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Acceptable Discrimination

This is a thorny topic; it's an attempt to reconcile accepted practice with other accepted practice, and back it all up with theory that fits with our existing theories/intuitions on gender and justice (or at least acknowledge the inconsistencies and try to delimit them). The difficulty is in determining the limits of what (for me and many others) is a fairly strong intuition: antidiscrimination.

STANDARD REMINDER, see bottom of this cut.

Rejection of discrimination is at the heart of many kinds of social justice; opposition to it is at the heart of many kinds of social justice. It is an emphatic rejection of the ideas of "separate but equal", "engaged but unequal", and "separate and unequal". Instead of strong ethnic/racial/sexual identities that suggest certain roles for those of certain races/castes/gender, or suggest they need to remain apart, we emphasise the unity of humanity and the substantial statistical overlap in capabilities. We strive for laws, social structures, and norms that, so much as possible, treat people as generic humans with particulars rather than as women and men, brahmin and shudra, africans and europeans, each moving through common paths in society.

Common to this struggle is a recognition that: 1) Not everyone is going to be as on-board with the entire programme as everyone else, 2) Traditional cultures and values are not entirely compatible with this, and 3) There are differences between these factors for which we're ordinarily building common channels, and we will need to try to build consensus on when we might want to specially handle them.

On the first point above, our call against discrimination happens on multiple layers of society; the first wave of feminism (and corrisponding waves of other civil rights movements) focuses on formal legal equality, while the second added the commitment to reshaping society to stop pushing people into certain social roles even after they are no longer locked into them. In theory the first is more important (and is easier to build consensus on), although engaging in the second helps build consensus for the goals of the first. We might occasionally accept legal or infrastructure differences (by infrastructure, I mean public and private programmes that make a life-path easier, like societies and financial aide) or societal norms that distinguish, and might find personal behaviour acceptable in some instances that discriminates. Affirmative action (which I do support for a limited time, as detailed in a recent post) is an example of an acceptable institutional policy of discrimination, likewise differences in mandatory parental leave in employment conditions.

This post is primarily about that personal behaviour bit. Personal behaviour is not a small part of activism; it's the most mallable of the things (within small circles) movements address, and is part of the struggle for broader societal consensus on a new societal course. It is an important test of the sanity of a movement; any ideals of human behaviour that are not stable within a movement are usually hopeless for broader society. It is critical for developing new framing of issues; for people who are not philosophically enlightened, they likely are living in just one frame, provided by someone else, for any given issue, and any other frame will seem wrong/horrific (which is one reason philosophers usually look like jerks, apart from that they often are jerks). And by personal behaviour, I include the world-of-terms someone uses and the values/conclusions they advocate.

As I've stated many times before, I believe the golden standard for judging people on these matters (no matter how tempting it can seem to say otherwise) be some concept intent. We don't need to take someone's assertion about their intent; we are allowed to speculate beyond it if we think they're dishonest. It's also not a simple concept of surface intent, rather whether their choices come from sexist/racist perspectives. This is how we can be comfortable cutting off parts of the movement that are hypersensitive while still being able to work cultural change. Still, that doesn't go far enough as a guideline. We need more intuitions for when it is okay to discriminate that might or might not involve intent.

Some intuitions:

  • Aesthetics - Aesthetics are generally personal in any given adult, although depending on the kind of aesthetic there's often a flexibility in upbringing that can affect how it comes into being. As a general rule, it is ok for a person to find various human features attractive/repugnant, and to judge the attractiveness of the races/sexes/castes differently. It is also ok to express this. It should be seen as virtuous (and as a useful guard) to remember that races/gender/castes don't always have the permutation of features considered characteristic of them, and that (mostly with the exception of gender) they are fluid categories. It should also be seen as virtuous to generally express aesthetic preferences as personal aesthetics rather than some kind of basic-human-aesthetic
    • Particularly strong example: it is acceptable for someone to have an absolute sexual preference for someone of the other gender (or the same gender).
  • Criticism of culture and the identities people choose is generally acceptable. Criticism of the categories generally is both factually off and not acceptable. (For example, one might easily criticise an ethnic culture without criticising the people of the race that hold the culture using careful wording, and that wording also will generally have the positive trait of recognising that not everyone of, say, a nation, will hold the national/ethnic culture/identity)
  • Criticism/mockery of faiths is acceptable. It should be seen as virtuous to be accurate and educated in one's criticism.
  • It is sometimes acceptable to discriminate on actual-and-accurate differences between men and women. It is more acceptable to do so when the differences are non-spectrum (e.g. sexual organs) than when they are (average differences in strength, where men are on average ahead, or reaction time, where women are on average ahead).
  • It is acceptable, as a personal choice, for people to avoid circumstances because they feel unsafe where what they're avoiding depends on the gender/race/caste of the people involved. However, this is considered a special, non-precedent setting matter, and should not be recognised as placing *any* kind of obligation (even one so weak as for politeness's sake) on others, it should be itself handled with discomfort and discretion, and other obligations may never be inferred from it (it is not precedent-setting). This is moderately mitigated by good statistics, but it still must be considered a "permanent nervous conclusion" and special case.
That last matter is why it is not reprehensible for people to express, say, a preference to live with men (or women) on Craigslist, or for people in potentially nervous situations to discriminate in seeking or avoiding company (someone attacked in a multi-ethnic city might run to be with someone of the same race as them, or someone might cross the street to avoid a man but not a woman, or ...). We reject any attempts to provide special accomodations for this need; its possibility can only come from the best-effort of the person who is doing the otherwise-unacceptable act. We recognise it as an actual injustice in any case, but still within the perogative of an individual when reached through acceptable paths.

(This is why we strongly reject the proposal in a past conversation that it ever could be considered rude to not commit this injustice to oneself for the sake of someone who might or might not do it themself through some acceptable path, WRT the street-crossing example; it might not be necessary, it is always something we should be uncomfortable with anyhow, and it is unacceptable to build on our acceptance of this uncomfortable case)

As another prominent example, separate bathrooms are accepted because of differences in the relevant biology of men and women, and not for any other reason. They are not mandatory, but they are okay.

STANDARD REMINDER: In this writing, as is always the case when I talk about the topic, I use the terms sex and gender interchangably to refer primarily to the XX (bio-female) and XY (bio-male) genders of humanity. I use the term gender-role to refer to the sexual-identity people choose to project (and if these map reasonably onto a he/she and a person expresses a preference, the sexual identity I recognise them to have will fit the sexual identity they choose to project). I recognise that there are people who are neither XX nor XY and don't currently have specific suggestions on how to handle whatever I'm saying for them; if that's important to you, you can read whatever you like into my philosophy with no guarantee that I'll agree with whatever extended version of it you're thinking in.