October 24, 2003

Just a few things running through my head

Posted by Curt at 12:07 PM in Politics | TrackBack

Two points. Although I agree in general with Clay's treatment of affirmative action, I think the relevant definition of discrimination in the dictionary entry he links to, at least in a legal and societal context, is the second one, "to make distinctions...without regard to individual merit." Thus in deciding not to go to an incompetent barber, you are discriminating in the wider sense of simply making a choice, but not in the legal sense, because you are clearly deciding on the basis of his individual merit or skill as a barber (or lack thereof). Thus I am not persuaded by the argument that "We all discriminate, so it's just inevitable." That may be true, but that does not mean that we ought to tolerate it, any more than we tolerate envy or any other invidious personality trait. The better argument, which he also makes, is that far from eradicating discrimination, affirmative action actually enshrines it, especially by its selective application, which is itself a form of discrimination perhaps. I think the relevant middle-ground position that, for example, the Supreme Court tried to grasp at but did not successfully articulate in the Michigan Law School and undergraduate school cases, is that while automatically according preferential status to applicants on the basis of race or culture, i.e. the point system, is discriminatory, incorporating these factors in a comprehensive evaluation of an applicant is not in fact discriminatory, because these factors may correspond, perhaps causally or perhaps not, to certain personal qualities that the school desires. For example, an applicant with a bi-cultural background may by consequence possess a more broad-minded understanding of culture generally than an applicant born into a single culture or a particular and valuable insight into the law by virtue of their background. That a school would seek these qualities out in applicants I would not consider discriminatory, because they are personal qualities, individual merits, not simply facts of life, so to speak. While it is true that not all applicants have access to the same type of cultural background and thus in a certain sense cannot compete equally in this regard, then again our personalities are shaped by a million environmental factors to which not even those of similar background are privy. As long the evaluation is ultimately of the recognizably personal qualities of the applicant, this in my opinion is not social discrimination, that is judgment without regard to merit. Now obviously this sort of individual evaluation is impossible under the race-preferential points-system used by Michigan's undergraduate program, which by taking race into account on an impersonal basis really does discriminate without regard to merit. This is the wholly defensible distinction which I think led to the double-issue, split decision in that recent Michigan case. To use a more personal example, at home by far the greatest part of my friends are foreigners. Now I would not consider myself ethnically prejudicial in my friendships, but I would be disingenuous if I did not admit that the effect of the background of my foreign friends on their personalities did not provide something not easily replicated without such a background. I think if only we looked at race and culture in this way, as a persistent but not unique in kind influence on personality, then I think we could end this hysterical Puritan dogmatism which wildly inflates the issue by either totally denying its legitimacy or worshipping it.

Other and totally unrelated response point: I too have noticed what Clay notes: the tendancy of science-fiction writers and other predictors of the future to overestimate the develpment of many technologies but fail to forsee the dominance of computers and a few other technologies. I would place this dichotomy in a wider formulation: we tend to overestimate the development of existing technology while failing to anticipate technologies that are wholly new or different in kind. This phenomenon not very difficult to explain, as the latter would require that the predicter actually conceptually pre-invent the still-uninvented technology, while the former simply requires an extrapolation from past trends. An example would be the obsession, especially during the '50s, with robots as the human surrogates of the future, while ignoring what now seem the more likely future human surrogates: genetically modified humans or clones. But of course the progression to human-like robots from cars, then planes, then nascent computers, would seem to represent a fairly logical chain of ever-growing sophistication in mechanical engineering. Of course robots have taken over many of the manual tasks of humans but, "The Matrix" notwithstanding, should we ever decide to construct a race of inferiors, an underclass to serve us in a specifcally human manner, genetically manipulated humans would seem more feasible today, simply because creating sentiency in machines looks to be considerably more difficult than simply copying it from the existing human template. But of course in the '50s to have extrapolated bio-engineering from the contemporaneous discovery of the structure of DNA in all but the vaguest conception would have required considerably greater prescience, so it is not surprising that most of the predicting punditry, being in the end fairly short-sighted like the rest of us, did not generally recognize its future importance in the ways that have actually become manifest. Of course, sometimes writers produce nonsense predictions that become validated in ways that the writer could surely never have supposed, such as the poem by Edgar Allan Poe which allegedly anticipates both the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. However, without a certain minimum level of specificity and clarity, I would generally ascribe these supposed prophecies to luck. Poe, crazed as he may have been, did not anticipate quantum any more than Dylan Thomas correctly predicted the attack on the WTC by writing something about towers blowing in a religious wind. Of course it is a disquieting thought that physics has become such an alien and counter-intuitive discipline that its findings resemble the rantings of Poe. Anyway, speaking of ranting, I've done enough for one day.

p.s. I know I've written a lot of entries that are more properly responses to entries by Clay and hence perhaps more properly relegated to the comment box, but in my defense I usually start out writing there until the entry spirals out of control and gets so long that the comment box would probably need extra memory, so instead I exercise my executive key to the main page. So there.

p.p.s. I promise not to use D.J. Shadow songs as headings for all my entries.