Americans are so phobic about discrimination that they can no longer distinguish right from wrong, important from trivial, A from B . . . or x or y or z.

Puzzled? Then perhaps you are like most Americans, who are so uneducated — so ill-read, so avoidant of the life of the mind — that they do not realize that “discrimination” is itself a good thing, the very foundation stone of thought.

Lazy, foolish people, seeing the word paired with “racial” and “sexual” for decades, came, by a familiar process of the association of ideas, to see it not for what it is, and has been for centuries, but as something very different: a bad thing. That is, a bad activity.

Now, according to Dictionary.com, the word means

  1. an act or instance of discriminating, or of making a distinction.
  2. treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit:
    racial and religious intolerance and discrimination.
  3. the power of making fine distinctions; discriminating judgment:
    She chose the colors with great discrimination.

As I understand it — and understood it even when young, since I had dictionaries available, and was not afraid to use them — definitions 1 and 3 preceded definition 2. (See the definitions provided in the image, above, for more evidence* of my thesis, here; the dictionary consulted hails from the turn of the last century.) Making a distinction and judging the value of the distinguished, and then acting upon this judgment, is what we mean, at base, by “discrimination.”

Or meant. Prior to the bastardization of the word by the thoughtless and ill-informed.

The word pair “racial discrimination” became a term of art for something that, in the 19th and 20th centuries, came to be seen (quite rightly) as bad: judging a person on the basis of the race that person belongs to, not on the individual’s evident qualities. Behind this transvaluation loomed the idea of race hatred, of course, but sometimes it was just a statistical judgment about members of a given race, a judgment that ran afoul of rationality. If many (or at least many prominent, or modal) members of a race, in your experience, were lazy and prone to violence, it would be an instance of racial discrimination to judge an individual as being lazy or violent just because of the race he or she falls into.

Racial discrimination, in this case, is bad because it is bad thinking, bad judgment — a misuse of statistics. An average or common characteristic of members of a group does not mean that every individual in that group has those characteristics.

Now, such use of statistical information does form naturally enough in our minds, since we cannot always judge everything (or everyone) on its (or his or her) individual merits. We haven’t the time.

But on matters of justice, we are obligated to “make time,” that is, go to the extra bother to treat individuals as individuals. That’s the essence of individualism, and indeed the essence of justice itself. On important matters of a social nature, anyway, racial discrimination is unjust discrimination.

But on other matters, perhaps of a personal nature, deciding an individual case on the qualification of race may be just fine. (Most people, for example, prefer to mate with members of their own racial group. They may indeed “discriminate against” prospective mates outside their race. That is not likely to be a big deal, and would almost certainly unjust to oppose on matters of government policy.) And of course the very designating criteria for “race” is not itself the same thing as racial discrimination, though discrimination — distinguishing one thing from another, in this case bodily features and genetic make-up — it undoubtedly is.

Many, many intellectually lazy people make errors of this kind.

A philosopher, on the other hand, is a person devoted to good discrimination. Wisdom. You can tell an unphilosophical mind if that person is witless enough to proclaim opposition to all discrimination.

It is a leading indicator.

And it led in 1984.

Many people think of 1984 not as the year some of us lived through, but as the eponymous year of Orwell’s dystopia. And when you think of life as he imagined it, under totalitarianism, you immediately think of the systematic misuse of words that “Big Brother” engaged in to maintain the authority trap that keep tyrants in power. Newspeak.

There was sort of a dread in the air, approaching the actual year 1984. But times were not exactly following Orwell’s prophecy, as Anthony Burgess noted in his 1985. And yet systematic word misuse was common. And were indeed political, if not totalitarian.

1984 was a presidential year in America. President Reagan was running for re-election against Democratic challenger Senator Walter Mondale. And, in that fateful year 1984, both repudiated “discrimination” as such.

Asked about gay rights — a hot topic then, as now, though very differently emphasized — Mondale responded earnestly, “I was taught on my father’s knee that all discrimination is wrong.” Reagan fumbled a bit, but repeated the sentiment. “Isn’t all discrimination wrong?”**

Perhaps they were fibbing. Perhaps, because they were politicians trying to appeal to an ignorant and bigoted-against-thought population, they dumbed-down their responses.

But I do suspect that at least Mondale had never really pondered the meaning of the word he was abusing.

And, in so doing, the two helped Americans continue to think poorly about the nature of justice and injustice, discouraging philosophy in the process.

To say that “all discrimination is wrong” is to say that thinking is wrong, judging is wrong. It shows a weakness of mind to allow oneself to be waylaid in one’s thinking by a few word pairings, such as “racial discrimination” and “sexual discrimination” and “discriminated against.”

Some may think this a trivial distinction. Language is arbitrary; it changes. True enough . . . or, should I say, too true? But while the changes are happening, while the lexical shift grinds through the culture, we who prefer our statements to be true, and our thoughts to be savvy — fit for the world around us —must stand by the distinctions and standards that promote thought and justice. It is our job to oppose, not follow, the thoughtless mob.

Think, friends; judge reasonably.  And do not let yourself get tricked by words whose meaning you have not fully explored.

And maybe open a dictionary. Perhaps an old one.



* Tom Lehrer’s great joke must be lost upon today’s youngsters as well: “The Army has carried the American . . . ideal to its logical conclusion. Not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed and color, but also on ability.”

** I quote Reagan and Mondale from memory. If you find the proper citation of their exact wordings, please contact me and I will revise the above passage.