Philosophy: the last thing Americans consider in public policy. Because it might be wisdom.

It was a joke when I was a child. It is an atrocity now.

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.

Tom Lehrer, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer (recorded at Harvard’s Sanders Theater on March 20–21, 1959)

Ah, discrimination. People forget that it is a good thing. It is what makes us human.

But let us admit it, the normal run of humanity rarely bothers to do much in the way of careful thinking. A word gets associated, in common speech, with another word — and then the concept of the word pair leads, as if by an invisible hand, to impute meaning back up the two words’ separate semantic lines. Well, up at least one of them. Racial discrimination being bad, at least when done by the state or when engaged in privately with malice, so careless, slovenly speakers come to think “all discrimination is wrong.”

And it was not just about race. Sexual discrimination was said to be wrong by liberal folks. And religious discrimination, too. These are the three mentioned by Lehrer in his joke.

In 1984, the two major party candidates for the United States Presidency, when asked about gay rights, admitted, humbly and righteously both, that “all discrimination is wrong.” Walter Mondale insisted that he learned that outstive truth “on his daddy’s knee.” His father had misinformed him. Ronald Reagan answered the question with another question, if memory serves: “isn’t all discrimination wrong?” The answer is definitely “no.”

What is going on here? Well, a puzzled person might consult a dictionary.

from Merriam-Webster’s iPad app.

The root meaning can be found in the second and third listed defnitions, not the first. This is made more clear by consulting an older dictionary.

My copy of The New Century Dictionary (1927), D. Appleton-Century Co. (1933)

Discrimination is the act of recognizing differences, making distinctions and apt judgments. This is what makes man a rational animal.

The error comes down to a category problem.

Racial discrimination is bad when one identifies race as a relevant characteristic upon which to make a judgment or decision when race is not, in fact or by custom or morality, relevant.

We who support the idea of basic human rights insist that it is a person’s status as a human being and not as a member of a particular race that matters in advancing and defending his or her rights.

In employing someone, productivity is what matters, not race as such, so one would be a fool to hire or fire mainly on the grounds of race.

But in other domains of life it may indeed make sense to discriminate to some extent by race. If you are putting on a play about Martin Luther King and the best actor you can find is some white guy, it would be ill-advised to hire him and paint his face darker — better, I think, t limit your search to a population of actors from black African stock. And of course the reverse is true: when casting for the part of George Washington, you can rule out of hand right from the start all black, Asian and even short actors, no matter how good Denzel Washington, Naveen Andrews, and Danny DeVito may be.

Similarly, when choosing a mate, it may be high-minded of you to be open to members of all races, but it would hardly be wrong to discriminate for members of your own race, or members of a race you find most attractive.

The upshot is: equality before the law and doing good business indicate reasons to set up a taboo on discrimination on the basis of race, but there may be a few or even many areas of life where where racial discrimination is not wrong.

And other forms of discrimination — on basis of talent, taste, concepts, efficacy, etc. — remain central to what it means to be human.

I shake my head at this now, and wonder how anyone could be so dunderheaded as to think otherwise. But I remember Reagan and Mondale, and I see why the error of believing that all discrimination is wrong could be made.

Especially by those who are over-vigilant, for whatever reason, in the fight against racism. Over-compensation is a strategy.

But it can lead to bizarre and horrific consequences, as seen in an article that was just published on Quillette, “Public Education’s Dirty Secret.” In this revelatory memoir, schoolteacher Mary Hudson describes why New York City’s schools are so bad. And “bad” is an understatement:

The school always teetered on the verge of chaos. The previous principal had just been dismissed and shunted to another school district. Although it was never stated, all that was expected of teachers was to keep students in their seats and the volume down. This was an enormous school on five floors, with students cordoned off into separate programs. There was even a short-lived International Baccalaureate Program, but it quickly failed. Whatever the program, however, the atmosphere of the school was one of danger and deceit. Guards patrolled the hallways, sometimes the police had to intervene. Even though the security guards carefully screened the students at the metal detectors posted at every entrance, occasionally arms crept in. Girls sometimes managed to get razors in, the weapon of choice against rivals for boys’ attention. Although I don’t know of other arms found in the school (teachers were kept in the dark as much as possible), one particularly disruptive and dangerous boy was stabbed one afternoon right outside school. It appears he came to a violent death a few years later. What a tragic waste of human potential.

As the weeks dragged painfully into months, it became apparent that the students wouldn’t learn anything. It was dumbfounding. It was all I could do to keep them quiet; that is, seated and talking among themselves. Sometimes I had to stop girls from grooming themselves or each other. A few brave souls tried to keep up with instruction. A particularly good history teacher once told me that she interrupted a conversation between two girls, asking them to pay attention to the lesson. One of them looked up at her scornfully and sneered, “I don’t talk to teachers,” turning her back to resume their chat. She told me that the best school she ever worked at was in Texas, where her principal managed not only to suspend the most disruptive students for long periods, he also made sure they were not admitted during that time to any other school in the district. It worked; they got good results.

But this was not done. Suspending the violent and the disruptive was considered by administrators to be . . . wait for it . . . “discriminatory.”

It would be “discriminatory” to keep the students at home. The appropriate paperwork being filed, the most outrageously disruptive students went for a day or two to a room with other serious offenders. The anti-discrimination laws under which we worked took all power away from the teachers and put it in the hands of the students.

This is of course a recipe for chaos. No learning can occur when violent students disrupt classrooms and receive protection from the authorities.

I tried everything imaginable to overcome student resistance. Nothing worked. At one point I rearranged the seating to enable the students who wanted to engage to come to the front of the classroom. The principal was informed and I was reprimanded. This was “discriminatory.” The students went back to their chosen seats near their friends. Aside from imposing order, the only thing I succeeded at was getting the students to stand silently during the Pledge of Allegiance and mumble a few songs in French. But it was a constant struggle as I tried to balance going through the motions of teaching with keeping them quiet.

The abuse from students never let up. We were trained to absorb it. By the time I left, however, I had a large folder full of the complaint forms I’d filled out documenting the most egregious insults and harassment. There was a long process to go through each time. The student had a parent or other representative to state their case at the eventual hearing and I had my union rep. I lost every case.

The sheer craziness of this policy is dystopian in its extremity. And note that excuse: being “against discrimination.”

And let us not fool ourselves. We know where the abuse of the word “discriminatory” comes from: progressivism.

And lawyers.

Over-vigilance against racial discrimination has led to the anathemization of all forms of discrimination, including those forms noticed by Tom Lehrer, discrimination on the grounds of ability. And it is white guilt that is the main trouble — coupled with the moral corruption of inner-city black parents and their lawyers and advocates. Progressive white folks have been so afraid to think carefully about — and criticize, judge — “the marginalized”* when they do wrong that they defend bad behavior and thereby nurture evil and self-destructive vice.

This is a grand example of moral and intellectual cowardice.

That it has led to a form of philosophical corruption, where a word central to the whole moral and intellectual project — discrimination — has become a word to defend bad behavior and the corruption of the young.

The story is not just horrific, though. It is also darkly comic:

Sometimes you just have had enough. One day a girl sitting towards the back of the classroom shouted at some boy up front, “Yo! Nigga! Stop that!” I stood up as tall as I could and said in my most supercilious voice, “I don’t know which particular nigga the young lady is referring to, but whoever it is, would you please stop it.” The kids couldn’t believe their ears:

“Yo, miss!  You can’t say that!”
“Why not? You say it all the time.”
“Uhh . . .  Because you’re old.”
“That’s not why. Come on, tell the truth.” 

This went on for a bit, until one brave lad piped up: “Because you’re white.” “Okay,” I said, “because I’m white. Well what if I said to you, ‘You’re not allowed to say some word because you’re black.’ Would that be okay?” They admitted that it wouldn’t. No one seemed to report it. To this day, it’s puzzling that I didn’t lose my job over that incident. I put it down to basic human decency.

Decency? Maybe. More likely it was a philosophical moment. For one instance the students learned something. What? That the normative order thst they relied upon was itself evil. One can hope that their momentary glimpse of the truth came to serve them later in life. And speaking of life — what kind did they have?

Students came to school for their social life. The system had to be resisted. It was never made explicit that it was a “white” system that was being rejected, but it was implicit in oft-made remarks. Youngsters would say things like, “You can’t say that word, that be a WHITE word!” It did no good to remind students that some of the finest oratory in America came from black leaders like Martin Luther King and some of the best writing from authors like James Baldwin. I would tell them that there was nothing wrong with speaking one’s own dialect; dialects in whatever language tend to be colorful and expressive, but it was important to learn standard English as well. It opens minds and doors. Every new word learned adds to one’s wealth, and there’s nothing like grammar for organizing one’s thoughts. 

It all fell on deaf ears. It was impossible to dispel the students’ delusions. Astonishingly, they believed that they would do just fine and have great futures once they got to college! They didn’t seem to know that they had very little chance of getting into anything but a community college, if that. Sadly, the kids were convinced of one thing: As one girl put it, “I don’t need an 85 average to get into Hunter; I’m black, I can get in with a 75.” They were actually encouraged to be intellectually lazy.

The adults responsible for this system, black and white, should be ashamed of themselves. And repent. Reform the schools. Get rid of the insane “anti-discrimination” rules — at the very least.

But how likely is that? To do that, after all, they would have to discriminate.

twv


* This term of art, “the marginalized,” is especially inartful, hardly an accurate descriptor, since it misidentifies nearly all the problems noted in this memoir.

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