February 23, 2010

The Case for Discrimination

Print More

If the perfect university anti-discrimination statute had been devised, Cornell would have adopted it already (and not by a single tie-breaking vote). What we have now in the Student Assembly’s Resolution 44 is an imperfect proposal that, by most accounts, will fail to pass Presidential muster. Whether the search for an ideal discrimination or hate-speech statute is in vain, I cannot say. The matter for us to consider is whether we would prefer the language of our own to be a little too tight or a little too loose. I prefer the latter and find Resolution 44 damn near suffocating.

Our tendency in cases of overt discrimination is to become mawkish over the discriminated against and to vilify the discriminator. These noble tendencies are our birthright. We know how to shine the light of progress and tolerance on anti-non-theists, anti-theists, racists, ageists and sexists. Let them know how wrong they are. MAKE THEM FAMOUS! But in the aftermath, we would be wise to consider whether it is in our interest to legislate against what happened in cases like Chi Alpha. We should think about whether the final act of righteous indignation ought to be a preventative one — one that assures the place of an unwelcome, perhaps hostile, guest at your meetings, at the head of your organization or your dinner table. I think it shouldn’t.

To be blunt, I cherish my ability to discriminate — to choose who will become my next editor-in-chief, my next pastor, my next dance partner or dinner guest — based on my own criteria. I love the vibrancy of clubs that exercise meaningful control over the essential property of what it is to be a club — self-governance through elections and selective membership. I find it both right and in my interest to choose my editors, pastors, dinner guests and leaders based on relevant criteria, and these rarely involve the protected classes mentioned in Resolution 44. Sometimes my rubric includes race and religion, but usually not. And when I’m wrong, I trust that a friend, a group or even the S.A. will be there to shine an unflattering light on me.

Looking towards Resolution 44, an issue of money remains (whether the S.A. will provide funds to groups that discriminate based on race, gender, veteran status, blah blah blah), in spite of my little tribute to self-legislation. As the boosters tell it, the statute is not about the right of assembly for discriminators like me. Nobody is going to comb through our constitutions or monitor our dinner parties. No, it’s about preventing discrimination on Cornell’s dime by withholding funds from offending groups.

Here I see the “nice” value of forced universal tolerance coming to dominate a group of well-meaning black students who would exclude whites in order to promote solidarity or the band of Christians who don’t want a gay student to be their club president out of biblical conviction. Why, then, should the S.A.’s values win out over the values of clubs and their members as expressed in constitutions, by-laws and general organizational zeitgeist?

The answer to this question is simple: money. The value of having money to dole out with strings attached could not be on more prominent display. These strings have been woven by the S.A. with a dazzling rainbow of colors meant to distract us. The nice, bright, welcoming colors remind us of a tapestry of diversity and cause us to forget the function of the strings: To dictate the terms of our engagement with one another. The tugging of these strings will force some groups that add to the diversity of campus opinion — many of them religious — to scale back out of lack of funds. Or move off campus. Or, and this is the worst of all, veil or change their basic principles in order to preserve an advantageous relationship with the S.A.

To members of the S.A. who voted “yea” on Resolution 44: Where is your faith in the self-correcting ecosystem of student organizations? This ecosystem is full of independent minds and groups. While on a micro level, individual groups may lack diversity, on the macro level, a multitude of these groups actually produces the diversity you would claim to espouse. Treat them as you would and the buzz of campus life will be that much harder to hear. Discriminate against the discriminators and what have you become?

And to President Skorton, please don’t just veto the resolution. Tell us why you veto it. Remind the S.A. that at stake here are important and alternative values to tolerance and everyone being super-duper welcome in places they don’t belong. Don’t get me wrong, exclusion should relate somehow to the core values of a group and how they relate to its possible members. But the S.A. has failed in their attempt at impartiality, where a policy of liberality would have succeeded.

Original Author: Andrew Daines