From Precision to Vagueness – Part 1: The Meaning of Words and the New Egalitarianism

Words naturally take on new meaning as time passes. More often than not, they take on colloquial applications, rather than undergo a full makeover in what is stated in the dictionary.

Certain words have become less precise with time. Partly because of deliberate attempts to blur the boundaries, and partly as a consequence of cultural trends that move with such a pace and force behind them that no concerted effort can withstand them.

Yet, on the surface it is remarkable that this shift from definitiveness to vagueness should come at precisely this point in history; a time in which the stock of accumulated knowledge and wisdom has never been greater, literacy is at its highest and levels of education are rising.

By definition, vague terms can encompass more, but at the expense of meaning and usefulness.

Broadened understandings of equality and discrimination have led to a zealous defence of difference for the sake of difference, while slowly eroding the core ideas that represent some of humanity’s greatest achievements.

It is the concepts of equality and discrimination that have undergone the greatest shifts. By understanding them, it is easy to comprehend the contemporary cultural and political trends in the Western world.

Equality

Equality – of opportunity/dignity and of outcome

Equality of opportunity refers to the indiscriminate, universal application of the rule of law in a given jurisdiction. In the Western tradition, it has mostly consisted of abstract, and general principles that – by that nature – refer to people as citizens, not as specific people with certain traits. This is done to avoid discrimination.

Under such a conception, people are equal in terms of status as citizens before the law, and as human beings possessing inherent dignity. The ideal is made manifest by the goal of being owed basic respect in spite of actions and traits.

This understanding of equality entails that a person is judged and treated on the basis of the quality of their character and their achievements, rather than their group membership.

It is rooted in a religious understanding of the absolute dignity of the human person. A concept the implications of which are: tolerance of difference, the willingness to forgive failings, as well as the command to help others in one’s sphere of concern and those in dire need.

Crucially, this non-coercive acceptance and duty to care is not at all agnostic about the judgment of character and lifestyle choices. The duty to love (charity) one’s neighbour and one’s enemies means to will the good of the other through one’s actions. This ‘good’ is not at all relative to culture, personality, time and place, but is something that is universal, and objective at its core.

On this view, the meaning of equal human dignity is that all people must respect difference, yet encourage the development of character in others. The standard of which is the ideal normative conception of human character that has been laid out and developed over millennia in the religious and philosophical traditions of Western civilization – the twin pillars of faith and reason.

Equality of outcome refers to increasingly many things, from access to goods and services, wealth, social status, and respect. It is hard to pin down exactly what is meant here, but the idea is that the proper goal to strive for in terms of human equality is somewhere between egalitarianism and a ‘fairer distribution’ of the aforementioned goods.

Unequal outcomes

This second conception is plainly incoherent. Neither goods and services, nor status and respect can be approximately equalized. Nor can respect and status simply increase for everyone, as these are by definition relative goods.

The fact that we have arguably moved to a fuller realization of the ideal of equal human dignity is not a sign that this can be extended further. In order to realize the value of inherent dignity, people require two main things.

First, a system based on the principles of objectivity and impartiality through which they may resolve their grievances as they arise.

Second, in a minimal number of social and public interactions, the norms must be such that all people are treated with a modicum of respect and good manners.

The closer you go towards egalitarianism of any sort, the more you must sacrifice of the practice of valuing itself, as well as individuality.

Discrimination

The change of meaning in the term ‘discrimination’ is closely linked to equality. As differentiation and personal expression become more important as cultural values and migration brings people of drastically different cultures into closer contact, it is only natural to see a change in the meaning of what constitutes a pernicious type of discrimination.

The change has led to the creation of many newly coined ‘-isms’ and ‘phobias’ – sexism, heterosexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, heightism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, ableism, ageism – I’m sure I’m leaving some out.

Discrimination just means to discern differences and judge on that basis. It is the basis for quite literally all judgment and choice.

Every type of action that one can engage in involves it in some way or another. Employment, for example, is done on the basis of the possession of certain skills, behaviours, and attributes that are unevenly ‘distributed’.

What it really means is choice, but is different from simple choosing because in its positive sense, it means, for example, having discriminating tastes. This implies that one is making an informed and reasoned value judgment.

The recent move has been to construe preferential decision-making as bad in itself. The fact that people prefer certain traits, behaviours, and skills above others and make decisions on that basis – either indirectly or systemically – constitutes pernicious discrimination that must be corrected with social engineering techniques.

Obviously, direct or so-called indirect discrimination can be done in a genuinely hateful, or inappropriate manner. Yet, this lexical shift – that makes choosing on the basis of difference a bad thing in itself – has done nothing to discourage the worst kinds of it, but has started to exacerbate tensions, and fragment people into fractal groups.

Two terms have been instrumental in providing the intellectual justification for the most recent broadening of the meaning of discrimination – microaggressions and implicit bias.

A ‘microaggression’ is defined as “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.”

That this is considered a useful definition that can be operationalized is a bit concerning, as the classification criteria refer – without standards – to the purely subjective interpretation of any person.

If a person looks at you in a certain way, says something you don’t like, or just behaves in a particular way, this can be considered a microaggression if the subject of the offence deems it to be so.

‘Implicit bias’ is a term very close to stereotype, but is purportedly more directly linked to action, and is something that its proponents have argued to be pervasive. The concept has been used to justify tests in HR departments. They purportedly show that hiring decisions are unfairly biased towards people with certain names and backgrounds, for example.

What they may show is that you have formed habitual associations on the basis of repeated exposure to past events. Furthermore, they may highlight that in certain types of special situations, these habitual associations take precedence over other factors, and are a strong factor in determining judgment.

They do not at all show that a person is a racist. It cannot be shown that because of a tendency to engage in stereotyping in a particular situation, one therefore systematically and implicitly discriminates – in any negative sense of the term – against people on the basis of their group membership.

Many stereotypes simply reflect descriptive statistical averages that you’ve sorted through over the course of your life. If, for example, you saw an old lady walking down the street late at night and someone wearing baggy pants and a wife-beater on the other side of the road, you would probably decide to walk on one side and not the other.

Your ‘implicit bias’ cognitive architecture would be working just fine.

Proponents of implicit bias want to argue that because you engage in actions like this all the time, you are systematically discriminating against a group of people. This is part of the magic of the misuse of language that such people employ.

If you consistently avoid people who behave in ways that you don’t like, you simply don’t know and would find awkward to engage with, or that you do not think are good, safe, or healthy, then you will likely be doing so not because of the category that the person in question belongs to, but because of the sometimes accurately, sometimes inaccurately perceived qualities of that individual, or group of people formed on the basis of ‘implicit bias’ stereotypes.

Though the perceptions upon which every single action and judgment you take are never fully informed, the stereotypes that they are often based on are more or less accurate, descriptively speaking.

The use of implicit bias tests and ‘racial sensitivity’ training in workplaces are clear attempts to turn something that everyone does inevitably – as a natural feature of living as a person with a history, habits and preferences – into something pernicious so as to justify social engineering.

You can take an Implicit bias test here to see just how bigoted you are.

Mahzarin Banaji discussing the Implicit Bias test

Racism

Racism – “regarding someone as inferior in some way because of their race “

This is different from discrimination, which just means acting upon a judgment of preference, which can be positive, harmless, or pernicious depending on the circumstances.

It is clearly impossible to prevent people from thinking in racist terms, but not to discourage actions on that basis. This is where the term should be used to differentiate between speech and action, and thus different kinds of racism.

Making this distinction is essential. To prove that someone is acting in a racist way on the first interpretation, the burden of proof is much easier, as the criteria are extremely vague. If on the latter, it must be shown that when someone is hiring, firing, preferring certain venues, media, lifestyles – you name it – they are doing so mostly or solely on the basis of race.

I would argue that there are very few people who actually think in this latter way. Even if they do, it is likely due to ignorance or frustration with some cultural or demographic trend and its perceived relevance to social status.

The explicit dislike, or implicit avoidance of certain groups is primarily done on the basis of the perceived and/or real differences in the patterns of behaviour of different groups of people. No serious person believes that there are morally significant, or relevant inherent differences between races of people.

However, racism based on systemic discrimination is now taken to mean anything from lacking proportion in any number of fields: the media, representation in the major and minor levels of the entertainment industry, levels of management, politics, etc. Therefore, irrespective of how a person acts, their skills, qualities, character, or the things they produce or create, special exceptions must be made for people because of their group membership.

There is no ‘right’ amount of proportion to strive for here, which is precisely the magic of such a vague goal. On this new – though really just re-fashioned Marxist – understanding of racism and disparities, the ‘right’ proportion must be left undetermined, so that whenever a complaint is raised, the ‘woke’ intelligentsia and diversity bureaucracy can always answer that more representation or funding, or what have you is not enough. Disagreeing with such practices is simply evidence of your ‘-phobia’ or ‘-ism’.

It is unfortunate that this is the standard, because plainly, it is much more difficult to be a minority group of any kind in any culture. It is hard to grow up seeing people who do not look like you, or act like you in places and positions of prestige, as role models, or simply in everyday life.

Yet, this has little to do with racism, but stems from the basic fact that racial and ethnic groups of people exist, and they are naturally concentrated in specific places.

The majority of positions of authority and prestige are attained by people through the normal course of the accumulation of experience. It is the result of the simple passage of time from youth to adulthood, and the accumulation of knowledge, experience and savings that goes with it. It is therefore necessary that these positions will reflect the demographics of a particular region some 30-50 years in the past.

Today, we can see that the explanations for systemic differences in outcome – which are now counted by many as examples of racism and systemic discrimination – are mostly of a non-pernicious kind. We can see this clearly by noting the following facts.

Factors that Explain Statistical Differences

First, it is the case that the prerequisites for success in any given endeavour demand a unique combination of attributes. This specificity necessarily eliminates the possibility that other combinations will be suitable for success in that endeavour.

Thus, there are massive disparities in social outcomes from education to income based on a few variables as diverse as intelligence, height, extraversion, the birth-order of children, geography (lowlands vs. highlands or towns vs. cities), and so on.

In fact, the presence or absence of one small difference is sufficient to explain vast differences among groups of people that share most other things in common. For example, in every place in the world, small minorities of people occupy very specific social categories.

In Malaysia, ethnic Chinese are a very small minority compared to the native ethnic Malays, but they earn far more and work almost exclusively in certain sectors. In Russia, people of German origin occupied many of the skilled trades occupations for centuries. Jews have had very high levels of income, and occupied certain positions in countries around the world for centuries, in spite of the most serious kind of discrimination. The same is true of Indian, Japanese, and Chinese Canadians – they all have very high average incomes, are clustered in a few regions, and work in the same professions. The explanation for this is that people naturally associate on the basis of shared characteristics.

Thus, inequality of ‘outcomes’ is a logical and empirical necessity that follows from a) the fact that certain social outcomes require the possession of certain traits that differ among people for a host of reasons, and b) people naturally associate on the basis of shared characteristics.

The most recent data on average individual and household income by ethnic group in Canada and the United States show that some groups that have only recently immigrated in large numbers have equal or higher average incomes than groups that have lived in those countries for much longer.

In the United States, the most recent Census data show the following breakdown for average household income by ethnic group: $118,000 (Indian from India), $85,349 (East Asian), $67,865 (Caucasian), $50,987 (Hawaiian or Other Pacific islander), $50,987 (Hispanic or Latino of any race), $39,719 (American Indian and Alaska Native), and $30,555 (Black or African American).

In Canada, we see that in terms of employment income, many groups are nearly equivalent to the ‘non-visible minority’ category.

Unfortunately, per capita and household income data do not tell nearly the whole story for two reasons: they are snapshots in time, and do not take into account individuals as they move through stages in their lives.

Statistics that track individuals over the course of their lives are harder to produce because of the required devotion of time, effort, and resources, but they tell a similar story – that differences in group income are not explained by pernicious discrimination, and that the vast majority of people end their lives in higher income brackets than they began.

Statistics on income inequality leave out more than they include

What we see in Canada is that Japanese Canadians make more than non-visible minority Canadians (i.e., Caucasians), but other ethnic groups earn slightly less. This is interesting, given that they experienced explicit discrimination through internment in labour camps during the second world war.

As with Italian, Eastern European and Irish immigrants in North America, explicit discrimination did lead to lasting lower levels of employment, income, and higher crime rates, for example. These groups did not receive preferential treatment through affirmative action, but struggled to earn high levels of wealth and well-being, in spite of explicit and intentional discrimination.

This is possible in a society based on individual rights, the rule of law, private property, and economic opportunity.

What can cause persistent low scores on social indicators are severe forms of explicit discrimination, such as slavery and segregation, and welfare state and affirmative action policies. The latter create a sense of dependency, resentment, and anger among the recipients.

As Thomas Sowell has shown in numerous works, welfare state policies have been damaging to African-Americans. For example, the ‘war on poverty’ programs slowed the rate of income growth, and the welfare state undid the composition of African-American families.

Despite the grand myth that black economic progress began or accelerated with the passage of the civil rights laws and “war on poverty” programs of the 1960s, the cold fact is that the poverty rate among blacks fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent by 1960. This was before any of those programs began.

Over the next 20 years, the poverty rate among blacks fell another 18 percentage points, compared to the 40-point drop in the previous 20 years. This was the continuation of a previous economic trend, at a slower rate of progress, not the economic grand deliverance proclaimed by liberals and self-serving black “leaders.”

“Nearly a hundred years of the supposed “legacy of slavery” found most black children [78%] being raised in two-parent families in 1960. But thirty years after the liberal welfare state found the great majority of black children being raised by a single parent [66%]. Public housing projects in the first half of the 20th century were clean, safe places, where people slept outside on hot summer nights, when they were too poor to afford air conditioning. That was before admissions standards for public housing projects were lowered or abandoned, in the euphoria of liberal non-judgmental notions. And it was before the toxic message of victimhood was spread by liberals. We all know what hell holes public housing has become in our times.”

– Thomas Sowell; ‘A Legacy of Liberalism’

The same is true for other groups, and is something I will explore in further detail in a forthcoming article on poverty.

Systemic Inequality is the Norm – both natural and inevitable

To summarize then, it is true cross-culturally and across historical time periods that humans self-organize in groups based on the possession of shared properties. In every single society in existence, people have done this. It is a good thing when it is more or less inclusive and based on good pursuits, but strictly speaking it is natural and a necessity.

There are many examples of bad discrimination that contribute to pernicious forms of inequality. Though it does not explain a good deal of the inequality that we see today.

What is called ‘systemic discrimination’ is simply not the bad kind of discrimination. It can only be deemed as such when other factors are lacking. What is required is the existence of public and private spaces for people who fall outside of any norm to live freely. Furthermore, laws and most public social standards must apply to all equally.

Any other target, and things become far too tricky. You simply cannot mandate respect, equalize status, and possessions by ‘redistributing’ – this requires another kind of coercion and social engineering that require the denial of freedom and difference – the very things that such policies are supposed to be in service of.

The same is true of sexism.

Sexism

Sexism (1) – actions based on the belief that members of one sex are less able, intelligent, skillful, etc. than members of the other sex; especially that women are less able than men. (Cambridge dictionary)

Sexism (2) – prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex. (Oxford dictionary)

‘Differential treatment (simplicter) = sexism’ in today’s world: Image by (Joenomias) Menno de Jong from Pixabay 

These two are slightly different, and the first I would argue worthier than the second.

In the first case, we see that acting on the assumption that someone is lesser in a certain regard because of their sex constitutes sexism.

In the second case, we see that any number of actions that are rooted in recognizing differences in people based on their sex can be considered sexism.

This second conception seems to make sense because there are numerous situations in which being treated differently because of some feature of your identity is anywhere from uncomfortable to hurtful, unfair to malicious and degrading.

True, but that does not change the fact that you would be correct most of the time if you based your actions on any one of the enduring ‘stereotypes’ about people based on their sex.

Here, the point being that we do not need such vague definitions of sexism to separate the good from the bad when it comes to issues pertaining to sex differences and differential treatment on that basis.

The criteria for evaluating such standards are plain and commonsensical. They refer not to some concocted notion of undifferentiated human beings who receive exactly the same treatment, but on the clear normative model of complementary difference between the sexes. A model for judgement that is accessible to all, when we look at the world without the tinted glasses created by the media and educational fads.

What constitutes sexism today is, just as with other ‘-isms’, really just any systematic difference in representation in a particular social category, or treatment in the way in which people interact. However, it is only the things that people complain about that are called sexism, whether or not their is malice involved, or action based solely on uninformed prejudice.

No one is crying foul that there are fewer female mechanics, or oil industry workers, that men are incarcerated at much higher rates, pay double in car insurance, make up the majority of the homeless and the addicted, die earlier, and so on and so forth.

Christina Hoff Summers – the Factual Feminist

What we inevitably do in so many small and large ways is recognize sex differences and their effects on behaviour, then treat people accordingly in different circumstances because of this. It is hard to comprehend how anyone could think that this can or should be ‘equalized’.

Attempts to equalize pay, representation, norms, behaviours – the list goes on – are conceptually mistaken, and practically futile.

We can see this most clearly in the ‘gender wage gap’ phenomenon.

The claim behind the gender wage gap is that women are being paid less for performing the same job as men, thus headlines such as that which appeared in Maclean’s magazine a year ago “Women pay $6.99 (not $8.81) for this magazine”.

The gender wage gap stats show an aggregate score; the average difference in income between men and women.

However, when we examine all of the relevant differences, the ‘gap’ shrinks to a fraction. Among the most common factors omitted from consideration are: age, work experience, type of work chosen, hours worked, and differences in personality.

First, far more men have been working longer than women. Thus, they will be paid more as they have more experience.

Why have they been working longer? Prior to technological developments, a sexual division of labour was absolutely necessary. Technology that reduced the difficulty of household work (the dishwasher, washing machine, and the vacuum), as well as reproductive technology opened up a space of opportunity, as fewer hours of time was needed for these activities. More importantly, as economies became more productive through technological and institutional developments, the proportion of resources in an economy devoted to goods and services could shift. As it became easier to produce material goods, more people could work in the service sector, thereby rendering child care services an option for a large portion of the population for the first time in history.

Not to say that all of this is good, as many social problems today are due to divorce rates, single parenting, and lack of care for children, but it at least created the space for more freedom of choice; an absolute necessity in a culture that values individual freedom above all.

The second factor is that men choose professions where they can earn more for a few reasons.

Men are interested primarily in things, rather than people and relationships. This preference translates into choice from among a wider range of scalable economic activities. Whereas women cannot scale up the practice of caring – in jobs like teaching, nursing, and social work, for example – men can produce more widgets of things, carry out more transactions, build more stuff, and so on, with relative ease. Additionally, male sexual attractiveness is based on the possession of status and stability, and conversely, men find fulfilment in providing some things for their partners. This is based on natural differences between the sexes.

Third, men work longer hours because of different goals – based on natural differences in interest. This explains many of the individual differences in earning between male and female doctors and lawyers, for example.

These sorts of factors are seldom considered in all of the ‘disparity’ studies that progressives are fond of citing: income inequality, differences in education, crime, or income between racial and cultural groups, and when comparing things like rates of gun violence in different countries.

The long and short of it is that ‘inequality’ studies show aggregates and averages. But when you control for other variables, the gaps disappear. The difference is between comparing apples to oranges on the one hand, and apples to apples on the other.

Even if one accepts that these basic differences account for the gender ‘wage gap’, then it is common to hear the good old systemic discrimination argument once again. The fact that women bear children, have different physical and emotional constitutions, as well as interests and desires should be compensated for by the employer in the name of ‘justice’.

This is another version of the old-fashioned socialist and leftist argument that difference itself is the culprit, and it must be compensated for in the name of ‘fairness’.

In the war against reality and human nature, no stone can go unturned.

However, basic economics will tell us that the ‘re-distribution’ efforts aimed at correcting such things will predictably lead to two things.

First, employers will be even more reluctant to hire women at certain stages in their lives because they will have to pay for unpaid work. The phenomenon here is the same as with minimum wage – setting a minimum wage reduces the supply of jobs, and those with the least amount of experience at that.

Second, even if you mandate some proportional representation, the unequal treatment that changes the demographic composition of whatever industry in question will mean that men, group X, or whatever other category of person will leave the profession after a certain point.

As we saw above, the proportion of group representation in different social categories is contingent on the possession of a small set of variables. Whenever the composition of the dominant group in a given category changes beyond a certain point, we see larger differences in representation between groups in that given domain.

Thus, when more women begin to enter marketing, the work environment and therefore attributes needed to succeed in the industry begin to change, once a certain threshold is reached, fare fewer men will enter into the industry. Vice-versa for any other field.

Equality of outcome and ‘Systemic’ understandings of Discrimination are incoherent

As we have seen, the move from precision to vagueness has ostensibly been in the service of egalitarianism of various sorts. For simple, non-pernicious reasons, this is impossible, whether it is racism and discrimination, or sexism as ‘systemic discrimination’ that we are concerned with.

These reasons include the fact that people are different, they associate on the basis of differences, and certain practices that they engage require differences in skill, ability, and interest.

Implications for our Institutions

As the attempt to abstain from judgment and defend difference for its own sake have become the main goals of social policy and cultural practices, some of the core concepts of our legal and institutional frameworks have also undergone serious makeovers as a result.

In part two, I will discuss Rights and Legal Philosophies, highlighting the change in meaning from negative to positive rights, and originalism vs. the living constitution.

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