The Nature of Discrimination, the Obsession Over Equality, and the Fallacy of Human Rights

Does your school have a Black students society? Or a Korean club? How about an Indian students club? What about a Latin American culture society?

Yes? Yes? Mostly yes? All yes?

What about a White students club? No? Why not? That sounds racist? In that case, why is a club dedicated to Black students not racist but one dedicated to White students racist?

In the autumn of my sophomore year at MIT, I walked into a 6.006 exam, and saw the following on the board.

Good luck on 6.006, Miriam! *

*The actual name on the board was not Miriam. I chose a different name so as to redact who this message was aimed toward.

That bothered me. I wasn’t sure what it was for a while, and then it occurred to me. What if what was written on the board was instead the following.

Good luck on 6.006, Mexicans!

My guess is that most people are not disturbed by the first sign but are disturbed by the second. Why? What is it that makes saying good luck to Miriams okay but saying good luck to Mexicans not okay?

What do you think about people who lock their car doors upon seeing certain types of people? What do you think about people who lock the doors of a building? Is your answer to these two questions different? If so, why?

Ten years ago, it was socially acceptable nearly everywhere to make derogatory homophobic remarks in joking mannerism, but now, any influential figure in America better be on the side for homosexual rights, or have a serious mark on their reputation: Brendan Eich was pressured into resigning his position at Mozilla due to his history of supporting California’s Proposition 8, despite one’s stance of homosexuality clearly not having anything to do with their technological abilities (although I have heard at least one person argue that there isn’t necessarily no connection), and even Chick-fil-A decided to switch over to the pro-gay side after significant negative publicity. To hear the world making social progress is wonderful, but at the same time, one that has witnessed both of these two social standards with such a short time of transition in between has to wonder how a huge mass of people could have such a dramatic, synchronized change in thought so readily. What I believe is probably the case is that many who now nod towards homosexuality don’t actually approve of it, but feel the need to adhere to the social standard. And even if I think anti-homosexual stances are absurd, I would still more respect someone who is anti-homosexual and is willing to say so than someone who is anti-homosexual but says they support LGBT rights because society discourages their particular mindset. And I would want to encourage people to express their actual opinions. And if the number of people who actually warmly smile at homosexuality is much less than what it appears to be from listening to the crowd of the world, than we are not actually making that much social progress. We’re making less: we have simply donned a layer of deceit.

I feel that we as society have reached a stage where we frown at discrimination more frequently because the people around us tell us that we should frown at discrimination and not because we fundamentally understand why such forms of discrimination are awful. Why is discrimination by race, gender, or orientation bad? It’s because one who denies someone a certain right or ostracizes them based on their race, gender, or orientation wrongly asserts that these make them less qualified, when to the best of our knowledge those attributes are unrelated to their ability to responsibly exercise their rights or hold constructive memberships or positions. The wrong in wrongful discrimination lies in the misattribution of credit and blame. It is transmitted by social atmospheres dominated by people who believe wrongly that such credit and blame is properly attributed.

If it is ever shown that race, gender, orientation, or any other attributes deemed foul metrics to judge someone on are actually linked with certain abilities, then it should not be wrong to discriminate based on the such when evaluating qualification for expressing these abilities. Likewise, discrimination is not limited to these criteria. There are other attributes of a person that are usually not on the bucket list of not-okay-to-judge-someone-for but for which the bearing it has on someone being a good or bad person should be for nearly all intents and purposes is about as much as race and the other “conventionally” frowned upon discriminations. For instance, you practically never see anyone preaching the wrongness of discrimination towards dietary status. But most people should be able to see that that’s a form of discrimination that’s usually as ludicrous as discrimination on race, right?

If so, why is dialogue disparaging towards vegetarians or towards meat-eaters not nearly as frowned upon as that targeting a particular race? One who makes a racially improper remark is instantly frowned upon lest it is clear that they’re making a dirty joke or playing Cards Against Humanity. It appears that in general what society enforces in teaching is wrong has an amount of bearing that overshadows a person’s thinking capabilities to deduce from analogy what is improper. I, by the way, in making this example, am neither suggesting that people should sustain more political correctness in dialogue about dietary status, nor suggesting that people should be more accepting of those making off-color remarks (although I would lean toward the latter); my point here is that there’s a vast disparity in the amount the populace seems to care, or even be aware, of different forms of discrimination or prejudice, and that it seems, to my chagrin, that the basis of this is an excessive tendency of most people to blindly follow those around them.

Modern discourse frequently implies that discrimination is universally a bad thing. This is definitely not true. If I see a person with a gun out when I am in a store, and I decide to run away from the store, I am in fact discriminating on the basis of the attribute of bearing a gun. But I am justified in doing so because someone bearing a gun in fact does mean that I would have a greater chance of being shot, which is likely an unjust hit to my well-being, which I have fair reason to avoid. In making this choice, I am making what’s probably a generalizing assumption: not all people with guns will actually shoot me given the opportunity, but because in such a situation I do not have the resources to distinguish whether or not I’m in danger, I am making a reasonable discriminating move. Given an additional sign by which I can correlate further whether or not someone carrying a gun is dangerous, I can use that to more specifically apply my avoidance treatment to the case where that is applicable, and if I do become aware of such distinguishing features I should heed them, so as to lessen the degree of misattribution of characteristics. The important part is the understanding of the nature of discrimination, and the willingness to revise one’s mental correlations of attributes and likely events as evidence that supports different or further classification shows up. Without the understanding, one is only relaying back what life tells them.

And those that shun prejudice only because those around them tell them that that’s the right thing to do have allowed themselves to be propelled by the same force that have allowed these very prejudices to spread in the first place: society’s pressure to conform.

To truly do a proper citizen’s job of avoiding the misattribution of blame that underlies destructive discrimination, one must question and welcome questioning about standards of what constitutes improper prejudice. What is most to be feared is that society gains a “moral confidence”. It is very easy for a society to, after a revolution of social progress like that for homosexual rights, become complacent that they’re now certainly the “good people”, the ones that finally do it right. Note that every time a generation brings about a change of social progress, this feeling probably pervaded the populace. And yet years later it is demonstrated that they have only solved part of a problem while allowing the bulk of it to propagate on. After Lincoln, slavery was abolished, but anti-immigrant sentiment lived on. As anti-immigration sentiment slowly subsided, homophobia lived on. The modern era sees the overturning of homophobia. (Of course, small amounts of each still carry forward, but society’s general view of each takes a turn. As we saw, much to our surprise, Mississippi didn’t actually abolish slavery until 2013.) Each time, we take a small step forward, a new realization of a mistake that society has perpetrated in the misattribution of blame.

So here’s my question for the modern human: for generation after generation, people have noted the peculiar bigotry exhibited by those of times past, compared to whom they have learned better. What makes you so sure that it stops here?

What makes you sure, that in a hundred and forty-four years, the people of the world will look at us, and think that after so many generations, so many trials of this same species to attain a mindset free from unfair prejudices, ours was the special one, the one that finally got it right?

Ever since Thomas Jefferson penned the blatantly false and laughably overoptimistic conjecture “all men are created equal”, Jefferson’s country has sought every which way of not upholding it. From an act literally saying that some people count as three-fifths of a person, to holding onto slavery later than practically every other developed nation, to the Indian Removal Act, to the Chinese Exclusion Act, to supporting the Guatemalan Genocide, to Guantanamo Bay, to homophobia, the United States of America is a cyclic story of looking back and saying “whoops, we kind of forgot that they should have rights too”. Fortunately, America does a respectable job of looking back, admitting those mistakes, learning not to do the same thing again (do it to a different group of people next time), and seeking to correct them (usually). If the pattern continues, then one should conclude that probably right this very moment we as a country are unaware of some form of injustice that we perpetrate.

And in fact, I would like to make a proposal as to what that would be, right now. It might not actually be the next to become an issue of rights, but I for one wish it does. I am speaking, right now, for the animal.

Look at the other animals around you. An animal kills another animal to eat. It takes a human to kill another animal for sport. Humans own animals. Humans insult other humans by comparing them to animals. Humans call each other “he” and “she” and call animals “it”.

And if I may suggest some food for thought, if at some point in the far future, the communicational universes of the human and the feline merge, will they look back at cat memes as a reincarnation of Jim Crow?

I should, by the way, point out that I do not actually want to condemn the society of people on the internet browsing pussy pictures and do understand that websites dedicated to cat photography are generally there to spread happiness, and appreciate their existence to help those who attain happiness that way (which, somehow but incomprehensibly to me, seems like a lot of people) to do so. I don’t even think it’s more likely that that specific sentiment would be held than, but I do think such a view is possible and if so reasonable and one I’d defend if it exists. And I do think more general negative sentiments about how we treat animals in the current day will be a topic of discussion in the future. What I mainly want to point out is that the people in the past that we consider horribly prejudiced probably carried out their prejudices not necessarily with intent but sometimes with unawareness. It is important to realize that what is considered reasonable shifts as society progresses, and to not become confident that we’re now such better people. It is only when we ask ourselves what we could possibly be doing wrong that we can move forward. And in this case, we do have places to move forward. The way we as a people currently think highly discounts the life and dignity of the other species.

And this is why I raise an objection to the concept of human rights. It draws the line at being a human, and I am unconvinced that this is a reasonable dividing line to draw. The assertion of a set of rights to be associated with a certain group of beings asserts, first of all, that all beings in the group fundamentally deserve such rights, and second and implicitly, that beings not in the group do not necessarily deserve such rights. Aside from the fact that most articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are terribly vague and unrealistically optimistic (although it would be nice, declaring that everyone in the world has a right to adequate food, housing, and clothing does nothing by itself especially because the world as it currently is is not even capable of feeding all of its humans to adequate nutrition), many declarations of human rights are simply outlandish. A few years ago, the United Nations proclaimed access to the internet as a fundamental human right. According to a BBC poll, four out of five people agree that internet access is a fundamental human right. Do these four out of five people realize that they’re asserting that the ability to utilize a network produced from centuries of progress on domesticating electricity is a right fundamental to specifically the set of anatomically similar beings that evolved at the dusk of the Pleistocene epoch and share with each other specifically the ability to produce more of their selves when they copulate? “And nature said, ‘Let there evolve mankind, and guarantee its species internet access.'” If this claim were fiction it’d be condemned for having levels of absurdity fit only for reality.

More importantly, though, I see no reason why certain rights deemed to be protected for every human should not also be protected for certain individuals outside the human race. What gives humans the right to call the premeditated slaying of other humans murder while they call the premeditated slaying of other mammalian brethren hunting season? Do cats not have the right to seek asylum from persecution? What separates humans from other forms of life that deems this species more worthy of rights? Is it intelligence? Is it abstract understanding? Is it richness of emotional depth? I think that time and time again we have surprised ourselves with intellectual ability other animals are capable of, even if not nearly as advanced as ours, and I am fairly certain that our lack of perception of complex emotions in other animals is not a lack of such emotions on their part but rather an inability to build a communication link.

A few days ago, photographer David Slater, while in Indonesia, had his camera hijacked by a monkey who used it to take selfies, one of which became a sensational picture on the internet. Slater asked the Wikimedia Foundation to remove the image, upon which Wikimedia refused to remove the image, stating that the image is owned not by Slater, but by the monkey. Slater is now considering legal action. It seems quite a few lawyers agree that a monkey can’t own a photo.

But why can’t a monkey own a photo? What about humans makes it so that specifically only them can own photos? The monkey that took the magnificent selfie demonstrated that it had the capability of using a camera—without a user manual, even—to take a great picture; now that it has proven its abilities, why doesn’t it get the corresponding rights? It took the picture, not Slater. All that Slater should be able to claim, and it is arguable whether or not this matters (I argue not, as I am all for making finance not what stops people), is that he paid for the camera. If this becomes a battle of who has the rights to the picture, I say go monkey go.

And if this stays on the internet and all the humans supposedly have the right to enjoy that picture, the monkey better have that right too.

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