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.

If you could find out details of your future, would you?

I’m assuming in this case that you wouldn’t be able to change what happens – anything that you found out would happen to you in exactly the way you were told.

In some ways, knowing could be reassuring. If we knew that things would turn out well, we wouldn’t spend our time and energy worrying about how life will go, and what to do with ourselves. Knowing that we can’t make “wrong” decisions would be freeing, in a way. But it could also be horrible.

If we already know if we’ll succeed, we don’t need to put in energy to doing our best. If we know what we’ll end up doing, we don’t need to aim high, to imagine great things for ourselves, to have ambitions or hopes or dreams. And if we in fact know that we have failure or pain in store, what then? Could you go through enjoying life and trying things knowing that in the end you would fail? Could you make the most of your time, lose yourself in love for someone or something, knowing that it’s only a short time until it all falls apart?

I don’t think I could.

What excites me is possibilities, and they are scary. I’m young, I don’t know what I’ll end up doing with my life, or who, if anyone, I’ll spend it with. I can work hard at things, knowing that there might be a reward, that things will probably go better if I just push myself. If I already knew what would happen when I tried to do something, or when I met someone, life could easily become rather boring. I’d just end up disinterested, lazy, and discontent.

And if I knew I would fail, I don’t think I could grin and enjoy the good times knowing what was coming.

I might find it pleasant to have some vague reassurance – that overall things would be ok – but I don’t think I want to know any details. I’d rather find them out for myself the hard way.

It may even be like quantum states – until someone takes a measurement, it could be any of a large number of possibilities. If finding out the future was what fixed it, would it be better to do so, or to wait so we can try and make it as good as possible first? If not knowing left the possibility of changing it, I’d rather know I was able to make a difference to the future. If we know we cannot change things, what has happened to our free will?

What would John Lennon’s imagined world be like?

Some of what I wrote in my last post got the song  “Imagine” on my brain, and I started thinking of what the world described by Lennon in the song would actually be like, so I thought I’d take a look. Without further ado;

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

I have to agree that this first bit is indeed easy to imagine.

I’m assuming that “above us only sky” refers to there being no heaven above us, rather than no stars/satillites/other planets/other bits of the universe that can’t really count as sky. In this case, we’re simply talking about a state of belief. Some religions believe in various kinds of physical afterlife, others in reincarnation, and many people do believe that there is no life after death. We don’t have evidence for any of these positions, so as far as life on this world goes, the only possible difference that knowing there was no heaven or hell could have would be in people’s attitudes.

I would like to think that this would make no difference, but sadly people’s attitudes can have a large impact on the world. For some, the idea of an afterlife is reassuring and helps to make sense of life. For others, the prospect of eternal damnation serves to modify their behavior – in some cases to be a better person, in others to condemn others for doing things that they believe will send them to hell.

Imagine all the people

Living for today…

Living for today is a different matter. It implies everyone making the most of what can be done now, and not thinking about the future. This could be good – taking more chances, doing exciting things – but it could also mean that people did things without thinking of the consequences to themselves and others. Living for today could certainly include massive burning of fossil fuels to serve whatever energy needs we wish without thinking about the reserves left for tomorrow, or about the effect of the release of CO2 and global warming on the world, or deciding no tto bother spending time planting crops today without thinking about the effect of not having the food grown next year.

Imagine there’s no countries

This could actually work quite well, although would probably eliminate a lot of cultural diversity from the world. If we had some kind of global government that managed to equalise quality of life and access to services and oppertunities across the world, that could certainly be a very nice prospect. We would, however, lose a certain amount of choice in the sort of place we want to live – for example, in the UK I feel safe from certain bits of crime because no one, most of the police included, has a gun, while some people in the US feel safe from bits of crime precisely because many people have guns, and there are many differences between countries in attitudes to personal freedoms vs personal protections, in how different groups of people (women, children, young people, offenders, unemployed people, people with disabilities…) are treated by the law, and in what’s expected to be provided by the government. And this is let alone the cultural differences between different parts of the world, much of which would probably be eroded by a global government that was homogenising provisions rather than adapting them to local expectations.

On the other hand, this would mean a fairer global society, more connections between different sides of the world, greater freedom of movement around the world, and hopefully a sense of global community.

Nothing to kill or die for

This is a surprisingly broad point. People have been willing to kill or die for a lot of things throughout history: religion, their country, their political leader (or someone they wish to be such a leader), a difference of opinion on animal rights, nuclear weapons, abortion…

This line could mean eliminating all those differences, or it could mean eliminating the need for strong feelings to lead to a belief that killing or dying for a cause is necessary. In a way, I’d like the latter – if we were in a position where issues could indeed all be resolved by discussion, it would be a good world to live in. It’s hard to imagine that such resolutions would be accepted in all cases however, and certainly differences of opinion are hard to eliminate as problems unless somehow the entire issue is made irrelevent. If nuclear weapons had never existed, for example, there wouldn’t be massive debates and direct action in the arguement about whether they are necessary or abhorant to have.

And no religion too

It’s hard to talk about this from a state of the world where religions do exist and are a big part of some people’s lives. Forcing people to give up religion would be highly unethical and probably lead to worldwide unrest. However, imagine if religion had never existed as an idea. We would certainly have avoided a large number of conflicts, historical and in the present day, without the very strongly held and rightously thought of differences in opinion caused by differening religious beliefs. We could have avoided a lot of deaths, a lot of hurt, and a lot of discrimination that all continue to the present day. We would have to hope that we had found some other kind of unifying moral force however, preferably a single global one, else community and care for one another may well be unheard of concepts.

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace…

All I can say to this bit is that yeah, peace would be awesome.

Imagine no possessions

With no possessions, it would depend how certain aspects of life then worked. If we assumed that this means that all property is essentially communally owned but each person is provided with “their” house and “their” clothes and “their” furniture etcetera with some degree of ability for personalisation, then this could work.

No need for greed or hunger

No need for greed or hunger would be good. Even better if there actually was no greed or hunger. It doesn’t really follow from the other things, but if it could be arranged I don’t think there would be a way in which it was anything but brilliant.

A brotherhood of man

Assuming what is meant here is some sort of worldwide caring community, then that would be much appreciated I’m sure.

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world…

And the world will live as one

Everyone sharing the world is an attractive concept. It has implications of making sure everyone does get their share of use out of it, acknowledgement that we cannot be selfish and must take care of the world around us, that everyone should care about what happens to all of the world, not just a small part. If everyone had these sorts of attitudes, it would be an interestingly refreshing experience.

The more I think about it, the more of a radical song it seems. Would you want to live in that world?

What if money didn’t exist?

This question idea came entirely from reading this blog post. Sorry for the shameless idea grabbing!

Imagine a world where money was simply not a factor. We could simply go and pick up as much food as we wanted, whatever clothes we wanted, spend our time learning what we wished where we wished, doing what we enjoyed without worrying about making money, living where we wanted…

My brain immediately starts throwing problems at me;

  • How do we define ownership? How can I say that this is my house, my food, my clothes when I just went along and took them? And how can I stop someone else from deciding that they want to take them from me, in the way that someone might buy them from me now?

I suppose a way round this would be to still have “shops” and similar places, with people making “purchases” by, say, swiping an ID card to register a transfer in ownership. No money or anything like that changing hands, but items can clearly be said to belong to someone.

  • How do we stop a small group of people from taking all the resources (food, clothes, houses, entertainment or whatever) and leaving nothing for the majority?

If there isn’t a constraint of “how much can I afford” on how much of something we take/how often we do something, what’s to stop some people taking as much as they can possibly get hold of? Either we allow this, in which case life would be awful or impossible for a lot of people, or we impose some limit in another way. If we could change people’s thought processes, eliminating greed and leaving everyone taking only what they need or a fair share of luxuries, that would be lovely. In the absence of thought control, we’re left with imposing some kind of rationing system, at least for necessities.

  • How do we ensure that things actually get produced? That streets get cleaned, that hospitals are staffed, that food is grown and that houses are built?

Without the need to earn money, what incentives are there for us to do the less interesting or rewarding jobs? I’m sure there are some things that would get done by people who do really love those things, or people who decide that someone needs to and they are willing to do so, but what about the things no one really likes? We could end up in a society where people will teach, or research, or play music or act, and maybe even grow food or practice medicine, but with no one willing to clean, or run shops, or grow enough food, or drive buses, or make clothes. This sounds like it could end badly.

Possibly we could impose rules forcing people to either be learning or working for a certain portion of their time, but how do we enforce this? And how do we ensure a spread of jobs are done – by forcing people into particular things? It’s not like there would be an automatic point of “well, this company can’t employ any more engineers because we haven’t got any more money to pay them” – I imagine that in general they’d be happy to have more people because even if each was only marginally helpful they would be gaining from them.

I’m not really sure how one could actually deal with most of these issues. It’s seeming to me like, unless money not existing just meant we were using some very complicated barter system, we’d have to go a fair way into communism in order to have a decent society without it. Not that there’s anything wrong with communism as an ideal, but no one has yet actually managed to live up to it, and it does lend itself to exploitation.

The only way without the controls mentioned would be if everyone was, in fact, genuinely altruistic and prepared to do whataver needed to be done to help everyone lived in a better world, with no reward beyond seeing what the impact is. And that would still need a certain level of organisation to ensure that we had all areas being focussed on by people with the necessary skills, rather than everyone dealing with a small number of problems.