A Little Discrimination Please

Discrimination is a deplorable practice. As such, the word is often spat in a victorious tone of accusation, implying that he who discriminates is a bigot, unfair, or—gasp!—intolerant. But I think we could use a bit more of it. In our frenzy to neutralize and sterilize language, discrimination’s other meanings have been lost. Using Microsoft Word’s dictionary lookup tool can illuminate the less-common connotations of the word. Beyond that first definition of unequal treatment based on prejudice are two more definitions also based on inequalities: the ability to recognize difference, and the ability to pay attention to subtle differences and exercise judgment.

Just as these latter two definitions are often forgotten, so too are their accompanying skill sets. Since the start of the semester, I have been in numerous conversations—formal and informal, in dorm rooms, dining halls and class rooms, with friends and professors—in which a speaker makes egregiously sweeping generalizations. To clarify, these blanket statements almost never assert that “poor people are this” or “black people are that;” those kinds of statements would be discrimination of the first definition. Overwhelmingly, these statements generalize politics, usually that “conservatives are this” or “Republicans can’t understand that.” To which I want to ask, “Wait, who? Could you be a bit more discriminating?” Does this term you throw around refer to a conservative friend, a lecturer you heard recently, a politician? And what kind of conservative? A fiscal conservative? Social conservative? Conservative in that this person is not liberal? Of course, the same questions apply to generalizations about liberals. But for some reason I just don’t hear those as often.

Well, you could say, this is all semantics; including all that information in the original statement takes too many words and decreases the statement’s power. And yes, including all those discriminating details does make your point less zippy, but it also makes it less untrue. Take, as an example, the assertion “water is a liquid.” Thinking of water as the stuff flowing through pipes, yes, water is a liquid. But what about ice and steam? Are they some different compound because one is solid, the other gas? No, ice and steam are also water. A more true assertion would be that “between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius, at atmospheric pressure, water is a liquid.” In this statement, discriminating details filter out critical exceptions to the generalization. By including discriminating details, the second statement also invites further thought and discussion. While the generalization invites only acceptance or rejection (that water is or is not a liquid), the discriminating statement reminds the listener to consider context and details, to think about why he accepts or rejects that statement.

Even putting meaningful discussion aside, a little discrimination could go a long way toward ending perceived segregation. Especially when discussing politics, failure to discriminate turns us into lumpers; we make an “us” camp and a “them” camp and assume that the two are separated by some sort of river We cannot see that the two might share some ideas, or could at least meet up for s’mores sometime. I mean, I think it’s safe to say that people from all political backgrounds like s’mores.

But image-driven bipartisan relations aside, discriminating details strengthen an argument, better defending it from “their” counterpoints. Discrimination just might make you realize that “they” are not so different from “us.”

So please, discriminate. As much as possible.