On the Subject of Discrimination — Part. II

Peter Paul Rubens/Anthony van Dyk — ‘The Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs’

Why is it that we are so afraid of discrimination as a prospect? Potentially it is a need for social cohesion that dissuades us from discriminatory endeavours. Envision a negligent individual assailing us with the phrase ‘That’s discrimination!’ in order to defend themselves and their actions. Even without considering individual contexts, the very thought of saying the words ‘Yes, I know it is’, in its generality, makes one conscious, makes one buckle.

After all, consider the normative evidence. In their boundless droves people privately and passionately advocate discriminatory measures like additional health taxes for the severely obese or for heavy smokers, but few stand in fizzy drinks aisles or smoking areas barking such notions, at least not with the vigour which we find them to within the comfort of their living rooms.

It is understandably difficult to publicly discriminate whilst alone, and whilst a sickening cliché, we do have to agree that unified voices are not only stronger in tone, but more confident in their delivery. Quebec has now become the first Canadian province to introduce an additional tax measure for the unvaccinated, and, on the other side of the Atlantic, European nations are allied in their use of behavioural nudges and legal mandates of varying severity. Maybe then, with these state actions in mind, the vocality of the individual will upsurge.

Yet whilst there is this discrimination-friendly response gathering, it might not result in any long-lasting attitudinal change in relation to how we perceive the act of discriminating, particularly in a world which is free from COVID-19, and is, by extension, a world free from pandemic-related faults. We will most likely find that our anxieties surrounding discrimination, whatever and wherever they arise from, are rooted strong and deep.

Providing, though, that the possible warrant, the need, for discrimination exists, then there is weight behind the project of linguistic and conceptual revision, the project of altering how the word ‘discrimination’ is understood, how it is viewed, in private territories, and in the public, discursive forum.

This project could be understood as one not just of linguistic revision, but of linguistic cleansing. Once we appropriate (or re-appropriate) a word from restricted conventional understandings, we open up possibilities in the semantic landscape. And if our interaction with this landscape is flexible in virtue of its breadth, we may very well find that our range of acceptable behaviours are themselves flexible and broad.

As an utterly general example, once the word ‘discrimination’ is cleansed, and we are confident it is squeaky clean, actions — like vocalising our concerns over someone’s moral or intellectual failing — which we were previously dissuaded from, suddenly appear as a conceivable option. Though illustrations like these might be flaccid thanks to their generality, I think they get the point across.

We should thus begin to dismantle our unfettered ‘semantic intolerance’; a dogmatic and ungrounded fear of words and all the potential ends that they might be employed towards. A dangerous cancel culture permeates with not just persons in the crosshairs, but with the very things which allow us to communicate and operate, too.

This isn’t to suggest blind and eager adherence to words irrespective of their consequences (such a thing might be best understood not as semantic intolerance, but as ‘semantic favouritism’) as an alternative either. Both intolerance and favouritism we should take as being poisonous to the ability to talk openly.

Stepping into frontiers beyond discrimination, there are many many words which fit snuggly into these descriptions of semantic intolerance and semantic favouritism. Often, depending where we are situated on the ideological spectrum, the very same words are either categorically intolerable or seductive favourites.

‘Privatise’, ‘War’, ‘Sexuality’, ‘Marxist’, ‘Capitalist’, ‘Borders’, ‘Climate’, ‘Immigration’, ‘Drugs’, ‘De-fund’, ‘Gender’, ‘Eugenics’, ‘Liberty’, ‘Leftist’, ‘Rightist’, ‘Centrist’. All are suitable candidates for intolerance or favouritism. Most importantly, we have to find ample room for these words in our daily conduct; they shouldn’t be entirely excluded but nor should they automatically have monuments erected as tribute.

Finding ample room means avoiding excess codification. When it comes to speaking about (and through our speech, trying to capture) complex phenomena, a simple semantic input like ‘discrimination’ cannot, or at least, should not, result in an equally simple (expression-hindering) output. The existence and use of a word should not, in all circumstances, negate our using it, nor expressing it in our behaviours.

I trust I needn’t say this, but I will anyway: this does not mean we should discriminate willy-nilly. Discrimination only finds its justification in the face of individual fault, and the issue is that ‘fault’ is obviously an incredibly slippery term prone to the influence of subjectivity.

Ex-offenders may have been at fault on several occasions, typifying a myriad of shortcomings, should they be discriminated against in their future endeavours? It doesn’t seem right to say so, certainly not categorically. Equally, whilst certain shortcomings might be statistically prevalent among specific demographics, can we therefore extrapolate, and begin to discriminate against all others who operate (or appear to) within this demographic? The answer is no, not at all.

History shows that discrimination can take vileness hand-in-hand. Similarly, by turning away from history and facing in the opposite direction, towards a future temporality of Big Data, of absolute quantification and predictability, of surveillance, of algorithmic precision, a technological scalpel designed to unveil the most shrouded of our inadequacies and the most troubling features of our subconscious, we see that the vileness of discrimination is not an exclusive relic of the past. In this future, discrimination has as much capacity for excessive cruelty as it does warranted utility.

Nor does the potential value of outlawed terms like ‘discrimination’ mean that we should praise certain other renegade words and the prescriptions that they contain. It may be that some words are so vile, and their relevant use-contexts so rare, that we can confidently extract them from our lexicons. Who knows.

All I’ve wanted to paint here is a rudimentary formula. To re-introduce a way of criticising the poor behaviours of negligent persons back into our vocal, semantic, and behavioural range. It is evidently not a finely tuned mechanism for specifying precisely how we should operate.

As already mentioned, ‘fault’ is a difficult thing to shackle with objectivity. We all have the proclivity to be cognitively flawed and epistemically fallible creatures, to take the illusory to be genuine. And although clear-cut ideology is often the cause of our biases, prejudice at times arises from limbic pre-reflexive systems. Things we can’t always keep in check or modify when we need to.

As a result of this, the proposed veracity of any perceived failing must be combed over for cracks, and then combed over again. To pragmatically proceed we must have systems in place which allow us to find the genuine faults. We can’t jump to conclusions, we shouldn’t extrapolate an individual’s flaws into a wider critique of a group which they represent. The level of discrimination must too, most probably, correlate to the level of fault we recognise.

This degree of thoroughness and the demand for evidence might mean that we often can’t berate strangers, people we encounter only fleetingly, but we might be able chastise familiar acquaintances like irresponsible colleagues. Finally, we should not be dissuaded by the demands imposed for warranted discrimination, even if we are prone to lapping up falsehoods and generating our own untruths. We must treat these errors as on occasion belonging to human, not humans as belonging to error.

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