Should “positive discrimination” be encouraged?

This was inspired by this post, which got me thinking on the topic of inherent prejudice and positive discrimination.

Before I start, you’ll see by my examples in the post that I’m writing this from the perspective of someone in the UK where the “typical person” that one thinks of is a straight white male.  For reference, I fit one of those three categories. I’m sure that in many other places the image of a “typical person” – by which I mean the group that either dominates or is percieved to dominate public life, and would be how you might imagine someone if you weren’t given any indication of who they were – is different, but the attitudes and so the points made are probabaly rather similar.

We all do have inherent prejudices. It’s not a good situation for the world, but it’s not our fault – we feel more comfortable with people who are similar to ourselves (whether that’s in class, gender, race, religion, level of education, or anything else) and we identify more with them, partly because we have more similar experiences. And this is before we consider the stereotypes or expectations that filter through the media and other people to us.

When it comes to the arts, the feeling of identification is important. A great part of enjoying literature or the performaning arts is engaging with the work, and we’re more likely to enjoy works if we can identify with where they are coming from – with the author or the performer. Similarly when a writer or performer is different to our expectations, that can become their main attribute – they aren’t so-and-so the great comedian, they’re so-and-so the female comedian, for example. In the case of comedy, this can isolate comedians who aren’t white males from the mainstream because they are judged on being who they are, rather than on the quality of their work – and when people think of top comedians we tend to think first of the people who we are used to thinking of by their skill, i.e. the white males.

Should we make an effort to read/watch work written or performed by a wider selection of people? Yes, I think so. But once we’ve given things a chance we shouldn’t continue watching/reading just because we think we ought to, we should be doing it because there are a lot of great works out there that we’d enjoy experiencing.

When it comes to, say, appointing people for jobs or letting people onto courses, our perceptions can lead a more ugly state of affairs. We can find, and indeed have found, ourselves in a situation where the “top jobs” are filled disproportionately by straight white middle/upper class men. Should we be actively trying to redress the balance?

It would be ideal to have the big decision makers be a roughly representative mix of society, provided they were still good at what they needed to do. The main point is here – it would be unfair to discriminate on any characteristic except ability at the specific things we need someone to be able to do. We need to ensure that our perceptions of people’s ability isn’t influenced by our prejudices, but it would be unfair discrimination to pass over the best person for a position simply because they were in fact from an overrepresented group.

There are very few cases where ability to do something will be directly influenced by, say, race, class, sexuality or other such things – such as  social work or work supporting people, where ability to have people relate to you can be an important part of the job, and vulnerable people will respond better to people who’ve been through similar situations. In other cases, these things need to not be a factor.

Unfortunately, even if they aren’t a factor at the time, they still influence things by way of differing access to education/training in their earlier years, and differing self perceptions of what one should be aiming for. We need to make sure that everyone has access to opportunities as a child/young person. And by access I mean would have the actual chance to take advantage of them, not something along the lines of “anyone can come here as long as they’ll pay this much money”.

We do need to be careful about what skills are actually necessary for a job, and what could be replaced by using different methods to achieve the same ends – so particularly in the case of people with disabilities we aren’t discriminating by insisting on things being done the way they’ve always been done, rather than saying that such and such needs to be able to be done and exploring ways people could do it.

If we can get everyone to a level starting point, we can then truly just look at “who is best at this”. While it is possible that all of the “best” people for running the country are straight able-bodied white men, it’s rather unlikely.