Improving the World Through Discrimination

Identity politics in practice.

In my previous blog, I discussed my ambivalent feelings about the #metoo movement, and now it appears that the world is conspiring to throw another perplexing tangle into my brain, the issue of implementing discriminatory policies for the social good.

This issue has come up a lot for me recently. It started with the proposed Bill C-25, specifically PART XIV.‍1 172.1, Disclosure Relating to Diversity. This law proposes that businesses be required on an annual basis to disclose diversity-related personal information about directors and senior managers. It continued with Canada’s recent Gender Equity budget, focused to a huge degree on identity politics. And then this week, Google has faced lawsuits for implementing systemic discrimination against white and Asian applicants in their hiring processes.

When an issue hits again and again, it gets my thoughts churning.

My biases

I really struggle with this issue because there’s certainly been historically bias against minorities and women in most aspects of western culture. I also think that discrimination exists today, though clearly not as much in the past. What I’m confused about is the degree to which discrimination exists today and the right way to tackle the issue.

The issue is complicated by the fact that I’m a white male. Thus, I have an emotional reaction to policies that will discriminate against whites and males, likely very similar to the emotional reaction a black woman might have against policies that discriminate against blacks and females. Thus, it’s hard for me to separate the logic of my analysis from my emotional knee jerk reactions.

I also believe that there’s something to be said for the expression, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” It’s a brilliant saying because it really gets to the emotional heart of the challenge of righting disparity. At the same time, I find it dangerous, because it can be misused to dismiss real concerns. Oppression also feels like oppression.

So, that’s why this topic is challenging to me—it’s hard to define the problem, it’s hard to separate reasoning from emotion, and it’s hard to find solutions. Of course, that’s also why it’s an interesting topic to discuss.

Over the line

To me, Bill-C25 is a huge problem, because I believe it is wrong for corporations to be collecting information about their employees’ gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, and even more wrong for them to publish it. People should have the right to control the disclosure of their own personal information. It shocks me that people who in the last century saw attempted genocides in Germany, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi, and Iraq think it’s a good idea to create huge public databases that identify people by ethnicity, highlighting the most successful members of each ethnic group.

The Liberals don’t want these databases so that they can persecute minorities, but it seems clear to me that in this world, weird stuff happens. Donald Trump got elected in the USA. Who’s to say that something equally strange couldn’t happen in Canada? And if it does, I think it’s a bad idea to have a ready-made list of leaders in ethnic communities that a racist Prime Minister might want to persecute.

To stop political horrors from happening, you want it to be difficult for governments to do horrible things. You want people to be able to hide, to fight back. So, there’s value in not creating governmental infrastructure to make persecution easy.

Discrimination for good

The more challenging issue for me is deliberately implementing discriminatory systems to put white males at a disadvantage relative to other people. I have so many different perspectives on this one.

First, if women or ethnic groups are at a disadvantage as a result of their gender or ethnicity, that’s a big problem for me, and a problem that should be addressed. However, the evidence of that discrimination doesn’t seem particularly solid. For instance, there was an Australian study showed that gender and ethnic-identification information was stripped from resumes, males were actually more likely to be short-listed for jobs. Similar blind-hiring results have been found in Canada as well, supporting the surprising idea that hiring practices discriminate against men.

The gender pay gap data is also difficult to interpret, partly because the numbers are very political and because it seems like it’s almost impossible to get an apples to apples comparison. I think there’s a pay gap, but I’d be hard pressed to find evidence that actually proves it conclusively.

My second thought is that implementing systemic discrimination against another gender or ethnic group seems like a terrible solution. Because then you’ve implement systematic discrimination against a group based on their gender or ethnicity.

It’s not that the proposed cure would be worse than the disease, but rather than the proposed cure is the disease. If I abhor the idea of people of one gender being discriminated against, I’m not sure why I shouldn’t also abhor the idea of people of another gender being discriminated against.

Intellectual honesty

The other big problem with this effort to improve equality though discrimination is that it doesn’t seem to be intellectually honest because governments appear to be focused only on correcting injustices that affect women and minorities, not others.

For instance, more women than men have been going to university, to the extent that in Canada in 2009, 34% of women aged 25 to 34 had a bachelors’ degree, while only 26% of men did—a 31% difference. Since then, the ratios have become even more skewed. Yet there hasn’t been a high-profile push to get more men into university, or determine why Canada’s education system is failing males.

Similarly, one often hears about how the gender gap in science and engineering needs to be addressed, but it’s very rare that one hears about how problematic it is that there are so few men in nursing. In the US, fewer than 10% of nurses are male, and I imagine the statistics aren’t that different in Canada. I’m not sure why it’s more important that women work in construction jobs than men work in nursing jobs, but based on the latest federal budget, the Liberals seem to believe this is the case.

The injustice of the justice system is even more of a concern. Men face significantly higher conviction rates than women. What’s more, a recent American study shows that men on average face 63% longer prison terms than women (from memory, a Canadian study discovered a similar difference). While people are (rightly) outraged about the statistics when it comes to the conviction rates and sentences for aboriginals, they largely don’t seem to care about bias against men.

Now, I don’t know if other factors explain these discrepancy—men are generally bigger and stronger than women, so one could expect them on average to do more harm than a women when committing, for instance, assault. The greater damage they cause might factor into sentences. But even so, such big unexplained differences in conviction rates and sentences is worrisome.

My bottom line

To be clear, my argument isn’t that the government shouldn’t attempt to correct injustices. Rather, some governments’ tendencies to focus on particular injustices and ignoring others makes me wonder whether the goal of such governments is to actually reduce inequality, or to pander to their base. And that makes me even more skeptical of policies that attempt to reduce discrimination by implementing systemic discrimination.

Today in Canada, female government employees outnumber male employees by about 70%. More than just about any other employment statistic, that particular ratio is under the government’s control. Thus, if the government is sincere in its belief that diversity is good, gender inequalities need to be addressed, and discriminatory policies are the best way to address them, then I would expect them to implement policies to discriminate against women in government hiring until this inequality is corrected. But I suspect they won’t, which makes me cynical when they suggest this approach in other areas.

Thus, while I’m concerned gender and ethnic inequalities, I’ll remain nervous about policies that attempt to solve the problem by judging people not by the content of their character, but rather the color of their skin. And remain frustrated while I continue to seek just ways to address discrimination.

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6 thoughts on “Improving the World Through Discrimination

  1. Hi Richard,

    As always, I enjoy reading your thoughts and perspectives, and appreciate how you approach issues with a cool and rational head, trying hard not to let emotions sway you.

    On this topic, I think emotions can be overwhelming. Reading your arguments, I had to really step back and be rational myself, and listen carefully to what you were saying, because I do feel that there is strong evidence for discrimination against women that is ongoing and exists to this day.

    Most of your points I understood. I do agree that there are several areas in which men experience discrimination. An additional one that comes to mind right away is when marriages dissolve. Men are still often disadvantaged in custody settlements.

    One point I wanted to speak up about is when you compared your emotional reaction to discrimination to that of a black woman experiencing discrimination. That really made me react. I don’t believe that as a privileged white male you can have any true idea of how it feels to have experienced the discrimination that a black woman would have experienced in her lifetime and therefore I don’t think your emotional reaction to a policy could possibly compare to her reaction to a policy. She would have so much history of pain. (Nor would I know how it feels, being a privileged white female).

    It’s International Women’s Day here (already March 7th) so I have my feminist hat on today 🙂

    Best wishes from rainy Brisbane,
    Fiona

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  2. Hey Fiona,

    Yeah, it is certainly a challenging topic. Thinking about it a bit more, you’re probably right that my emotional reaction to a policy would be different than a black woman’s reaction to a policy. My initial emotional reaction to the idea of a discriminatory government policy targeting me is white-hot fury as intense as any rage I’ve ever felt before. If I’d lived through discrimination my whole life, maybe it would’ve been more of a simmering wearing-down cynical anger at yet another boulder to be added to the load. So, different, as you say.

    I do think that there’s evidence of discrimination against women. Yet when you start to throw science and statistics at the problem (and in particular the gender pay disparity problem), I think it’s hard to remove bias from the comparisons to get something that’s apples to apples.

    For instance, men work longer hours than women. I also think that typically women have a much more diverse set of responsibilities outside work–often taking more responsibility over the household and family. As a result, I think men are much more likely to focus obsessively on work, which, over time will lead to pay inequality. (I’m not going to give a high performer as big a raise as the obsessive workaholic top-tier performer.)

    (As an aside, I read an article about a study that suggested that today, women have higher starting wages than men, but, over time, tended to fall behind men. That would be consistent with this hypothesis, though not remotely a proof of the hypothesis.)

    There is the union mentality that all people are equal and the only thing that distinguishes them is number of years they’ve worked for the union, but I don’t think that represents real world productivity at all. In my world (technology), the high performer can be 20 times more productive than the average performer (because the high performer will not just solve the problem, but solve the problem in a way that many potential future problems won’t arise, and any problems that do arise will be much easier to solve.) Thus, if you’re comparing two groups of people and group A gets paid twice what group B does, despite the same job title and group A only working half an hour more than group B daily, I don’t think that’s convincing evidence that group B is underpaid relative to group A.

    But if you don’t take the union model that average time working at a job and job title are the only things that impact productivity, then it gets really hard to do comparisons between any two groups of people, including comparing men and women.

    The thing that I find problematic is that men and women are different, but the world wants to say that they’re only different when it comes to average physical capabilities. Yet I suspect there are non-physical differences too. But it’s hard (impossible?) to say what’s nature and what’s nurture–and anything that’s nurture can be viewed as discrimination.

    So if you look at the gender salary gap, how do we know that woman on average aren’t acting differently than men when it comes to productivity or salary negotiation? And if they are acting differently, how do we know whether they’re acting differently for biological reasons or because society made them that way?

    Essentially, the problem is too hard, and most research that tries to examine gender differences is either squelched for being non-politically correct, or likely done by someone with an agenda and therefore untrustworthy. (Are there any studies by alt-righters where the “researchers” were hoping for evidence of non-discrimination, found evidence of discrimination, yet still published?)

    I think there’s a certain irony, in that, if you believe in gender discrimination (and that it has an effect on the behavior of women), it seems impossible to say whether the bosses are discriminating against women when it comes to pay, or if the women are acting differently as a result of discrimination, leading to lower productivity and therefore lower pay.

    And this is why I keep tying myself in knots trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance. I believe that everyone should have equal opportunities and be treated fairly and that people shouldn’t be paid differently based on their gender but paid on the basis of productivity. But I also believe that discrimination could potentially result in women acting differently in ways that lower their productivity (and therefore, from the employer’s perspective, women on average being paid less because that’s “fair”).

    So where should I go with that? I don’t really know, which is why the topic is both interesting and frustrating. It feels to me that trying to fix discrimination by adding discrimination is a bad idea, but I also don’t have a good idea that I’d propose as an alternative. It does help to write about it to resolve the thoughts.

    (I’m actually similarly annoyed by most social “sciences” problems, but this one frustrates me more than most because the answers here matter a lot.)

    Richard

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    1. Hi Richard,

      Yes, I know what you mean. There is so much potential for error when studying this kind of thing (e.g. gender pay disparity). And I know what you mean about social science problems being frustrating.

      Your comment actually reminded me of when I (unsuccessfully) applied for a ‘creative research’ degree at the Queensland University of Technology (Creative Industries Department). I was advised by another writer to apply, because it was government-funded, and would have given me a mentor for a ‘creative project’ (writing a short story collection). However we would also have to write a 20,000 word exogesis on a ‘research topic’ and oh my goodness. Coming from a science background this was excruciating just to have to write a proposal to say what I planned to do. I had to come up with an ‘area of research’ and ‘objectives of research’ etc — and all this was about stories!!! I tried reading articles about the topic, in order to write my proposal, and some of the sentences were like they were in another language – ‘arts speak’! So mine was something like ‘how Australian summer heat affects the emotional atmosphere of contemporary short fiction’ or something equally vague. How do you even investigate something like that? I would have been terrible!

      Anyway I have gone off topic totally. I completely agree that fixing discrimination with more discrimination is not good. I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts and reflecting on what you’ve said here.

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      1. It’s tough to figure out the semantics of “Creative Research” in this context. The only way I can make sense of that phrase is imagining some innovative technique, and either explaining or demonstrating the technique. Like maybe Van Gogh or Picasso would fit in there, if you were the first Van Gogh or Picasso.

        Things like that annoy me, because it’s basically saying, “what you’re doing has no intrinsic value whatsoever, so we have to add the politically correct word ‘research’ in order to justify funding your work.”

        Then I look at books like “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” or even something more character-based like “The Stone Angel”. These books are entertainment, but they’re more than that. The first two are warnings, while the latter lets you see a facet of the human experience, encouraging empathy and understanding. Admittedly, few books are classics to this extent, but the best books have a huge positive impact on humanity. Humans absorb narratives far better than science or statistics.

        e.g. we are now in the situation where cameras are everywhere and artificial intelligence is starting to do facial recognition and micro-expression analysis, basically a lot of the technology that exists in 1984. I feel like a lot of the very bad outcomes from 1984 are significantly less likely to occur because 1984 exists. (Well unless Trump or Putin decides 1984 is intended as an instruction manual.)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s an interesting take on why the concept of ‘creative research’ has come about – I wonder if it is, as you say, due to the arts being undervalued. Maybe also trying to compete with science-based disciplines in showing that ‘research’ is being done in this field too? (perhaps this relates to funding as well?) I don’t know, but I agree that literature is not mere entertainment at all – it has the ability to open people’s minds to all kinds of ideas, to promote compassion, to encourage imaginative thought, to comfort … really so many benefits, when done well.

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  3. Came back to add that I have just found out I got International Women’s Day wrong, and you were likely to polite to tell me that it is March 8th not March 7th. I am such a dork!

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