Over Christmas I got into a discussion about the modern ideas of “privilege” and “diversity”. If I’m talking to people I know, I can get a bit too enthusiastic in such discussions, so I’m not sure I explained my my understanding / viewpoint very well. So I’m going to sum them up here to get it off my chest.

My basic premise is that it is unjust discrimination to make decisions about who to hire or admit to a school or club or whatever based on race, religion, sex, background, etc., when such traits do not matter to the decision being made. (Sometimes they do matter. For example, if you’re hiring someone to do construction work, it is not unjust discrimination to hire a physically fit young man rather than a man with no arms. It is discrimination, but it is not unjust to hire a person who can do a job better than someone else in regards to the qualifications the job entails (assuming those qualifications are themselves just and not designed to justify unjust discrimination). Another example: it is not unjust discrimination to hire actors of various races to portray historic figures of the same race for a film or a play. It is not unjust discrimination to not hire a non-Christian to teach at a Christian school. It is not unjust discrimination to have a boys and girls locker room and bathroom, or boarding school, or scouts, or whatever. Etc, etc.)

As far as I can tell, the promotion of seeking “diversity” on campus or in a workplace leads to (whether intentionally or unintentionally) unjust discrimination. That is, it leads to hiring or admitting (or not) people based on traits that have nothing to do with how well they can perform the job.

Of course, one must first ask the question, “What is diversity?” Given a group of people, how exactly do you measure its diversity? I never really got a straight answer on this. In my view, every group is already diverse by virtue of being made up of different people. Every person has different life experiences and different points of view with which they can contribute to a group. To claim that swapping one person for another (based on some irrelevant trait) makes a given group “better” (by virtue of now being more “diverse”) seems rather judgmental to say the least. On what grounds can such a claim ever be made?

The next question is then, of course, “Of what value is diversity?” Granted, it’s hard to answer this question without answering the the question above. I don’t think I got a straight answer on this either, but it usually has something to do with different points of view offering considerations you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. What exactly these considerations might be, and how they might be measurably “better”, I have yet to understand.

One argument may go like this: A school has a chess club, and all the club members are nerdy white males. Because of the club’s lack of racial diversity, a non-white and/or non-male student will not be inspired to join the club. I must interrupt the argument here, for I must naturally question whether the interest in the club should at all include anything other than an interest in chess itself. That is, of what importance is it that the club is made up of white males? Is it not racist and/or sexist to assume that one cannot join the club because one’s skin color or sex differs? Is it not unjustly prejudiced to assume the club members will not appreciate such a new member despite such differences? The argument then concludes that the club should actively seek to be “diverse” so that potential new members will not feel discouraged from joining. But, again, I fail to see the need for this, as my interruption explains: a potential new member should not be judging whether or not to join the club based on anything but his interest in chess. And, by extension, the chess club is not obligated to present itself in whatever manner that would make potential members feel welcome other than their devotion to chess itself (especially when this manner is ultimately measured in traits like skin color or sex).

In the real world, one may readily observe that there are clear correlations between one’s interests and traits like skin color, religious backgrounds, sex, age, geographic location, etc. Someone arguing for diversity may see these correlations as evidence of rampant unjust discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious.

On the contrary, it is completely natural and need not be counter-acted. (In fact, trying to counteract it is futile.) Your interests do not form in a vacuum. Of course your interests will be influenced by the people you grow up with and the culture you are exposed to. Why is this a bad thing? It does not imply that you can only be interested in certain things, assuming you are not judging the “diversity” of your interest area before pursuing it (that is, being prejudiced). And, again, it does not obligate anyone to switch interests or encourage interests in others for the sake of “diverse” representations among areas of interest.

As for “privilege”, the discussion never really got anywhere. I often find the term used as an ad hominem attack to end discussions without having to actually argue one’s case (as in, “Check your privilege!” = Your ideas need not be considered because your race, sex, religion, or whatever implies that you haven’t had to suffer like I have, therefore I don’t have to listen to you), or as a way of trying to justify unjust discrimination (as in, “I have suffered in some way you have not, therefore I’m entitled to something special and you are not”).

Of course it is true that there is unfairness in life. Some people are born with diseases and hardships, some people are born to wealth and influence. Different people with different backgrounds will have different life experiences. Some will have to struggle for decades so that their children may live a better life, while others will grow up in mansions. While we are obligated (by love, not law) to treat everyone equally (that is, without unjust discrimination, not without any discrimination at all, as explained earlier), we are not obligated to make everyone’s circumstances themselves equal. Circumstances, in and of themselves, are irrelevant, as I’ve blogged about before.

So fighting for special treatment (after comparing circumstances, real or imagined) makes no sense, and in fact only perpetuates any unjust discrimination one may seek to end. After all, if you’re not fighting for equality for everyone, then you’re not really fighting for equality at all.

Finally, there may of course be arguments about the distinctions to be made between “special” treatment and “equal” treatment, just as there may be arguments about the distinctions between “just” and “unjust” discrimination. But one has to be ready for such arguments; merely trying to sweep them under a rug with claims of “privilege” is hardly going to convince anyone not already considering themselves somehow “unprivileged”. (That is, when you make these discussions about “privilege”, you’re really just encouraging everyone to A) compare themselves to others and to B) think of themselves as somehow not “privileged”. After all, you get nothin’ extra for being “privileged”. And everyone can find something, so we just end up with the Suffering Olympics and all the prejudice, racism, sexism, etc. that come with them.)

So that’s my understanding of these issues; I hope you appreciate the privilege of reading them.

Categories: Philosophy

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