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SCOTT DREYER: Be Discriminating When Describing Discrimination

For each of you by his words shall be justified, or by his words shall be condemned.                                                                               -Matthew 12:37 (WNT)

He who controls the dictionary controls the culture.  – Anonymous

One pleasure and challenge of teaching English to speakers of Chinese or other languages is how many of our words can have multiple meanings. Then, for each different meaning, there is usually a totally different translation for that word in the other language. For example:

Cholesterol can clog your arteries. (blood vessels that carry blood from the heart)

Orange Avenue is a major artery in Roanoke, Virginia. (busy road)

Most students find calculus very difficult. (a field of math)

Without good dental hygiene, calculus can form on your teeth. (hardened plaque)

What is your address? (a place where someone lives)

The boss will address this problem when she returns. (to deal with)

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one of history’s most famous speeches. (a major speech)

And so on.

And so it was, when I was speaking with some bright high school students the other day. I asked them to define “discrimination” to me. One young lady quickly explained that it was unfair treatment of a person or group because of their gender, ethnicity, etc. I agreed that this is a common understanding of the word, but that we also visited There are actually three definitions: 

  1. an act or instance of discriminating, or of making a distinction.
  2. treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit:
  3. the power of making fine distinctions; discriminating judgment.

Clearly, the way that word is most commonly used in our culture is the second definition. But, as I pointed out to the students, definitions are ranked by number, with the higher numbers being the primary meanings. Thus, the first definition calls it making distinctions between two or more things. “Discrimination” starts with the word stem “disc-”, as in the word “to discern,” which means “to understand, perceive, recognize, or tell apart.”

I hope we all agree, some kinds of discrimination–like the immoral, unjust Jim Crow laws–were and are wrong.

At the same time, in other words, if “discrimination” can mean “to make distinctions, tell apart, or use good judgment,” then “discrimination” in that sense is not only a good ability, it’s essential. It’s a life skill.

For example, this morning it was rainy, so taking an umbrella is actually an act of discrimination. This afternoon it’s sunny, so putting on sunglasses is as well. Last fall, whether you chose to vote for Trump or Biden, or a third party candidate or not at all–those were all acts of discrimination, of making a judgment. 

When you think about it that way, we all make discriminations–judgments, decisions–daily. Where to shop? What to buy or not buy? How to use our time? 

We often hear people at colleges and universities boast, “We don’t discriminate! We don’t tolerate discrimination!” 

But in light of the full spectrum of meanings of the word, I asked the teens to evaluate that claim, and they realized it does not hold water. College admissions officers discriminate among all the applicants: how are the students’ grades? High school loads? Test scores? Recommendation letters? Work and/or club histories? Ironically, the more selective the university, the more discriminating they can afford to be, by admitting fewer students and rejecting more.

And once students get in? Students or their parents have to make payments for tuition, room and board, etc. No money? Unless they somehow get scholarships or loans, no admission. That too is an act of discrimination.

And how about grades? Professors discriminate among students based on the quality of their work–some get As, some don’t. And as a teacher since 1987, I am trying to communicate that such discrimination–such making of distinctions–is not only acceptable, it’s essential. 

With a bajillion things online to view, your decision to read this column is also an act of discrimination. You made the judgement that reading this is a worthy investment of your time, and for that I am thankful!

However, for decades now, the word “discrimination” has been manipulated–some might say “hijacked” or “weaponized”–to be used only in the negative way. As such, it is a tool cleverly used to intimidate people into silence, or to keep them from asking questions or making moral decisions. 

The drumbeat is: You can’t do that! You can’t say that! You can’t ask that! You can’t think that! That’s discrimination! 

Twisting language is a favorite way for dictatorships to disorient the masses and control the national dialogue. 

Over 70 years ago, George Orwell of England was a modern-day prophet when he predicted this in his brilliant book 1984. The character Syme explained the language Newspeak.

“By 2050, earlier, probably – all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.”

In addition, “Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

When we consider some of the outrageous contradictions and censorship in our current culture, we see that some people are pushing us to “not needing to think.”

In contrast, let us think even more, including what words mean, and how they might be misused or manipulated. 

So, next time someone tries to silence or intimidate you by accusing you of “discrimination”–with a smile on your face and confidence in your voice, you can calmly tell them: “I think you are discriminating against me.”

Scott Dreyer in his classroom.

– Scott Dreyer

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