Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Which of These Things Is Not Like the Others?

Voters in Houston have overwhelmingly rejected a city law that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity -- along with race, sex, color, religion, and other characteristics already protected by federal civil rights law but not by local ordinance. The law had been passed by the Houston City Council in 2014.  Today in the e-mail I got a press release from the National LBGTQ Task Force Action Fund, which referred to
the city’s ordinance that extends non-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people--among 13 other protected classes including race, religion, sex, color, age, ethnicity, disability, national origin, marital status, military status, genetic information, pregnancy, and family status.
There's something off here.  I looked it up, and found that, sure enough, the ordinance prohibits discrimination based on "sexual orientation" and "gender identity," along with 13 other traits.  It doesn't specify lesbians, gay men, or the rest, which would have laid the law open to legal challenge.

I confess that some of the confusion was in my own mind.  I gather that "protected class" does not refer to a group of individuals -- it's legalese for the protected characteristic, but in neutral terms: "race," not "African-Americans"; "sex", not "women."  But the related "protected group" is confusing too.  Wikipedia, in a very brief article, says it "is a group of people qualified for special protection by a law, policy, or similar authority... U.S. federal law protects employees from discrimination or harassment based on sex, race, age, disability, color, creed, national origin or religion."  My point is that "sex, race, age, etc." don't refer to groups, but to all individuals.  A law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation protects heterosexuals as well as homosexuals and bisexuals; a law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity will protect cisgender as well as transgender individuals; and so on.  I've said before that I don't know what sort of discrimination cisgender individuals might face, but someone's bound to figure out a way to do it before long.  That's one of the generally-ignored pitfalls (or is it a pitfall?) of civil rights antidiscrimination law: it protects majorities as well as well as minorities.  White men have sought and found relief under existing civil rights legislation, as have heterosexuals and bisexuals who were discriminated against by gay men.  And Christians, despite the whining of some of them, are already (in) a protected class. 

In this respect civil rights law is at odds with the dominant multiculti discourse on (for example) racism, which defines racism solely as structural racism and declares dogmatically that white people cannot suffer from racism.  Perhaps not -- it's evidently a matter of definition -- but they (we) can certainly experience discrimination based on our race.  It's written into the law, though as with many laws the consequences may not have been foreseen.  (Remember the article I discussed a couple of months ago, which treated racism as a consequence of innate human tendencies to stereotype people by their appearance, and declared that all white people are racist.  It also conflicted with the dominant multicultural model in treating racism as a matter of individual prejudice rather than structural factors, but neglected to notice that it also proved that all people of color are racist, since they have the same innate stereotyping tendencies.  When I pointed this out to the diversity manager who'd posted the article on Facebook, he floundered: he hadn't noticed the problem, and still didn't get it, caught as he is in the toils of diversity-management / culture of therapy discourse.  That couldn't be what the article meant, because it couldn't be.  That's the big trouble with diversity management in institutions, whether schools or corporations: people are given authority over others even though they don't really know what they're talking about.  But not to worry, they're just following the orders of their DNA.)

I understand why the Task Force phrased their press release as they did; it's a long-established convention to refer to civil rights laws in terms of the minorities they were enacted to protect, so that many people have come to believe that "Civil Rights" means specifically the rights of black people.  "Gay rights" is shorthand for prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, but many people, gay and straight, take it literally; and so on.  Since most people evidently have forgotten, if they ever knew, what the shorthand is short for, I think it's necessary to abandon the shorthand and spell out the actual meaning for a while.  Maybe it won't do much good.  Opposition to civil rights laws doesn't come from a misunderstanding of what the laws are supposed to do; bigots deliberately misunderstand the laws for their own reasons.  But it can't help that supporters of civil rights law don't undertand the laws either.