Two Sides of Discrimination

The word discriminate has a dual nature. It can have a positive connotation, as when we speak of a “discriminating collector of rare books.” However, in modern America, its usage seems primarily negative, referring to unfair racial or sexual discrimination.

The dual nature of this word has intrigued me ever since I heard of Shankaraachaarya’s text, Vivekachudaamani. Shankaraachaarya was the most famous scholar of the philosophy of Advaita Vedaanta, which places paramount importance on discriminating between reality and illusion. Hence, the title of his work, which translates as Crown Jewel of Discrimination. (Indeed, Vivek is a name commonly given to Hindu males, and it means “discrimination” in this very positive sense.)

It was strange for me to hear of discrimination as a desirable practice while experiencing racial discrimination first-hand, becoming more aware of sexual discrimination and its injustices, especially in the workplace, and learning the profoundly destructive role played by religious discrimination in world history.

How could the same word be used for both? Could these good and evil sides of discrimination be reconciled in some way?

A key insight came from my study of artificial intelligence. Human beings, and other intelligent organisms, must make rapid judgements on the basis of incomplete information. The ability to do so is built into our sensory systems and appears critical to intelligence in general. Indeed, noted AI researcher Roger Schank described conceptual structures or stereotypes that could be used to rapidly assess situations and predict outcomes. Furthermore, rapid and superficial discrimination is a powerful survival mechanism for animals living in primal conditions, a category in which our distant ancestors are included. Animals in the wild cannot afford to say, “The last lion bit my leg off. But not all lions are bad, so I’ll still be friendly to this next one.” Because it is a critical survival mechanism, any genetic contributors to the mechanism of rapid and superficial discrimination would definitely have been passed down through the generations.

Although it served an important adaptive purpose for our distant ancestors, rapid and superficial discrimination is frequently wrong, leading to incorrect generalizations. As Mark Twain said,

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it---and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again---and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.

It appears, then, that rapid and superficial discrimination is deeply ingrained in human beings. It helped our ancestors survive and continues to play a critical role in our wondrous capacity for perception and inference. However, it is frequently wrong. And when we make sweeping judgements about groups of people on the basis of a single experience, or about individuals on the basis of nothing more than their skin color, sex, sexual orientation, age, or religion, we are as foolish as Twain’s cat.

Although this is a reasonable explanation for numerous misjudgements, it seems insufficient to explain the gross injustice and evil in human history, all stemming from rapid and superficial discrimination. A cat may avoid stoves and may even bully weaker cats, but cats have never committed mass murder of other cats.

The factor missing from these considerations is the human ability to communicate and empathize. This important ability allows us to respond to and learn from the experiences of others largely as if they were our own. Unfortunately, communication and empathy are not perfectly reliable. If miscommunication results in misunderstanding, or if an empathic response exaggerates the emotional state of another, it may lead to a human being responding to things that never happened to any one, or responding with an intensity unwarranted by reality. This is why people can successfully teach their children prejudice and racial hatred, even when the children have had no first-hand experiences—positive or negative—with the people they learn to hate.

Take a predisposition toward rapid and superficial discrimination, deeply ingrained and with genetic motivators. Combine it with the capacity to respond on the imperfect bases of communication and empathy. Now throw in the idea that under stress, behavior regresses to a primal state. Is it any wonder that rapid and superficial discrimination, leading to the injustices of racial and sexual prejudice, are rampant in modern human populations?

I regret that this analysis suggests no novel ways to eliminate these injustices. It does, however, reinforce conventional wisdom for avoiding them:

  1. Genetic predispositions cannot (today) be undone. However, if rapid and superficial discrimination is a primal response, and if people regress to primal responses under stress, then we may reduce unfair discrimination by maintaining low-stress interactions with people. This means making a conscious effort to adopt an attitude of acceptance, compassion, and good humor, as opposed to exclusive or hostile attitudes.
  2. By questioning the fidelity of communications and the intensity of empathic responses, we may stop drawing conclusions that lack basis in reality.
  3. By making decisions slowly and deliberately, we may avoid the pitfalls of gross generalizations. It is true that rapid decisions are often desirable, but it should at least be noted that they are vulnerable to superficial information.

Tags: Language, Philosophy

Updated at: 24 November 2005 12:11 AM