On diversity and discrimination

I haven’t posted on here for a while, largely because I’m sick of reading about Brexit, and yet it’s such an all-consuming disaster in the making that it’s difficult to write about anything else.

I’ve been prompted to break my silence by an article in The Times today (30 November 2017) pointing out that the recently released nominations for male Grammy awards did not include a single white artist. It was the first sentence that grabbed my attention: ‘Next year’s Grammy awards may prove to be the most diverse ever, with no white men nominated…..’*

You only have to substitute ‘black’ for ‘white’ in that sentence to appreciate how nonsensical it is. OK,you may say, it’s just a journalist using the wrong word – it happens. Indeed it does, but the use of the word ‘diverse’ in that sentence actually illustrates the skewed nature of the debate around inclusiveness and, in particular, the very partial way in which another ‘d’ word is used – discrimination.

It’s generally agreed, by liberal commentators at least, that discrimination is necessarily a bad thing. But of course, it’s not. We discriminate all the time. When they choose the men’s 4X100m relay team for the olympics they discriminate against people like me, who can’t run very fast (plus, I’m nearly seventy), and that’s OK, because the discrimination is being made on grounds which are relevant to the particular selection process. Discrimination only becomes bad when the criterion being applied has no relevance to the choice being made. Perhaps I’m nit-picking, and perhaps when people use the word discrimination, they actually mean inappropriate discrimination, but I’m not sure that is always the case, as I’ll point out below, when I talk about positive discrimination.

Now I can’t pretend to follow the modern popular music scene (i.e. anything more recent than Freddie and the Dreamers) but I would like to think that Grammy winners are chosen on merit, and that this black-only list is only remarkable because there is usually a mix of black and white musicians in the running (which, of course, makes this year’s selection the least diverse ever). Assuming that the selection process is based on artistic merit, this is absolutely fine, and no-one in the Times article was suggesting that it wasn’t – in which case they are raising the race issue unnecessarily, which I’m sure some equal opportunities zealots (but not me) would regard as racist.

But that brings me on to the term ‘positive discrimination’, the implication inevitably being that positive discrimination is good, and any other sort is bad. In fact, positive discrimination represents a deliberate attempt to discriminate using criteria which are not relevant to the choice being made. Equality (be it racial,  gender, or sexual orientation-based) should be just that – absolute equality – such that minorities are treated exactly the same as everyone else. This means that their success in applying for jobs, or safe Labour seats or golf club membership should depend only on their suitability for the job. The concept of quotas, and women-only lists and the like represents exactly that inappropriate discrimination that got us into this mess in the first place.

I know that some will say that positive discrimination is only a temporary measure, to get the degree of diversity in any area into balance. But I don’t necessarily buy that – who is to say what the right level is? Let’s go back to the Grammys. Assuming that the selection process was fair, and based only on artistic achievement, it’s entirely right that this year’s line-up was 100% black, and it would be quite wrong to apply a quota insisting that Ed Sheeran et al got more of a look-in. Similarly, I want the best candidates chosen to represent me in Parliament – I don’t want good applicants to be excluded from consideration because they have the wrong type of genitalia.

It seems simple to me. The answer to inappropriate discrimination is not to load the dice in favour of one group or another, but to ensure that the selection process is fair. That will then get the right people appointed, and if that results in the selection of a preponderance of one particular subset of applicants, we can assume it’s because they happen to be best suited to that particular field of endeavour. The Grammys again: I’m perfectly willing to believe that at the moment the best modern popular music happens to be produced by people of colour, and that is why we have the list of nominations reported in The Times. And back to that 4X100m relay team; for quite some time now, there has been a preponderance of black athletes performing at the highest level. And that’s fine, because they are the fastest runners. If next year we have four white athletes in the team, that’s OK as well, as long as they have been chosen for the right reason.

Sorry, I’ve gone on a bit, because this is particular hobby horse of mine. And at least it’s not Brexit.

  • interestingly, that sentence was removed in the online version of the article.

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