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Peter Espeut | Just and unjust discrimination

Published:Thursday | August 17, 2017 | 12:00 AM

One of the most powerful fronts in the war to change and reform (some would say to corrupt) our culture is language. An important strategy is to change the definitions of strategic terms in our cultural vocabulary (like marriage, sexual intercourse, rape) and to introduce new ones (like homophobia and multigender).

One of the words under assault in this modern war is 'discrimination'. In its original usage, it means the 'recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another', and even 'the ability to discern what is of high quality; good judgement or taste'. In addition, discrimination has come to mean 'the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex', and the word has taken on emotional and political connotations.


Just discrimination


In this modern dispensation of manufactured 'rights', some argue that all forms of discrimination are wrong. This position is false. All forms of 'unjust discrimination' are wrong, but there is something called 'just discrimination'.

All criteria for employment are discrimination because they exclude from getting jobs those who do not fulfil those criteria. Beauty contests discriminate against married or widowed women, and women with children. Life insurance companies practise age discrimination because they charge higher premiums to older people (who are more likely to die sooner than younger people). These are all examples of just discrimination.

There is the practice in the USA called affirmative action, where admission preference was given to black applicants over those of other races who were more qualified, to increase the registration of black students in US colleges. This type of racial discrimination is, of course, positive discrimination; some call it reverse discrimination.

Here in Jamaica, the 70:30 system - where 70 per cent of children placed into traditional high schools by the Common Entrance Examination were from primary schools, even if there were prep-school children who had better grades - is also positive discrimination.

Discrimination is not a bad word. Every human being discriminates every day. Speaking for myself, I discriminate against restaurants with bad food, and against cacophonic music.

We discriminate as a basic function of our intelligence. Not everyone will be trusted enough for you to lend them money or your car.

Every law is discriminatory. Every law favours something or discourages something, or prohibits everything in a particular class. Incentives offered by the Government encourage certain activities; disincentives discourage others. To think that discrimination in itself is unjust is to forget that the word simply means recognising a difference, and that, fundamentally, it is correct and just to discriminate between right and wrong.

And so there is unjust discrimination and just discrimination, and when laws are being created, there should be unlawful discrimination and lawful discrimination. Just to say that some action is discrimination is neither to say that it is just or unjust. Further analysis is required.


Need for robust debate


There is need for robust debate in this area. In Trinidad, schools owned by the Anglican Church hire only Anglicans as principals. Is this just or unjust discrimination? Should church schools be forced to hire atheists as teachers? Considering that schools teach norms and values and not only English and mathematics, is it just or unjust discrimination for Christian schools to hire only Christian teachers?

Should persons previously convicted of sexual offences or child abuse be considered for employment in infant, primary or secondary schools? Should persons who are seropositive for HIV/AIDS be considered for employment in schools, say as physical education teachers? Would this be just or unjust discrimination?

Should persons who are seropositive for HIV/AIDS be allowed to play contact sports (where occasionally they come into contact with the blood and other body fluids of their teammates and opponents)? Would this be just or unjust discrimination?

Should persons applying for a job be required to take HIV/AIDS tests? Should they be required to provide their police records that may reveal that they have been convicted in the recent or distant past of criminal offences? Should employers take these factors into account when hiring staff? Do employees have a right to know the HIV status of their co-workers? And whether or not they have a criminal record?

Should LGBT activists be allowed to discriminate against persons who believe that homosexuality is fundamentally disordered? Is this just or unjust discrimination? In a free society, shouldn't all ideas contend?

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.