I have a confession to make: I am a white man. Apparently, when it comes to the subject of discrimination, I owe everyone an apology for this. For some people, this also means that my opinion on this subject is worth less than the time it took to read the headline. If you happen to think so, you're probably not interested in differing perspectives. Don't feel compelled to keep reading, but thanks anyway for proving my point.
Recently, a discussion came up about whether organizers of technology conferences have an obligation to include female speakers in an otherwise exclusively-male lineup.
It's an interesting question, and one that probably never would have occurred to me to consider. My context is being involved in the PHP community. We're a pretty diverse lot, in about as many different ways as I can think of. At PHP conferences, it's not unusual for a woman to give the keynote (or for a woman to give a talk that's better than the keynote), and unlike other tech communities, we certainly don't give talks where the theme is porn stars. Please understand, this is not an attempt at a "but some of my best friends are X" defense; this is just my context.
I'm pretty comfortable with this, partly because I subscribe to the same belief that was enshrined into the constitution of my home country, that all men (read: people; I swear I'm not doing this on purpose, that was the terminology of the day) are created equal.
To me, this means that every single person has equal, inherent value, regardless of whatever arbitrary boxes others might be able to put them into. This holds true even if I don't agree with them, or if they say mean things to me.
However, at some point in the past sixty-ish years, we got a little confused. Somehow, "equality" came to mean "sameness". If you observe, comment on, or infer anything based on verifiable physiological data or simple self-evident fact when discussing commonalities among a group of people, or their differences from other groups of people, then you're a bad person.
I take that back, you're not a bad person. You are vile, twisted, soulless scum. You are Hitler times Stalin, to the Satanth power.
Needless to say, racsim and sexism are hot-button issues of the day here in the US, and while they're looked on as root causes of societal ills, they're just symptoms. The actual root cause is worse than any one dividing line.
As a first step to getting below the surface, I offer this insight from Ron Paul:
Racism is simply an ugly form of collectivism, the mindset that views humans strictly as members of groups rather than individuals. Racists believe that all individuals who share superficial physical characteristics are alike: as collectivists, racists think only in terms of groups. By encouraging Americans to adopt a group mentality, the advocates of so-called 'diversity' actually perpetuate racism. Their obsession with racial group identity is inherently racist.
In other words, racism and sexism (and any other -ism you care to include) simply point to a larger issue that is expressed in the idea of collectivism. The specific groupings aren't relevant.
I know of no better example of this than the genocide in Rwanda. The warring Hutu and Tutsi factions have none of the divisions we often see in other conflicts: they speak the same language, practice the same religion, and have the same color skin. In fact, "many geneticists have been hard-pressed to find marked ethnic differences between the two", yet their bloody conflict has been one of the biggest scars on recent human history.
There is a common thread here, but it's not an easy one. It's not a superficial societal malady on which we can readily lay the blame. The problem is that human beings don't work right. We're broken. Collectivism, prejudice and conflict are part of our condition.
While these traits don't manifest equally in everyone, they're no less present in anyone, and we'd be kidding ourselves to think otherwise. Mother Teresa, Hitler, and me: all human, all broken. If you're still looking for sameness, there it is.
We've tried to paper over our internal, systemic failures with the ultimate feel-good ideal: fairness. Whatever the inequity, we'll just force people to play fair. We've tried everything from affirmative action, to equal pay for equal work, and so on.
Don't misunderstand, these policies were advanced under the best of intentions, and I share the sentiments of their supporters: being turned down for a job because of your skin color is wrong. Getting a smaller paycheck because you're a woman, despite equal (or better) skill or effort than your male counterparts is wrong. No sane person is going to argue with that.
What, then, is the error in these policies? Three things. First, forcing bad (broken) people to do a good thing only fixes one surface symptom. It does nothing to address the underlying brokenness. In other words, you can't legislate morality. Second, people tend to resist being told what to do, which gives rise to more bad things. Because broken people only follow the letter of the law, not the spirit, the law makes us no less broken for having to follow it. Our condition manifests itself through some other symptom, and we end up in a forced-fairness arms race. Third (and this is a problem that is endemic to our political process), discussions over policy decisions are often far too focused on the good intentions of well-meaning sponsors, at the expense of a practical examination of the real-world effects. This leads to disasterous consequences, as the results of a policy implementation often harm the very groups they were instituted to assist.
It gets worse. Because people who make rules intend them to be followed, there has to be a consequence associated with breaking them. If I discriminate against a person in an under-represented group in my hiring process, I'm probably going to get a fine. If I don't pay the fine, I have to go to court. If I don't go to court, people with guns are going to show up at my house and take me to a small concrete room featuring an uncomfortably short distance between the bed and the toilet. Violence is therefore an acceptable means of enforcing fairness.
So, I'm really sorry to have to be the one to tell you this. Really, I am. You and I don't know each other that well, so this is kind of awkward. The thing is, you can't have it both ways. You have to pick one. Either race and gender (religion, orientation, whatever) matter, or they don't.
If saying so makes me a misogynist or some other dirty word because I'm a white man, that technically means you're racist and sexist. Worse yet, you're a hypocrite, and it's impossible to have an intellectually honest discussion without acknowledging this contradiction.
While some people are perfectly comfortable holding two conflicting ideas in their heads, the dangers of ethical convenience can't be overstated. Arbitrary moral contradictions are the reason torture happens. Arbitrary moral contradictions are the reason genocide happens. Again, as humans, we're all equally capable of the same evil.
Despite the horrors of the logical conclusion to this fallacy, it is pervasive in our culture because of the misguided idea that the ends justify the means; because our pathological need for fairness has elevated it as the higher ideal. That's why, on the surface, forcing fairness through coercion and the threat of violence feels like an okay thing to do.
Villifying white men feels okay, too. In fact, it's a little bit like hating the Yankess: they're overpaid, undeserving jackasses. But they just keep winning. White men have (in our Western perception, at least) always had the upper hand, and this just is not fair. Therefore, each of us in our own small way tries to create fairness through shame (hence, for example, the concept of white guilt). If we can make white men feel bad enough about themselves, and feel bad enough about ourselves as white men, maybe things will change.
Yes, I know, even now in 2011, the world is still tilted towards white men in far too many cases. This is wrong, and I hate it, but since when do two wrongs make a right? The guilt trip is just another broken attempt to make broken, unjust people act justly.
Maybe you're noticing a trend emerge in the various attempts to fix the problem. I'll give you a hint: they all focus on other people. We're right back at collectivism and all the ills that come with it. Instead of continually worrying about other people (or groups of people), start setting a good example by treating all people fairly, and as individuals. To paraphrase Ghandi, "be the change you want to see". That's a great start, but what about everyone who hasn't achieved enlightenment? Don't we have an obligation to speak up?
I believe just the opposite. If you want to reduce the influence of racism on culture, stop talking about it. You worry about you, I'll worry about me, and we'll let the rest of the world take care of itself.
There's a simple elegance in letting people deal with the consequences of their own actions, rather than trying to remove the bad choices through artificial means. This is best expressed through the principles of free market systems. For any social issue that can easily be expressed in economic terms, following free market principles means that being a jerk costs money! In our shallow, entitled, consumption-driven society, can there be a better penalty?
Consider this: if I discriminate against women, but my business is governed by equal pay laws (whether local or national), I simply won't hire women. However, in a free market system, if a woman is offering to do the same job for less pay, and I hire a man anyway, my discrimination costs me money. Under a legislated system, my lack of consideration for women is of no consequence to me, and a woman who might otherwise have had a job is denied outright.
Again, please understand: that still doesn't make my (hypothetical) discrimination okay. Far from it. But in a free market, individuals at least have a choice to make. What's more, it will continue to cost me down the road, as my talented female employee could easily be poached by someone without my impairment.
Just to make sure I'm being perfectly clear, I'll summarize the above as simply as I can: discriminating against any person for any arbitrary, artifical reason is absolutely wrong. All people deserve equal respect, and deserve to be treated as individuals, not on the basis of any groups they belong to. Period. End of story.
The real trick, though, is choosing to live in a way that reflects that. The only person I get to make that choice for is me. The only person you get to make that choice for is you. Neither of us get to make it for anyone else. Put another way, I can neither control you, nor am I responsible for you. Likewise, you have neither control over nor responsibility for me.
Recognizing this very simple fact is called having healthy boundaries. If you have a problem with this, I would encourage you to seek counseling. This is neither jest nor sarcasm. You'll be calmer and live longer for it.
We live in a world full of broken people, and because of that, life isn't always fair. However, this isn't a reason to get our priorities messed up, and try to use force to control people. Everyone should be free to choose, and should have to live with the consequences of their choices, for better or worse. As individuals, we can only be responsible for ourselves, and our responsibility is to choose the right: to treat others with respect, and to treat others as individuals, just as we'd like them to treat us.