When I think about what the future feels like, what optimality is, I’m often lost for what’s supposed to happen with discrimination, or how we’re to try to grasp at what’s to be. What are the properties of discrimination in the abstract, and what exactly has our progress so far been? What’s in the way? What does a world without discrimination look like?
I think there are broadly, three humps in discrimination, things that are in the way of us making further progress.
1. Different value systems cause different treatments
- Differing ethical systems often don’t cause different treatments, in which case there isn’t a problem. I find that the moral framework is not often the easiest thing to adjust, rather some more particular value adjustment can get people to agree on a treatment.
- A crux that often occurs is whether people discriminate differently if the group at hand choses their identifying feature. Another example is those with strong (traditional) family values have untanglable implications for sexism.
2. Deciding what to do given your morality is hard (some discrimination groups don’t need to be balanced to “equal treatment”).
- Dealing with racism and sexism is relatively easy, since all you have to do is apply “equal treatment”. Discrimination against non-equal treatment groups is much harder, as you have to decide exactly how much worse one group is under the infinite number of contexts to evaluate.
- The worst of this I think is classism. It’s really messy if you have probably reasonable values like “smart people are cool” or “contributions to society are good” but need to apply those accurately as not to be overly unfair to people. Secondarily, there’s even more calibration problem when there are conflicting values like “correcting imbalance” where you have responsibility to help people. Also in this category are parts of fatphobia, credentialism, and the outskirts of basically any form of discrimination.
3. Subconscious biases
- We already are at a point where we’ve noticed that this can do harm, but like, how the hell do we solve it? Our two options are to stop these from forming in the first place, or trying to gain sufficient control over our cognition to remove it. Both seem hard.
I think Hump 0 was actually a precursor to Hump 2, which was something like “we’re not sure who counts as human!”. The answer was something like “sure seems like we were doing some extreme motivated reasoning to convince ourselves that these people weren’t human” and now we’re more careful about it. Hump 4 might be something like “we’ve reached the ends of what systematic solutions can accomplish, and we simply need people to stop being assholes”.
Discrimination against ugly people
I’m increasingly convinced that this is the most terrifying (as in, upsetting on moral grounds and not necessarily the one that does most damage) discrimination we perform as a society. Naively, the only excusable of lookism is in romantic/sexual endeavours, but it’s all wrapped up into things like fitness, fashion and general care.
I do still think it’s a massive historical injustice (and especially sad one as it’s largely uncontrollable by the individual), and is fueled by something quite monkey brained. We should be far beyond treating people based on perceived mating value, not to mention that appearance has much less to do with mating value than our monkey brains would have us believe.
Yet, it’s mostly normal (though a little untasteful) to comment negatively on someone’s unattractiveness as a reason to be uncharitable. It’s often not viewed as untasteful at all if it were in the context of romance or sexual activity, even if the person was being excessively mean. This registers in peoples’ careers, crime enforcement, social activities and we are rather upsettingly numb to it. Too much “that’s just the way the world works” attitude.
The more terrifying thing though, is that we might be making excuses to never acknowledge that we do this, by offloading it into “they don’t put enough effort into themselves” or when people mix up “creepy” with “ugly”.
My definition of discrimination is probably broader than most, I define it as a sort of excess bad. It’s encompasses all forms of unjustness, but is not prejudice-free. I think utopia is a place that does not hav discrimination.
My utopia is not a place where we never do bad things to each other, I think that would require compromising the differing values we have as humans. My utopia does involve people acting in accordance with their own values, which will often be similar to other peoples’.
This goes wrong quickly. “I value murdering people who don’t have blond hair and blue eyes”, it screams! Surely we can’t avoid calling this discrimination. I would claim that this is a bad mesa-value. The underlying value would be something like “I value making other groups seem lesser to mine”. Under that, “I value feeling safe and supported by a community”. Presumably if this were you, and an omniscient being traced your values for you, you’d say “oh ok the core value seems fine, but the downstream values seem inefficient, or conflicting with other values I have, like that murder is bad”.
There are some reasonable mesa-values, like “art is great” → “I value people with artistic talent”, and it would be ok to treat those people better. Maybe you really hate people who are lazy, and you might be mean to those people which feels less obviously ok, especially if the laziness identified has some chance of being mislabeled (as it often is today). The line may be a little fuzzy and I’m not sure how we’ll ever be able to clear it up, though we’re currently far from it.
Utopia, will in some ways remove biases that we don’t currently have the cognitive capacity to. Some discrimination has been solved by us thinking harder (or new evidence being provided), and realising we’ve been bad. But what about implicit biases? Perhaps much further down into the future, we’ll live in a world where society doesn’t create implicit biases against black people.
Unless the utopia involves significantly changing the way humans generate emotion and interact socially, I suspect we’ll still be very capable of being discriminatory. We have tried to create treatments for implicit association tests, though it was comically unsuccessful. The only things that worked were basically cheating, and creating racism against white people. But what a world it would be if we had such treatments! “Doctor, I’m feeling a little racist, can you fix it?”
Jacque Fresco once predicted that humans would eventually become free from bias and apply “the scientific method” to their lives. I think people who value artistic talent should have room to treat those with artistic talent more kindly, to want to hang out with them and whatnot. Running around stoning those who can’t paint is definitely causing excess harm. In the giant gray area though, how do you decide? Superior cognition will probably be necessary in a discrimination-free utopia.
Good will is no longer enough, we need good judgement
Even given identical moral values, epistemic processes will start showing up here. Say we’re thinking about discrimination against pregnant, skilled, women in the workforce, and two people agree that these situations should be treated with a strong utilitarian ideal — they don’t care about the pregnancy itself, only the performance of an employee. The case here could be one person reasons to believe that generous maternity leave to allow for the employee to be kept long term is a good option while another believes that it would be easier to replace the employee. The difference is just in their world models, and well, probably one of them is smarter than the other.
But I think we (at least in the western blue states) are at the fringes of what we can solve by being a good person, in that the easiest ways to improve are through being smarter. This is primarily because I think a majority of problems in discrimination are being blocked by Hump 2. It’s very much a judgement problem, since it’s all about calibrating the optimal treatment for non-equal discrimination classes. Classism, credentialism, what’s remaining of sexism, lookism, ableism are all mostly hump 2 problems. We’ve certainly tried to work on these things, but I was kind of disappointed with how the anti-fatphobia was executed, though it seems to be going better for ableism.
I’ve considered that the problem all along was good judgement. The strongest argument for this is that moral progress in the form of ideas passed along generations seems a lot more plausible than generational increase of good will. Those ideas are the product of cumulative judgement. The ideas passed down though, was not so much an information passing of “we learned something new, turns out other races have moral value” but more “we should think more about whether we’re treating people fairly”. As far as I’m concerned, having that idea passed down is generational increase of good will.
There is already a lot of evidence that we’re at the new frontier. For example, we now have bias tests for people who want to do good, but are worried about subconscious biases to try to correct this. Building the test itself, is a demonstration of good judgement. The whole nature of this “I want to do good, but I need to think clearer to be able to exercise it” is a new practice for discrimination, at least as a burden that everyone will carry.
It’s certainly not news that smart people are often kinder or carry moral values better in various ways, but I think it’s kind of imperative for discrimination now. This is scary, as it takes away our Forrest Gump narrative that an extremely kind man can be rather dumb.
Some half baked thoughts
I started listing instances of discrimination in my head, and there are some outliers like fatphobia and anti-semitism, but the one that updated me the most was the Cagot. There’s a canonical ideal of discrimination which involves very systematic, long-term harm, often caused by religion or some sort of historical baggage. The Cagot were a group of people who had no notable ethnic or cultural differences, and were severely discriminated against — forced to wear goose feet on their clothing to segregate themselves. They were not allowed to marry non-Cagot, were buried separately, and were not allowed to even work with livestock (this varied between regions, hated of the Cagot was widespread).
There was no consensus as to why we hated them so much, but they do in fact no longer exist. They practiced the same religion, spoke the same language, and were not an ethnic group. We don’t really know why we hated them so much, but accusations included werewolves, lepers, cannibals or just being intrinsically evil.
My update from thinking about the Cagot, is this model that discrimination starts as people being mean, making excuses to be mean, then letting the burden of history carry it forth.
Why that update is important, is that it changes my model of how we can make progress. The reason what happened to the Cagot can no longer happen today is that globalization and the progress on discrimination holds us accountable. At the same time, it seems squarely the case that if discrimination comes from being mean, then we might not be able to fully eliminate it until people are no longer mean. I’m pretty sure people haven’t become less mean? It’s weird that it seems like society has made moral progress where individuals have not.
Another angle to the “being mean” is that all discrimination cases are witch hunts. The literal witch hunts were discrimination. Witch hunts express why people are mean, which is broadly because people feel the need to have an outgroup, and will create it when it does not exist. I’ve started reading about this aspect of human behaviour, why we need the outgroup (enemy group) and why it’s so hard to exist in neutrality, specifically from the lens of political theory (which seems to produce more useful/correct models than sociology). This is of interest since it seems relevant to how discrimination occurs and if it’s even possible to ever solve without mutating this basic human desire.
The energy of discrimination as a witch hunt shines through with anti-semitism, given the Jewish migration across Europe (and eventually to New York and the rest of the New World). An oversimplification of the situation is something like, the Jewish were forced out of one country then travelled to another, only soon to be evicted from their new homes as well. It wasn’t literally the same people chasing them around, but it might as well have been. No discrimination has geographically travelled quite like this (I think the Crusades might be an example, but that has all its other complications [war]). Imagine fleeing Hungary to Germany due to anti-semitism in the 1920’s and seeing it follow you to Germany like watching a storm coming in (the Italy/Mussolini situation was also peculiar).
Anti-semitism is also extremely special in how it affected the Jewish narrative, I don’t think any other discrimination has embedded this much historical impact into the psyche of a whole group. Another weird case of this though, is the commercialisation of gay and black culture as those humps in moral progress were passed.
I have a bunch of thoughts about how various discriminations are funky, this was a surprisingly strong nerd snipe. I think fatshaming was special because it was the first time that we sort of had consensus that we might’ve overcorrected? I think credentialism is super weird, since we actually put up very discrete systematic barriers against the uncredentialed, unlike most forms of discrimination which are discretionary. I’m still kind of confused as to how we’ve let lookism run so far and model minority based discrimination seems rather new? I haven’t even started to think religion!