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Defining Discrimination

posted on 18th Aug 2010

The title of this post is a little misleading. I'm not aiming to define discrimination, that has been done already. What I'm wanting to do is put down my definitions of what should and should not be illegal to discriminate against. This isn't to say what is right or what is wrong, there are some forms of discrimination I disagree with but think shouldn't be illegal.

I've been wanting to write this article ever since I heard the response to the incident in the UK back in March, where a Christian couple who ran a B&B turned away a gay couple. For those who haven't heard about it, or forgot, you can read about it here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/8578787.stm. The whole story brought up an interesting question though: if turning away someone because they are gay is discrimination, then surely forcing a christian couple to take in a gay couple is discrimination against that couple?

What you are vs who you are

What am I? I'm a 6ft 22 year old white, straight British male with no disabilities. Who am I? I'm a fairly liberal minded, agnostic atheist computer programmer who likes rock/pop/alternative music and supports Blackburn Rovers. This is a key distinction. I can't change what I am, those are facts that have been affected by my DNA and environmental factors outside of my control. I did not choose to be white or straight or British or male. Who I am though is full of choices. I choose to be liberally minded, I choose not to believe in an all powerful deity, I choose to support Blackburn Rovers. It is comparatively easy for me to change any of those things, the only thing that prevents me would be stubbornness.

Now this is key to where I think the line should be drawn on legality. And that legality should be absolute bar two exceptions which I will go into in a bit. Ultimately I believe that discrimination on what you are should be illegal, but discrimination on who you are should be legal, though whether it is acceptable is a different matter. Discrimination based on your physical features, age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality or ableness should be illegal. Discrimination based on your political persuasions, religious beliefs, personal interests or what sports team you support should be legal.

The two exceptions to the illegal nature of discrimination are fairly basic ones:

1. The one job where discrimination on what you are is allowed is casting for acting/modeling, where if you are casting for the part of a woman, it is acceptable to reject any males who audition. However, this should be limited purely to the bounds of what the script requires. If the script only requires a woman then a woman of any ethnicity should be equally considered.

2. The one universal case where it is allowed is safety. It is ok to say that a blind person cannot drive, as to do otherwise would put that person and the wider public in danger. It is ok to say that a person who is too short may not go on a roller coaster, as it would put them in danger.

Rights vs fundamental freedoms

So surely being able to legally discriminate against someone based on their political or religious beliefs encroaches on their rights to freedom of speech, religious belief and political belief? Well no. There is a large difference in your right to these freedoms, and them being fundamental freedoms that are universal, no matter the situation. I'm allowed to say what I want, but that does not mean that I can say it where I want to. I have the choice of believing what I want religiously or politically, but that doesn't mean I can impose those beliefs on others.

If I turn around and say, I would not hire someone who is a member of the British National Party, I'm not removing their freedom to believe in the politics of the British National Party or to say what they like. I'm removing their freedom to work for me and be a member of the BNP at the same time. I believe such things should be up to a person or organisations and so should be legal. If that person really wanted to be hired by me, they could choose to give up their membership.

That said, I believe that such forms of discrimination should be used in only extreme circumstances. I personally would not reject someone based on their religious or political affiliations, unless they are completely unacceptable or illegal, but at this point they are often far distorted from any recognised form of religion or politics.

Yes these rights should be looked after, but not at the expense of the truly fundamental freedom, that of everyone being treated equal based on what they are. Someone's right to believe that homosexuality is a sin is trumped by the fundamental freedom of a gay person to be treated equally based on what they are. Someone's right to believe that black people are inferior is trumped by the fundamental freedom of a black person to be treated equally based on what they are.

Rights are very specific, outlining core things that a person should be allowed to do. But rights are made specific so they don't encroach on this fundamental freedom of basic equality, and they are always subject to it. Basic equality is the ultimate goal of many societies. Most people agree with the ideal that you should be judged on your choices and what you do, rather than things entirely out of your control, and this is where the distinction should be made upon what should be legally allowed discrimination and what should be illegal discrimination.

If you would like to send me a comment on this post, send an email to pilky@mcubedsw.com. Alternatively send a tweet to @pilky.