Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

Not the Same

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that a good catchword could stop people from thinking for 50 years. Something similar seems to be true of the “it’s the same as race” argument. The argument is most prominent these days in matters relating to homosexuality, but it’s hardly confined to such discussions. Similar analogies have been made by everyone from proponents of deaf culture, to animal rights activists. In a society without many examples of moral righteousness, it is perhaps not so surprising that people would want to trade on the positive connotations of the Civil Rights movement by associating with it their own pet projects and causes. Such analogies, however, are almost always quite problematic.

Consider: next to racism, no discriminatory ‘ism’ is subject to more widespread opprobrium than is sexism. Yet both law and society treat differential treatment based on sex very differently from differential treatment based on race. With regard to race, for example, the Supreme Court declared in Brown that “separate but equal is inherently unequal” and has struck down laws mandating such things as separate bathrooms and sports teams based on race. When it comes to sex, by contrast, we have separate bathrooms and sports teams that are required by law to be separate but equal. The military has been racially fully integrated since the 1940s, and blacks have served in combat roles since the Civil War, while even today women are exempt from the draft and unable to serve in combat. Few people would be willing today to belong to an all white club, or to a church with an all white priesthood, yet many organizations restrict their membership by sex, and many church do the same with their ministers. One might think in some of these cases that the distinction drawn on account of sex is unwarranted (or, less likely but still possible, that such distinctions based on race are fine and dandy), but anyone who thought all of them were wrong has, in my view, let his reason be overwhelmed by a faulty analogy.

To discriminate is to treat differently. No one is against discrimination absolutely. Everyone thinks it just and proper to discriminate against certain groups at least in certain cases (say, in giving drivers licenses to the blind). The real question is whether a given case of discrimination is or is not unjust. And given the differences is permissible discrimination even between race and sex, we ought to be wary of any attempt to draw a direct analogy between race and some other, even less connected category.


June 17, 2008 - Posted by | Homosexuality, Law, Race

1 Comment »

  1. In regards to gay rights, where this is often rolled out lately, it’s often a faulty analogy in regards to what is being argued, or at least an attempt to skip the whole topic of discussion.

    Same sex marriage is denied not because the people requesting it are homosexual, but because marriage is not generally considered to consist of two people of the same gender. “Straights” are no more able to contract a same sex marriage than “gays”. And so the issue is clearly not one of “discrimination” per se, but rather social definition.

    Comment by Darwin | June 17, 2008 | Reply

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