Discrimination, reconsidered

A lot of hands are wringing these days over alleged discrimination, especially (but not exclusively) against the queer community. Not only here in Alberta, but also in North Carolina and elsewhere too.

But have we really considered what we mean by “discrimination” and, more importantly, when is it really a problem? For starters, let’s clear the air on one important fact; we all discriminate. All the time.

And we need to.

That may seem like a counter-intuitive statement. After all, so many people consider the concept of discrimination so immoral that to be called “discriminatory” is to be equated with the worst of humanity. Nothing could be more heinous than that.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

First, the definition of “discriminate,” so we all know what we are talking about,

To make or constitute a distinction in or between; differentiate

Let’s consider the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. According to that document (section 15) we are not permitted to discriminate based on the following criteria:

  • race
  • national or ethnic origin
  • colour
  • religion
  • sex
  • age
  • mental or physical disability

Let’s start with race / ethnicity / colour criteria. We would never dream of discriminating based on race, would we? Well, actually we do discriminate based on these characteristics in some circumstances.

  • Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada provides grants for Aboriginals. Non-aboriginals need not apply.
  • Can you imagine if the movie about Abraham Lincoln’s life had starred, for instance, Jamie Foxx as Lincoln? Or Jackie Chan? I’m glad the person in charge of casting exercised discrimination with respect to the actor’s skin colour.
  • There is an African American Museum in Philadelphia; should we tear it down because of the disproportionate focus given to black people? The museum discriminates against non-blacks.
  • Have you ever looked for, say, Lasagna noodles in China town? Or have you ever wondered why they don’t sell chopsticks at a German deli? These stores will deliberately discriminate with respect to the types of food they buy from their suppliers, and the types of products they sell to their customers. If you’re an Italian in China town you are going to feel extremely isolated due to the exclusivist nature of the local racially-based businesses.

Or what about religion? It’s not hard to think of examples of religiously-based discrimination.

  • A Muslim restaurant owner will never do business with a pig farmer who supplies meat to other restaurant owners. And the motivation for refusing to do business with that pig farmer is purely religious.
  • If there is a pastoral opening at a Lutheran Church I’m fairly certain the local outspoken Atheist, or even an out-of-work Catholic Priest, isn’t likely to get an interview if they did apply. Nor would a Lutheran pastor be likely to get voted in as the president of the Secular Humanist Society.

What about sex?

Age is an easy one.

  • Six-year-olds don’t get served in pubs.
  • Eleven-year-olds cannot buy cigarettes.
  • Fourteen-year-olds cannot vote.
  • Forty-year-olds cannot collect pension.
  • Somebody fresh out of High School will never get hired for a “senior executive” job opening.
  • Somebody close to retirement will probably have a tough time finding an entry-level job in their field of expertise. (Mind you, this movie about exactly that scenario looks amusing.)

What about mental or physical disabilities?

  • Have you ever seen an active fire fighter in a wheelchair?
  • Would you board an airplane if you knew the pilot was blind?
  • I think you’d have a hard time finding a CEO of a major corporation who had full-blown dementia.
  • Good luck getting the lead role in a musical if you suffer from muteness.
  • Certain “socially challenged” individuals have – shall we say – limited career options. 😉

The reality is that discrimination of all sorts goes on every day. Indeed, it has to. In some cases we would be irresponsible if we did not discriminate. I would leave my kids with my family or friends, but not with a stranger. I discriminate against people I don’t know when it comes to the protection of my children.

Unless those strangers are wearing certain kinds of uniforms, like First Responders. I would not hesitate to leave my child in the care of a paramedic, if I found myself in such a situation. So I even discriminate between strangers.

Or if a family member had been charged with pedophilia then my “family trust” would go out the window. Another example of discrimination; and a very necessary form.

Whenever you hear somebody cry “discrimination!” it is always imperative that we take a step back, take a deep breath, consider the situation rationally, and avoid knee-jerk reactions to their outcry. In some cases discrimination is permissible (e.g., Muslims who refuse to do business with pig farmers) and in other cases it is absolutely imperative (e.g., never hire a blind pilot).

But, of course, there are some cases where discrimination is uncalled for.

Unjust discrimination

The astute reader will have clicked the link I provided for the definition of the word “discriminate” and was probably protesting, “that’s not the meaning we are using!” This is probably the meaning that most people have in mind,

To make a distinction in favor of or against a person or thing on the basis of the group, class, or category to which the person or thing belongs rather than according to actual merit; show partiality.

The key phrase is “rather than according to actual merit.” Therein lies the critical component. When the discrimination is not merit based, I would have to agree that it is unjust.

How are we to understand “merit” in this definition? The way I would read that, one’s “merit” is related to the situation. To use the above examples of justifiable discrimination, being 40 years old “merits” you the right to vote, but it does not “merit” you the right to collect retirement money. But whether you are 40 or 70 years old you can join Spa Lady; unless you are a man. In that case age is not grounds to gauge your merit, but your biology is grounds to gauge your merit.

Discrimination against, say, the blacks in the Southern States last century was unjust. And present-day discrimination against the queer community, it is argued, is fundamentally the same as that racial discrimination. For instance, whites were not allowed to marry blacks “back then” and homosexuals are not allowed to marry each other until recently. Same challenge, isn’t it?

The underlying debate comes down to a question of the purpose of marriage. Let’s consider two commonly stated purposes of marriage:

  1. Some people believe the purpose of marriage is purely “personal happiness” or “to celebrate the love of two (or more) individuals” or something along those lines.
  2. Other people believe that one of the primary purposes of marriage (though not the only purpose) is the procreation and rearing of the next generation of humans.

Whether the purpose of marriage is to celebrate the love of two people, or to procreate the human species – whether we go with criteria 1 or 2 listed above – race is irrelevant. White people can love each other and procreate. Black people can love each other and procreate. A white person and a black person can love each other and procreate. Because race is irrelevant to the fulfilling of the purpose of marriage – regardless of which criteria you use – discrimination of that sort is, indeed, unjust. One’s merit for marriage (to use the dictionary’s phrasing) is race-independent.

This is the important distinction; when the basis for discrimination is irrelevant to the context, that discrimination is probably illegitimate. That’s just a fancy way of clarifying the dictionary’s reference to “merit.” One’s race does not contribute to one’s merit with respect to marriage, therefore discriminating based on race is unjust when it comes to marriage.

As opposed to, say, casting an actor for the role of Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King Jr. In that case race is absolutely relevant; it fundamentally determines one’s merit on the matter. Christian Bale is absolutely lacking in merit when it comes to his ability to play Martin Luther King Jr, though his skin color was probably a factor in getting him the role of Batman. As long as the basis for discrimination and the context of the discrimination are related, the discrimination is (usually) justifiable.

So what about homosexuality and marriage? If the purpose of marriage truly was limited to the relationship between the couple (criteria 1, listed above) then biology has absolutely no bearing on the subject, and discrimination based on biology would be unjust with respect to the marriage question. In fact, if criteria 1 is the basis then one could stretch the biological boundaries as far as one wanted to and celebrate the romantic love of a man and his pet, or a woman and a tree.

But if the purpose of marriage (or at least one of the primary and non-negotiable purposes) is procreation – criteria 2, listed above – then biology becomes an absolutely central criteria. Because gay sex is biologically incapable of procreation, such discrimination is perfectly legitimate because it is rooted in reasoned principle that is directly and centrally related to the context of marriage. The one and only sexual relationship capable of human procreation is between a biological human female and a biological human male.

Therefore, those who refuse to participate in “gay weddings” (like the famous cake makers who were put out of business) are exercising their right to hold and live by unpopular views on these subjects, and make business decisions in a legitimately discriminatory manner. Just like the Muslim restaurant owner who refuses to serve pork, or the airline that refuses to hire blind pilots.

If, on the other hand, the cake makers refused to make a cake for a gay person who was simply celebrating a birthday – an occasion that has nothing to do with marriage, sexuality, family or the like – that would not be a legitimate form of discrimination. I would argue that opponents of gay “marriage” are still under a moral obligation to make every other kind of cake that a gay person may order from them, other than a wedding cake.

Or consider the bathroom issue.

There used to be “whites only” bathrooms, and blacks were not allowed in. Isn’t that the same thing as not letting transgender people use the bathroom of their choice? The purpose of bathrooms is to provide a private place where biological males and biological females can conduct some “private business” that specifically relates to those body parts that are fundamentally different between the two sexes. Women don’t use urinals, for instance.

We already widely accept other forms of sex discrimination that don’t actually have anything to do with differences between the sexes. Spa Lady is allowed to segregate based on biology for activities that are not specifically related to biological differences between the sexes (i.e. men and women can both use a treadmill) but nobody is protesting to have Spa Lady shut down. If non-biological segregation is permissible then surely it should be permissible to biologically segregate people for activities that are fundamentally related to the biological differences between the sexes.

Bathroom segregation is, and always has been, biologically based therefore the insistence that biological males stay out of the women’s washroom, and biological females stay out of the men’s washroom is an entirely legitimate form of discrimination.

Again, you may not agree with the underlying principle (i.e., you may wish to do away with biological boundaries, as with the woman marrying a tree) but it must be acknowledged that such discrimination is entirely principled and not even slightly personal. A man should stay out of the woman’s bathroom whether he believes he is a man, a woman, a dog or a tree.

Discrimination of these sorts is principled, reasonable and justifiable despite all the protests to the contrary.


The next time you hear somebody cry “foul” over an alleged case of discrimination, please remember three things:

  1. As I described in a previous article, society seems to have blown this whole “discrimination” thing completely out of proportion. Like the woman who claimed she was discriminated against because she couldn’t take her infant son into the spa with her.
  2. Second, discrimination is not always a bad thing. Discrimination that is actually relevant to the context (like the woman who couldn’t take her infant son into the spa) often makes a lot of sense and is sometimes morally necessary.
  3. Lastly, remember that everybody discriminates. Even you.
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