Discriminating Between Sound, Unsound Statements
“There is no room in our schools for discrimination of any kind.” A U.S. Department of Justice news release attributes those words to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. One can hope Lynch was misquoted. But that’s unclear, given the frequent misuse and abuse of the term “discrimination” among commentators of all persuasions.
Not only is Lynch wrong. Anyone who understands the various uses of the term “discrimination” ought to see the harm that would result if Lynch were right.
The context of Lynch’s May 13 statement was the heated legal debate over North Carolina’s House Bill 2. After asserting that there’s “no room” for discrimination “of any kind,” Lynch adds “including discrimination against transgender students on the basis of their sex.”
Because of the context and the heated rhetoric surrounding H.B. 2, most people are unlikely to spend much time pondering the significance of the first part of Lynch’s statement. But her words deserve closer scrutiny.
One suspects that most people attach a negative connotation to the word “discrimination.” It’s seldom used today outside the context of disputes involving race, sex, class, or some other hot-button issue.
Webster’s Encylopedic Unabridged Dictionary devotes its first definition of “discriminate” to this negative view: “to make a distinction in favor of or against a person or thing on the basis of the group, class, or category to which the person or thing belongs rather than according to actual merit; show partiality.”
But that’s not the only form of discrimination. Webster’s second definition explains that to discriminate also means “to note or observe a difference; distinguish accurately.” The third: “to make or constitute a distinction in or between; differentiate.” The fourth: “to note or distinguish as different.”
In short, to discriminate is to observe the differences separating different things. We discriminate every day, much of the time, without thinking about it. We discriminate when we select the temperature of water that will neither scald us nor leave us shivering as we shower. We discriminate when we decide whether to eat a salad or a cheeseburger for lunch. We discriminate when we choose which car to drive — or whether to drive a car at all.
No one is suggesting that Attorney General Lynch really meant there is “no room” for discrimination “of any kind” in schools. If she did, she would be saying there would be no room for separating students by grade level — a process that involves discrimination based on both age and academic progress.
There would be no room for discriminating between those who have passed a test and those who haven’t. There would be no room for discriminating between those students who listen to their teachers and work well with others and those who disrupt the classroom.
One assumes that Lynch does not oppose those forms of discrimination — forms that ensure students get age-appropriate instruction in classrooms free from chaos. One suspects that what Lynch meant to convey is that there is no room for “bad” discrimination. In other words, there is no room for discrimination that distinguishes one student from another for no acceptable reason.
(Take Lynch’s statement to its logical conclusion, by the way, and government would have to end all affirmative-action programs today. When there is “no room” for discrimination “of any kind,” there is no room for using race or any other distinguishing characteristic other than merit when determining school admissions or scholarship awards.)
Why did Lynch refrain from using a qualifier that would make more sense than a blanket prohibition against discrimination “of any kind”? This observer will not try to read her mind. But it is interesting to note that as soon as one acknowledges that some forms of discrimination are acceptable — even necessary — then the door is open to discussing which forms of discrimination are acceptable.
It’s doubtful that anyone within the political mainstream today would argue for discrimination based on race or class. One could add religion to that mix, although there is a valid argument that leadership of a religious-based student group ought to be limited to those who profess the particular religion. (If you disagree, consider the objections that would arise if a Christian student wanted to lead the Muslim Student Club.)
Once one accepts that some forms of discrimination are acceptable, then the debate over transgender students assumes a complexity that Lynch’s blanket “no discrimination” statement seeks to avoid.
No one should push for separate classrooms or school buildings for transgender students. There’s no acceptable reason to make such a distinction. Blocking employment of a transgender teacher or other staff member also appears to fall outside the realm of acceptable discrimination.
But discrimination in locker rooms and showers based on actual differences between biological males and females? Differences that lead to concerns about privacy rights? That’s a question open for debate. It’s not the clear-cut case of “bad” discrimination that Lynch’s blanket “no discrimination” statement implies.
Mitch Kokai is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.