The Need to Distinguish

Scripps-Howard News Service 7.23.02
Balint Vazsonyi

"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 to "discriminate."

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 everything French.

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 to vote.

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.