The Need to Distinguish
Scripps-Howard News Service 7.23.02
"I must endure thirty years," Salieri complains bitterly
in the play Amadeus, "of being called 'distinguished' by people
who cannot distinguish."
Are we on the way of being those people?
Among the more intangible of human qualities, our ability to distinguish
is constantly enhanced as we grow older, gather and evaluate more
experiences, cultivate our tastes, refine our hierarchy of values.
The capacity to distinguish is neither a legal nor a political category.
Or is it?
Righteous indignation brought on by the ongoing discrimination
against America's black population became the center of national
attention about four decades ago. Remedies were urgently demanded,
and provided at last with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
But unintended consequences followed. Suddenly, all sorts of folks
decided they, too, had been subjects of discrimination. Before long,
demands surfaced for reverse discrimination. Our law books are cluttered,
but not as much as our court calendars with demands for compensation.
And in the general din, we seem to have lost a vital distinction
of language. We no longer differentiate between "distinguish"
and "discriminate." And, since "discriminate"
is bad, unacceptable, punishable by law, we do not allow for the
possibility of "distinguish" without presuming the intent
These thoughts flooded my mind as my wife and I enjoyed ten wonderful
days in France. You see, I have written strong, critical words about
Franco-Germanic political philosophy, and why it is the very opposite
of the Anglo-American model. "How can you go there?" a
colleague asked when informed of our plans. "I thought you
didn't like the French!"
The possibility that one might appreciate French culture, food
and wine, while viewing French political philosophy a source of
great tragedies, did not occur to my friend. Apparently, if one
criticizes any aspect of France, it necessarily means rejecting
We are no longer supposed to distinguish. We are for or against.
"Am I anti-foot?" exclaims Elaine in Seinfeld, as she
and Jerry argue whether a podiatrist really is a doctor. We laugh.
But we don't laugh when someone says, "I think people should
be admitted as immigrants only if they want to become American"
- and another snaps, "so you are anti-immigrant!" We don't
laugh because the comment isn't funny, and because all those present
have entered dangerous territory.
In this once-calmest of lands, general hysteria threatens all who
live here. Its loud version afflicts those who wish to complain
about discrimination, the silent version torments the many who fear
being accused of discrimination.
If I cause a person to be denied constitutional rights, I am guilty
of discrimination. If I distinguish between persons as more or less
desirable for association in any number of circumstances, I am guilty
of nothing. But that is theory. In practice, the growing number
of protected so-called minorities restricts our freedom of distinguishing
to a shrinking, real minority of instances.
To have someone preferred over yourself acts like a mirror which
confirms a need to do better in a certain department - be it proficiency,
appearance, habits, language, hygiene, or a combination of attributes.
The person then has the option to improve, or be passed over again
and again. Having created fear in those who could and would distinguish
- which expresses itself as preference, of course - we actually
shortchange the motivated person who needs and wants to improve
to be preferred the next time around.
The result is an artificial social construct in which the forces
of progress cannot operate. If we continue to remove all penalties
for those things we find objectionable, what will prompt improvement?
I have to ask myself whether those who speak loudest about "the
need for a level playing field," and are quickest to cry racism,
sexism, xenophobia, homophobia at the drop of a hat really want
to see all people rise to their highest level. The continuing emergence
of new constraints on distinction would suggest otherwise.
Early on, I proposed that the capacity to distinguish was neither
a legal nor a political category. Yet the act of distinguishing
has become just that. A majority of Americans now belong to protected
minorities - some to more than one kind. Even if the law permits,
few dare to exercise any kind of distinction, for the political
reality is that all such acts will be registered as discrimination.
Last Friday, my wife and I walked into a branch of the most expensive
food store chain in the Washington area. We were looking for a very
special bread they bake. Behind the counter stood a woman, her face
covered with the worst skin disease. We walked away. Because we
had some other matter to discuss with the store manager, we pointed
out the "incongruity" in the bakery department. The manager
froze, her eyes reflected panic, she uttered not a word of response.
The next day, we were at the prepared-food counter of another upscale
store. The counter, stretching almost the full length of the store,
was unattended from end to end. We stood there for some time, occasionally
calling out a "hello?!" After a while, from the far end,
a youth appeared strolling along the serving side. His speed and
manner were those of a tourist, on a leisurely sightseeing trip
of salads, spreads, and cooked meats. When at long last he arrived
within earshot, I asked, "are you serving here by any chance?"
"Yeah," he answered with a yawn.
The woman with the skin disease should not be employed in a food
store, the youth not at all - until he learns to work. That means
neither that one wishes them harm, nor interference with their right
When it comes to products, we are not only allowed to distinguish
- we are invited, encouraged, goaded day and night into doing that.
But we must not distinguish between people.