A Fancy Name for Tribalism

October 2005

News item: An electrical company is petitioning a Kansas City judge to stop city officials from awarding a contract to another electrical company just because it's owned by a woman. Hard on the heels of this comes a reader's letter asking me to reprint my Six Reasons Why I Dislike Affirmative Action. She thinks I published such a list somewhere. "I cut it out for my husband,” she writes, “but then we moved to the country.”

Yes, moving to the country is the dickens. There are boxes in my garage I haven’t unpacked from three moves, ago, and I’ve never even moved outside my own postal code.

The clipping my correspondent has in mind is probably in one of those boxes. One could grow mushrooms in my objections to affirmative action by now, for I've been listing them since 1978.

I won't go rummaging through boxes of mouldy clippings. Whatever I wrote must have been venomous, for I've always had a dim view of affirmative action. I don't do venomous anymore -‑ you need a certain youthful energy for venom -‑ but I still do contemptuous.

I could do contemptuous this week about Bolting Belinda and her Mentor Martin ‑ God knows, they cry out for contempt ‑ put plenty of Canadians are‑rising to the occasion. So, instead of joining the chorus, I'll recreate my reasons for disliking affirmative action, a.k.a. reverse discrimination, for my reader.

One, I dislike reverse discrimination for the same reason I dislike discrimination: It’s unfair to individuals.

Two, I dislike affirmative action because it highlights the least important aspect of people’s identities, ethnicity and gender. We don’t go to the theater to see a Danish male; we go to see Hamlet.

Three, I dislike preferential treatment programs because they perpetuate the myth that is the basis of prejudice, namely that some groups are inferior.

Four, I dislike remedial measures because, far from fostering social harmony between diverse groups, they have the potential of setting them against each other.

Five, I dislike “goal-oriented schedules of inclusivity” -- to cite the sort of euphemistic boilerplate that stands in for affirmative action – because they lead to a debasement of standards in crafts, arts and industry. They cause people to spend their energies on seeking advantages for their ethnic or gender groups instead of striving to achieve their personal best in their chosen fields.

Finally, I dislike quotas by whatever name because they seek group parity rather than individual equality. They replace the worthy aim that any woman should have a chance to become a boilermaker with the bizarre idea that 50% of all boilermakers should be women. While the first goal can be realized in a free and fair society, the second can only be realized in a state of Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

Encouraging people to define themselves by their membership in some ethnic or gender group is noxious and nonsensical. It lets group‑status decide how people fare at important junctures in their lives, such as being hired or promoted, instead of letting achievement or conduct decide it. Even letting looks or chance decide it would be better.

Race‑ or gender‑derived identity bolsters the dimwitted notion that people must bear a physical resemblance to their role models. It reduces individuals to tribal appendages. It makes them pay more attention to where they're coming from than where they're going -- an especially divisive fallacy in a country as non‑homogeneous as Canada.

These are the kind of things I would have said in that moldy clipping. I would have added, though, that there is a type of affirmative action I like. It's what it was supposed to be when people first started talking about it. Affirmative action was meant to spread the word that in our society everybody is welcome at the starting gate. It was meant to encourage any person from any group to try out for the team.

Affirmative action was about raising motivations, not expectations. It was about helping all people to meet standards, not about relaxing standards for some. It was about unlocking every door, then inviting every individual from every group to turn the knob for himself or herself. It wasn’t about barring the doors for some and carrying others across the threshold. That’s only what it turned out to be.

During the Clinton years, there was some kind of a rhyming slogan about curing the ills of affirmative action. It was something like "mend it, don't end it" or maybe it was "don't nix it, fix it." The Clinton‑administration was big on rhyming slogans. Anyway, it was fatuous. Affirmative action can't be fixed because it isn't broken. It's simply different from what it was advertised to be. It's an ugly duckling that emerged from what was supposed to be a swan's egg.

By now, it's also a lame duck. It's overdue for a swan‑song, then a swift waddle into the sunset. Which brings me to my correspondent's final question: Do I have a recipe for a cure?

I’m afraid not, madam. What I have is a recipe for confit de canard. Or toasted duck, if you prefer.