By DONALD DeMARCO
Fishermen of yore realized that starfish were their chief competitors in harvesting clams and oysters. Their initial strategy, however, proved to be counterproductive. They captured a number of starfish, chopped them in half and threw them back into the water. What they did not realize at the time was that starfish have the capacity to regenerate. By cutting them in half, they were actually doubling their enemies.
It goes without saying that doubling one’s enemies is not a wise strategy. It does not place one on the road to victory. Yet, we continue to employ the old starfish technique without realizing that our maladaptive attempt to solve a problem multiplies our difficulties.
Consider the current war against discrimination. For a long time in the history of this word, it had a positive denotation. It referred to the ability to make distinctions.
Thus, Charles Dickens, in his novel, Nicholas Nickleby, could frame the following sentence without fear of being misunderstood: “It does very extraordinary credit even to your discrimination that you should have found such a very excellent . . . young woman.”
Discrimination is the act of making or recognizing differences and distinctions. A child progresses in his education when he passes from discriminating between a dog and a cat to discriminating between a beagle and a basset hound. In this sense of the word, there is never any prejudice. In fact, it is the very opposite of prejudice inasmuch as it recognizes something for exactly what it is.
Our present society has become preoccupied with unjust discrimination to the point that it multiplies the instances of this vice by co-opting the word discrimination in its innocent meaning. Unjust discrimination presupposes legitimate discrimination. In order for a group of people to be a victim of unjust discrimination, it is first necessary to discriminate (or distinguish) that group from other groups.
Baseball great Lou Gehrig stated: “There is no room in baseball for discrimination. It is our national pastime and a game for all.” This statement is remarkable since it came prior to Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in 1947 (Gehrig passed away in 1941). Nonetheless, it implies that the racial groups are distinguishable. No one disputes the color of Jackie Robinson.
Gehrig’s point, of course, is that race, color, and religion in themselves are irrelevant to one’s ability to play baseball. Unjust discrimination enters the picture when an irrelevant feature bars a person from doing something he is perfectly capable of doing. Woody Allen once joked that he was banned from the chess club because he was too short.
Like the fishermen who doubled their enemies, we double the problem of fighting unjust discrimination when we use the word discrimination in a way that includes its innocent meaning.
As an example, we discriminate between moral acts and immoral acts. But, in today’s world, if one judges that abortion is not a moral act, he is charged with discriminating against women. If one reasons that certain sexual acts are disordered, a similar charge is made against him. If he judges that marriage, by definition, involves a man and a woman, he is labeled as discriminatory and bigoted.
The absorption of innocent discrimination into unjust discrimination represents the death of philosophy. The time-honored maxim, “Philosophia est distinguere” (It belongs to philosophy to distinguish, or to discriminate), is now replaced by “Thou shall not judge.”
Philosophy, which is a friend to mankind, suddenly becomes an enemy because it is judged guilty of a form of discrimination which is deemed offensive to various groups. Yet, without the illumination that results from proper discrimination, unjust discrimination is unfairly pinned on people who are merely trying to distinguish between things that are essentially different.
Is it “sexist” to argue that men and women are different by nature? Is someone “homophobic” if he alludes to the connection between certain sexual acts and the transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus?
It is certainly most admirable to fight against unjust discrimination, but to launch an attack against the very act of thinking (or proper discriminating) is a form of unjust discrimination in itself. In other words, in fighting discrimination indiscriminately, we are doubling our enemies and opposing a factor that should be employed as an ally.
Proper discrimination that sheds light on things is an indispensable tool in fighting against unjust discrimination. But unless this distinction is made, little progress will be made against eliminating the evil form of discrimination.
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(Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.)