“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
– Martin Luther King Jr
History is replete with people being treated according to their category: Muslims enslaved and executed infidels; the Holy Inquisition tortured and executed Jews and Conversos; England suppressed and executed Catholics, while Protestants were suppressed and executed in France; the Ottoman Empire slaughtered the Armenians to the point of genocide; the Nazi regime devoted itself to the genocide of Jews; South Africa segregated blacks; Hutus engaged in genocide against Tutsi; Turkey has marginalized and suppressed the Kurds, as did Saddam Hussein in Iraq with the aid of poison gas.
Then there are the people held to be subordinate, often abused and even murdered: women through much of history, untouchables in South Asia, natives in conquered lands, blacks in some countries with multiple races, and many others.
Treating people as members of categories is a common way of avoiding approaching people as individual, complex beings with multiple dimensions, with hopes and fears, with intentions and goals. Reducing people to categories of gender, race, religion, caste, nationality, sexual preference, among others, simplifies their treatment as members of preferred or despised categories. That facilitates the ascendency of members of preferred categories and the degradation of members of despised categories.
This reductionism violates the liberal spirit, which grants dignity to individuals. It’s also a violation of human rights, which are vested in individuals rather than categories.
We’ve returned to that deceptively easy and efficient way of looking at our fellow humans. We’ve decided a person’s race, gender, sexual preference and religion are of paramount importance and we sort people accordingly.
In North America, discrimination due to race, religion and nationality was once common and approved.
In the 20th century, affirmative action was introduced to guarantee that people were treated without regard to race, creed, colour, or national origin when it came to hiring practices.
Then affirmative action evolved to the point that reverse discrimination in favour of some categories of peoples has been accepted and institutionalized as desirable. The intent is to compensate for past disadvantages or to promote absolute demographic equality. ‘Affirmative action’ now refers to programs for purposeful discrimination on the basis of race, origin, creed, and sex. This is justified by the ideology of social justice, in which minorities categorized as oppressed must be given special benefits to compensate for past oppression and provide them with equal circumstances and status.
These measures depend upon a particular understanding of equality. Equality is imposed for categories of people, rather than individuals. The idea of equality of opportunity is replaced by equality of result, so that any discrepancy in income, representation, membership, income between categories of people must be ameliorated by social engineering.
Discrimination by category is also supported by the overriding concept of diversity. Diversity has become the primary value toward which policies must aim, and the criterion by which university, business and government organizations are judged. For example, Science and Innovation Canada will measure applicants for the Canada Research Chairs Program at universities according to diversity criteria. If the applications aren’t sufficiently diverse, funding will be blocked.
Don’t imagine, however, that diversity in education means diversity of opinion, which traditionally has been thought to be a critical ingredient for higher education. Diversity for governments and universities means diversity of gender, sex, sexual orientation, race, religion and nationality. Both at the governmental and university level, diversity of opinion is, in fact, rejected. Notwithstanding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the ill-named human rights commissions and tribunals have actively suppressed unpopular opinions. Parliament has passed a motion to suppress criticism of Islam. The only acceptable goal in Canada is people of many races, languages and cultures all saying the same politically-correct things.
Programs of admission, hiring and appointment are aimed at bringing in the under-represented demographic. Other criteria – merit, achievement, excellence, capability, character – are dismissed.
School administrators state that “Equity and inclusiveness are among McGill University’s core principles, and McGill is committed to the view that striving for diverse representation within our Canada Research Chair appointments, as well as our broader academic and research communities, is a matter of fairness that furthers excellence and the advancement of our academic mission.” The claim that “diversity” in fact “furthers excellence and … our academic mission” is often made by administrators, without evidence. One McGill committee even argued that diversity is excellence.
Increasingly, academic criteria are overridden by social justice criteria.
For McGill and other universities, these policies must be put into action and must show results. McGill aims to correct a perceived unbalance with “immediate and medium term commitments for the priority hiring of Indigenous tenure tract and tenured faculty.”
McGill’s Department of Anthropology, of which I’m a member, appears determined to hire Indigenous individuals on a racial basis, as its graduate student association lobbied for. Post-colonialist academics see admitting and hiring members of First Nations as “decolonialization.” Universities become a tool of this political project. Gone are the days when the primary goals of universities were excellence in research and education.
McGill’s policies are typical of Canadian universities.
Canadian universities by no means limit their special priorities to First Nations. Dalhousie University is advertising for a vice-provost for student affairs, an important administrative position. Dalhousie will consider only candidates who fall into the categories of “racially visible persons and Aboriginal peoples.” The assistant vice-president of human resources says “this is the way for us to develop the most meritorious faculty and staff population.”
Apparently they believe that merit comes with skin colour and racial origin. Martin Luther King obviously disagreed.
Given the great variation among individuals in motivation, talent, intelligence and creativity, a social system producing equality of results would require massive government intervention and intrusive social engineering throughout society. We know how this works because during the 20th century a number of societies were built on the goal of equality of result: the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, and Cuba. These experiments left more 100 million people murdered in totalitarian societies that created widespread poverty and misery.
Surprisingly, social justice warriors want to try this experiment again.
Diversity and inclusion are appealing ideals. But when you make diversity and inclusion the primary objective of an institution, there are opportunity costs. If you make diversity and inclusion the main objective of a sports team, rather than talent, skill and conditioning, the result will be a poorer level of play and an inability to beat opponents who make winning their primary goal. The same will be true of armies. Companies that focus on diversity and inclusion rather than on production and profit will lose out in the competitive marketplace. Universities that make diversity and inclusion their main objective will sacrifice intelligence, diligence, scholarship, creativity and merit.
It’s disingenuous to say that diversity will increase merit when there is no competition to demonstrate relative merit. Universities stop being scholarly and educational institutions and become political organizations engaged in social engineering.
However, the greatest objection to the current program of social justice diversity and inclusion is that it discriminates in favour of individuals in preferred victim categories, and discriminates against individuals in despised privileged or oppressor categories. Justice for some is, in fact, injustice for others.
Most people would like to be treated fairly. Traditionally, in the West, fairness was adherence to universalistic standards: If you could run faster and hit farther, you got on the team. If your grades were higher, you were admitted to university. If you were more skillful, more motivated and better prepared, you got the job.
By no means did we always live up to fairness. But we knew what fairness meant and we were moving, if slowly, toward the effective application of universal criteria.
But the notion of social justice rejects such criteria in favour of race and gender category favouritism. Those of disfavoured categories – males, whites, well-to-do, Christians and Jews – would have to take their lumps. Some social justice enthusiasts believe that members of those categories, in fact, deserve their lumps.
No clearer example could be found of the unfairness of affirmative action racial discrimination than the treatment by universities of people of Asian ancestry. Ironically, Asians have always been victims of prejudice and discrimination in North America, and should be among the favoured categories for social justice advocates. But in recent decades, Asians made the great mistake, through talent and diligence, of becoming very successful academically and in business and professions. They are no longer worthy victim clients of social justice. So they too apparently must be discriminated against.
However social justice advocates spin it, reverse racism is still racism.
Treating people according to racial, gender, sex and religious categories has never worked out well. The moral way to treat people is as individuals.
Philip Carl Salzman is professor of anthropology at McGill University, senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and fellow of the Middle East Forum.
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