Shades of Discrimination

Ever more it matters to me to discriminate. But when I approach discrimination in the sense I believe I mean, the word drags along a thick, ugly shadow. Look carefully – with discrimination – and you see that discrimination bears two clusters of meaning, which are more or less the opposite of each other.

The discrimination that matters to me is the ability to discern subtle differences, to navigate a universe of slight yet significant variations.  The word comes into English in the 1640s from the Latin discrimen: ‘interval, distinction, difference.’

The discrimination that shadows me is broad, clumsy, negative categorisation, derived out of a single aspect of a human being (it’s normally in the human sphere that the term is applied). Gender, skin pigmentation, sexual orientation … the list is familiar enough now. The term further implies unjust exclusion, being denied access to customary parameters of humanity like a home, a job, fair pay or basic human rights. The root use of discrimination as a pejorative term comes from American English in the year 1866.

Assuming I can trust the on-line dictionary of etymology, these origins are noteworthy, because they coincide closely with, respectively, the English and American civil wars. Times when the assumed ‘unity’ of those nations fractured and had to be renegotiated, partly by means of prolonged armed conflict.

Discrimination matters to me partly out of character: an ingrained habit, a tic of personality. Close friends are routinely amused by the way I will flip a thing around to see the various possibilities, permutations and consequences; often way beyond the call of what’s necessary. They know better than to accompany me on shopping trips. The shadow of this character is the tension of my own prejudices, the scope of my inabilities to perceive with any subtlety whatsoever. A Jungian hunch: one’s best and worst qualities are always linked, by something akin to an ancestral relationship.

Discrimination is equally a facility that is acquired, practiced, encultured. The more you know of a subject, the more skilled you become at doing something, the more your ability to discriminate within that sphere is honed. To me, discrimination is a facet of intelligence; but I admit multiple intelligences, not only the mental exercises of reasoning. The standard five senses each have their own domain of discrimination, as do the emotions, the creative, artistic, crafting faculties, as does any kind of embodied skill like playing football, as do the instincts and the organs of the physical and subtle bodies. In case you started feeling sceptical towards the end of that last sentence, consider exactly what’s meant when we use expressions like ‘gut reaction’ or ‘my heart was in my mouth’. Even if you’ve never felt the pull of an instinctive response somewhere between your ribcage and your groin – the kind that tells you, without apparent cause, things like ‘do not walk down that road; go three blocks to the left before turning’ – it’s within the domain of reason’s discrimination to ask where phrases like those have their origins.

Sometimes I worry that discrimination is a recipe for endless agonising and paralysis, but more it is to do with carefully observing, questioning and preparing in order to act, to intervene. Tony Dias <a href=”″>defines design as ‘the practice of drawing distinctions so that physical interventions can be made in this world.’ I’m not a designer, and before reading this always assumed in the usual reflex way that design was all about output: creative processes and tangible results. But here is a concept of design in which the capacity for discrimination before any creative intervention is paramount.

Even as subtle differentiation, discrimination carries the assumption that something must eventually be excluded. In the familiar sense of aesthetic discrimination – the not-so-gentle exercise of educated good taste – shades of snobbishness and fussiness, u and non-u, draw over the word and drag closer its crude, harshly prejudicial application.

It is at exactly this point that discrimination is needed. To be able to perceive and understand something finely enough to exclude, to count an option out, to refuse, to not do, to exercise restraint, to question an assumed value; in a world of very real limits and constraints, these all have a precise necessity that is not the same as unjust, one-size-fits-all-of-your-sort denial. Even if indiscriminate reacting to a wounded sense of entitlement might fail to observe the distinction.

This is the worst of the two discriminations: the fragility of drawing fine-grained distinctions as a basis for sound judgement easily gets swallowed up by the crude, corrosive sweep of negligent or deliberate injustice. I’m exasperated and frightened, saddened and worried whenever I encounter sledgehammer human reactions that lack discrimination: crude (often rude), mechanical, ready-formatted, incapable of lifting up the latest buzzwords to search deeply into what they mean or imply. I can see in this exasperation my own shadow discrimination at work, to the extent that I’m given to assume in all others an equal capacity for acumen in the domain of critical thought, without taking the time to engage and discover where else their gifts for discrimination might lie: fixing care engines, fathoming the mood swings of an autistic child. But even the shadow might hide a darker prospect: discrimination as the true understanding and honouring of subtle variations losing use, falling into decay and disrepute, ripe for exploitation.

Inside this darkness, whatever we (mis)took for unity is fractured, up for renegotiation. Promising and proclaiming nothing,  it’s still worth considering whether the matter of discrimination isn’t now more essential than ever.


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