Discrimination or just consequence?

Recently on Facebook, a friend of a friend mentioned that the police routinely pull him over because he is a man with long hair, and claimed that this makes him the target of discrimination. I had two conflicting thoughts about that:

  • Seriously? If having long hair as a man is correlated with more unsavory activities, the police are justified in taking it as a sign to investigate.
  • On the other hand, it does kind of fit the definition of discrimination as unjust or prejudicial treatment: if the police are less likely than usual to given men with long hair the benefit of the doubt, that’s making an unfair judgment.

So I’ve been thinking about where to draw the line between discrimination and ordinary consequences. If a man chooses to grow his hair out and becomes more interesting to police as a result, is that just? Does it make a difference if he’s a hemophiliac and tries to limit the proximity of his head to sharp scissors?

More broadly, is someone responsible for their behavior if it’s something they can’t change about themselves? Something that it’s hard to change? Something that can change but isn’t likely to?

I put together a list of various qualities and characteristics, roughly ordered by how much changing them is within our power. At the top of the spectrum, judgment based on these qualities seems unfair, and at the very bottom it seems totally justified, while the story is less clear for items in the middle. (If you think something should be in a different spot on the spectrum from where I’ve put it, well, that kind of thinking is exactly the point of this blog post.)

Things we don’t have control over

  • Race

There’s no doubt that racial prejudice is discrimination, regardless of how much you think there is left of it in the world. A lot of what’s unclear now about discrimination based on race is that it is correlated with qualities farther down the list, such as socio-economic status or modes of expression, about which we have much more mixed feelings concerning blame and responsibility.

  • Sex/Gender

It’s also clear that denying rights to men or women is sexist: you aren’t personally responsible for whether you’re male or female. Again, what’s less clearly sexism is making decisions about someone based on qualities that are in principle under their control, but still correlated with their gender, such as hiring practices that favor those willing to negotiate for better salaries (who are disproportionately often men).

(Note: I put sex and gender in the “things we don’t have control over” category even though people do occasionally undergo sex changes or gender re-identification, because it is my impression that people do so in an attempt to become more aligned with who they already consider themselves to be, not to change something fundamental about their identities.)

  • Age

We all live to be different ages over the courses of our lives, but we don’t have any control over what age we are now, or what generation we were born into. Teenagers lament that adults assume they are detached, moody, and immature; senior citizens are often the victims of ageism due to expected decline in memory, cognitive function, and physical ability. How much of that is justified, given that these stereotypes are often borne out by experience?

Things we only have some control over

  • Religion

It’s also easy to imagine discrimination based on religion, although compared to race and gender, changing religion is relatively common. But are you responsible for the consequences of being Christian, Muslim, Atheist, etc. if it’s against your value system to convert?

  • Health

I hear occasionally about ableism, discrimination against people with disabilities or chronic health conditions. These are usually things people can’t change about themselves, or that it’s unfairly difficult to change. If an obese person has tried many times to reach a healthy bodyweight, is it fair for people to judge or shame them? Is it fair if they haven’t tried?

  • Socio-economic status

According to the chart on page six of this Pew study, 43% of US children born in the poorest fifth of families are still in that bottom quintile as adults, compared to only 8% of children born into the richest fifth. It’s unclear whether this is a feature (parents with resources are successfully using them to give their children a better life) or a bug (children born into poorer families have an unfair lot in life), or what would be ideal distributions, but at least we can say with certainty that a person’s socio-economic success is due to a combination of factors both inside and outside their control.

“It is no concern of mine whether your family has—what was it again?”
“Um… food?”
“Ha! You really should have thought of that before you became peasants!”

The Emperor’s New Groove

Things we can change, but don’t usually:

  • Mindset

Optimism can encourage perseverance, the abundance mentality can lead to mutually beneficial agreements, and the growth mindset can change failure into a learning opportunity. But if you’re pessimistic, how likely do you think it is that you can become an optimist? And how can you consider learning to think of your personality as malleable if you have a fixed mindset? It is possible for someone’s mindset to change—see Carol Dweck’s excellent book for many examples—but it’s not generally something someone can do for themselves. Does that make the success awarded to people with more productive mindsets unfair?

“If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person—you already feel fortunate.”

—Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

  • Expressions of identity

Here’s where we get to the inspiration for this post: is it discrimination to have people judge you based on your choices regarding your appearance (long hair, tattoos, etc.) or hobbies (tabletop gaming, visiting the shooting range, etc.) if in principle these are things you have complete control over, but changing them would violate your sense of self?

And then at the end of the spectrum, we have ordinary day-to-day choices for which we must accept the consequences. If you rob a bank and go to jail, that’s not discrimination against bank robbers. (Though depending on the circumstances, there may be other discrimination at work.)

What are your thoughts? Anything you’d like to add to the list? (For example, where do nationality or political ideology fit into the spectrum?) Do you have a story you’d like to share? If, like the long-haired male friend of a friend who inspired this post, you have been the victim of what people do not universally acknowledge to be discrimination, have I represented your position fairly? I only ask that in the comments you be gentle to one another and remember that this is a touchy subject about which people have wildly divergent opinions and experiences.

8 thoughts on “Discrimination or just consequence?

      1. Yes, “A Room with a View” or “Where Angels Fear to Tread” – either is good to start with. The novels “Howards End” and “A Passage to India” are more directly related to your ideas here, but also more challenging to digest!


  1. I was re-reading this post, and I seem to be having a problem with the meaning of the word `responsible’. I have a feeling that perhaps it is not quite consistent throughout the post… Can you give a definition of `responsible’ as you intend? Sorry for the weird request!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sure—the meaning of “responsible” I’ve been using is the kind where we say “X is responsible for Y” if X’s choices are the primary cause of effect Y; i.e. if effect Y is undesirable we should blame (and maybe punish) X for causing it. I think one of the points I’m obliquely trying to make is that a binary “responsible” or “not responsible” is not always appropriate if there’s a whole spectrum from one end to the other, so in that sense I’m glad my use of the term is sounding a little inconsistent, but if you find there’s more to it than that I’d love to hear what sounds wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow, this was a while ago, sorry. I wrote a long reply, then didn’t like it, then forgot to improve it. But less than a year has passed, so I’m still basically on time, right?
        My problem with your definition (which is I think a very standard one) is that it seems to me very hard to untangle who is really responsible for what. When one decides to grow long hair, perhaps it is because of a childhood idol who had long hair, or a random article or picture encountered which makes one think it is a good idea, or because of a random mutation in a gene somewhere that makes long hair feel good, or whatever (these are not intended as serious examples). So is it really the responsibility of the childhood idol, or or the article, of the cosmic ray causing the mutation? Similarly, does a person rob a bank because they are `bad’ in some way, or because of a combination of socioeconomic factors, and is this question meaningful? In the end this leads down an endless rabbit-hole about free will. While for practical purposes we should probably generally assume we have free will, this gets a bit sketchy if one looks too closely.
        So I guess I prefer a consequentialist approach. Having a principle of `if you rob a bank, the police will try to catch you and lock you up’ is a good for almost all of society, so we should have the principle. Having a principle of `if you have long hair, we have the right to stop your car extra frequently’ may or may not be a good thing; we must balance the unpleasant side effects for innocent long-haired people with the possible benefits in police time efficiency (if it is really true that long haired people are much more crime prone, of which I am skeptical!).
        Of course this approach doesn’t actually answer the questions you raise, but at least it gives an alternative way of thinking about it, and avoids assigning `blame’ where this may be somewhat meaningless.

        Liked by 1 person

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