In Defense of Discrimination

The English language is under attack and in danger of becoming unfit for communicating the nobler sentiments of life. An example of this is the word discrimination, which has been transformed into an expletive by certain people in this country whose parochial agendas are being advanced at the expense of our ability as a nation to communicate effectively. It has now become habitual when making a charge of racial prejudice simply to accuse a person of "discrimination," as if that means that the conduct in question is ipso facto wrongful or illegal.

While there is a line of judicial decisions that finds unlawful discrimination where there is evidence of something called "disparate impact," the traditional view of the courts, found in cases like McKennon v Nashville Banner Publishing Co. (1995), is that the law will properly concern itself only when it discovers something called invidious discrimination. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000, defines invidious as: "1. Tending to rouse ill will, animosity, or resentment: invidious accusations. 2. Containing or implying a slight ..."

When we offer someone a slight, we act out of ill will -- either with an intent to injure them or a willingness to see them injured. When such action arises out of racial prejudice, or some other socially proscribed motive, the law seeks to prohibit the conduct. However, conduct that discriminates on the basis of objective facts rather than internal motives has not traditionally been considered illegal, and this distinction is easily understood if we stop to consider the historical meaning of the word discrimination.

Traditionally, discrimination has been used to denote discernment, the ability of a person to distinguish between things that are different.  It comes from the Latin discernere -- to sift apart or separate -- and it worked its way into English as: (1) "the cognitive process whereby differences between two or more stimuli are perceived,"  WordNet, Princeton University, 1997; (2) "the ability or power to see or make fine distinctions; discernment," The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000.

Nowadays, instead of conveying such admirable traits as discernment, judgment and clarity, the word discrimination is most often used in public discourse to signify some form of socially reprehensible bias. This blatant misuse of the word has become so pervasive that it has now been officially codified in our reference books, which in recent years have come to define discrimination as: (1) "Treatment or consideration based on class or category rather than individual merit; partiality or prejudice: racial discrimination; discrimination against foreigners." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000; and, (2) "unfair treatment of a person or group on the basis of prejudice." WordNet,  Princeton University, 1997.

It is more than a little ironic that a word traditionally used to denote noble character traits has now been transformed into a word that communicates ignoble characteristics.  The debasement of this lofty word is actually symptomatic of a general shift in public discourse away from thoughtful forms of expression and towards a propagandistic use of language that is demagogic in its impulse and totalitarian in its effect.

When the only thing necessary to taint another person is to hurl at him the epithet of "discrimination," people who believe they can benefit from such slander will readily indulge their impulse to use the word in that fashion. The rest of society, fearing to be slandered, will either be frightened into silence or silently acquiesce in the pejorative use of that word. The distressing social consequences of this mischief should be obvious, but the unfortunate linguistic effects may be less so.

Human speech is a form of code. The different words we use enable us to convey different meanings to other people. The particular meaning of one word, perhaps only a shade different from the meaning of some other word, may be exactly what we need to convey our thought clearly to another person. To paraphrase Mark Twain: the difference between the right word and a word that is almost right is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

By transforming a sublime word like discrimination into an epithet, we degrade the code we use to communicate with one another. The English language is the coin of our social realm. When it is debased, we all suffer impoverishment. By reducing noble words to epithets, we transform our language into a code more fit for communicating degraded ideas than beautiful thoughts. Ultimately, if the demagogic impulse to misuse the English language continues unchecked, we may discover that the coin of our realm no longer holds the value necessary to sustain a civilized society.
The English language is under attack and in danger of becoming unfit for communicating the nobler sentiments of life. An example of this is the word discrimination, which has been transformed into an expletive by certain people in this country whose parochial agendas are being advanced at the expense of our ability as a nation to communicate effectively. It has now become habitual when making a charge of racial prejudice simply to accuse a person of "discrimination," as if that means that the conduct in question is ipso facto wrongful or illegal.

While there is a line of judicial decisions that finds unlawful discrimination where there is evidence of something called "disparate impact," the traditional view of the courts, found in cases like McKennon v Nashville Banner Publishing Co. (1995), is that the law will properly concern itself only when it discovers something called invidious discrimination. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000, defines invidious as: "1. Tending to rouse ill will, animosity, or resentment: invidious accusations. 2. Containing or implying a slight ..."

When we offer someone a slight, we act out of ill will -- either with an intent to injure them or a willingness to see them injured. When such action arises out of racial prejudice, or some other socially proscribed motive, the law seeks to prohibit the conduct. However, conduct that discriminates on the basis of objective facts rather than internal motives has not traditionally been considered illegal, and this distinction is easily understood if we stop to consider the historical meaning of the word discrimination.

Traditionally, discrimination has been used to denote discernment, the ability of a person to distinguish between things that are different.  It comes from the Latin discernere -- to sift apart or separate -- and it worked its way into English as: (1) "the cognitive process whereby differences between two or more stimuli are perceived,"  WordNet, Princeton University, 1997; (2) "the ability or power to see or make fine distinctions; discernment," The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000.

Nowadays, instead of conveying such admirable traits as discernment, judgment and clarity, the word discrimination is most often used in public discourse to signify some form of socially reprehensible bias. This blatant misuse of the word has become so pervasive that it has now been officially codified in our reference books, which in recent years have come to define discrimination as: (1) "Treatment or consideration based on class or category rather than individual merit; partiality or prejudice: racial discrimination; discrimination against foreigners." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000; and, (2) "unfair treatment of a person or group on the basis of prejudice." WordNet,  Princeton University, 1997.

It is more than a little ironic that a word traditionally used to denote noble character traits has now been transformed into a word that communicates ignoble characteristics.  The debasement of this lofty word is actually symptomatic of a general shift in public discourse away from thoughtful forms of expression and towards a propagandistic use of language that is demagogic in its impulse and totalitarian in its effect.

When the only thing necessary to taint another person is to hurl at him the epithet of "discrimination," people who believe they can benefit from such slander will readily indulge their impulse to use the word in that fashion. The rest of society, fearing to be slandered, will either be frightened into silence or silently acquiesce in the pejorative use of that word. The distressing social consequences of this mischief should be obvious, but the unfortunate linguistic effects may be less so.

Human speech is a form of code. The different words we use enable us to convey different meanings to other people. The particular meaning of one word, perhaps only a shade different from the meaning of some other word, may be exactly what we need to convey our thought clearly to another person. To paraphrase Mark Twain: the difference between the right word and a word that is almost right is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

By transforming a sublime word like discrimination into an epithet, we degrade the code we use to communicate with one another. The English language is the coin of our social realm. When it is debased, we all suffer impoverishment. By reducing noble words to epithets, we transform our language into a code more fit for communicating degraded ideas than beautiful thoughts. Ultimately, if the demagogic impulse to misuse the English language continues unchecked, we may discover that the coin of our realm no longer holds the value necessary to sustain a civilized society.