct dialog with a friend and establish a basis for evaluating the merit of a given assertion regarding “gender identity”, or any other categorization that is proposed to support a change in the way our nations laws are written. Our first task as humans according to the writings in Genesis were to name (classify) the animal kingdom. Categorizations are the basis of much of our communication, indeed our ability to communicate rests on the classification of sounds with meanings, or words. To discriminate, then, is to separate one thing from another. The connotation is that one thing is preferable over another, or, in the case of a caste system, one thing is allegedly less than another and can be discriminated against. So how should we then discriminate? I propose that it should always be based on alternative 1 or 2 for a civil and just society, where dialog is respectfully honest and the underlying assumptions foundational to the categorizations can be exposed.