In the twenty-first century United States, you would think that individual equality in human rights and discrimination would be non-issues. And to some extent, you'd be right. The society's perception on things like racial diversity and cultural variety have improved dramatically in the last few decades. But as always, reality is more complex that it appears to be, and I think there's more to equality than our rather thin perception makes it out to be. Specifically, I think it's rather interesting how the law and tradition sets our some characteristics of an individual as those upon which he or she cannot be discriminated, and yet allows discrimination upon other characteristics.
I can be described by a lot of things. I can be described through my skin color, my ethnicity, my nationality, my biological gender, my sexual orientation, or my religious beliefs, to name a few. In the modern culture, thankfully, there are certain laws and cultural norms that keep the others from judging me prematurely with just these pieces of information in mind. In other words, people can't discriminate against me based on these characteristics I have. But I'm also characterized by the fact that I like mathematics, that I don't like playing sports, that I get above-average grade-point-averages in high school, that I'm fluent in more than two languages, and that I tend to twist my fingers around themselves when I'm stressed out. These are characteristics by which people form opinions around me, and they often influence what I can and cannot do. There are no rules, written or unwritten, that prevent people from making certain decisions about me as an individual based on those other pieces of information. So what's the difference here? Are there some traits by which we can inherently be discriminated against, and other traits for which that isn't true? Many aspects of our culture definitely corroborate this line of thought. In schools, the grade- and achievements-based system seems to value high-performing individuals over the other ones, and the situation isn't much different in the larger economy. I think this is an extremely important question for us to answer in order to understand equality further. In simple terms, we are taught not to judge others and determine their value on the basis of their appearance, ethnicity, culture, religion and other traits, but at the same time, we judge those same people on the basis of education, intelligence, proficiency in a field, and personality.
As a society, we practically demonize anyone who privileges one person over another because he or she thinks one gender is better suited than another for something. The same goes for gender identity, ethnicity, age (for the most part), and so on. But strangely, it's typical to see such discrimination happening on the grounds of some arbitrary measure of intelligence, skill mastery, education, or achievements. But why would that be? Why do we hate the idea that, for example, men are more beneficial in a society than women, and yet have no problem saying a well-educated individual is more beneficial to a community than those who are not so well-educated? At first, I thought this difference had something to do with characteristics that are voluntarily chosen and those that are not. Gender, gender identity, and ethnicity are not chosen by anyone. They are, in some ways, imposed by the universe onto your existence. But things like grades, interest, and proficiency in a field depend on how much of an effort the individual puts in to the work, and the individual has some control over it. So, don't judge a person by what he didn't do, judge him by the decisions he's made. That was my initial perception. But there are some problems with that framework. If voluntary decisions and free will were the only reason people discriminate using some traits but not others, we should be able to make judgements about a person through his religious beliefs, grades in school, or proficiencies in mathematics, because he has voluntary control over all of those things. And yet, we don't discriminate based on an individual's religious beliefs; his philosophy is irrelevant to his inherent worth as an individual.
I think the key issue in this discussion is that we've grown to confuse the value of an individual to a whole society** with the value of the individual to each person in the society. This is what I mean: A well-educated, wealthy, amiable, intelligent, or skilled person would have a greater contribution to a society than one who isn't particularly well-educated, exceptionally bright, or against teamwork. Hence, the first individual would be of greater value to an entire community than the second. And yet, the second individual may well be a better friend to me in particular than the first individual. Hence, a person's value to an entire society doesn't accurately represent the person's worth to other people. When we make judgements about others, we tend to confuse those two different measures, and mistake one for another. That's when we begin to judge others based on their abilities.
Our culture has fallen into a weird mindset that a person's abilities determine his or her worth. Perhaps that was a natural, conceptual bi-product of a strong capitalistic economy. But regardless, that's not the case. A person's abilities may be a factor in how much he contributes to a society, but it's not necessarily a factor in what kind of a human being he is. I think we need to recognize the faults in this mindset and acknowledge that just as the culture grants equal values to individuals of any gender, any religion, and any ethnicity, we need to start focusing on the “skill equality”: erasing the harmful preconceptions for and against people with certain abilities and achievements. We've come a long way since the martyrs of racial equality first fought to be free from discrimination, but I think we need to expand on our notions of equality and push it further along – there is always room for improvement.
* Seriously, though, we need more women in the computer science field.
** Especially a capitalistic one, like what we (almost) have in the United States
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Why aren't you doing it?.
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