Untimely Observations

Traditional Distinctions

[The second in a series on inclusiveness. Read parts IIIIIVVVIVIIVIIIIX and X.]

Liberals claim to oppose discrimination, but feel free to make the distinctions they think make sense. Financial, bureaucratic, and institutional criteria are OK, or so they believe, but natural and traditional criteria are not. You can choose a Yale man over a Harvard man--the schools are a bit different, so their products must differ--but not a Yale man over a Yale woman.

People seem to think the rules are just obvious, so there's never much explanation for them. So far as I can tell, though, the basic idea is that distinctions such as sex, family, kinship, culture, and religion are bad and must be deprived of effect. The reason, it appears, is that the natural and traditional ways of doing things those distinctions make possible don't make sense. Instead, we should do everything through commercial and bureaucratic arrangements, which are considered uniquely rational and fair. If other relationships have an effect--if class and ethnicity affect success or young mothers are passed over for demanding positions--that's an injustice that needs work.

Traditions and their particularity

If that's the idea, it doesn't make much sense. Man does not live by memoranda and markets alone, so there are aspects of his life that are based on other principles. To see the situation in perspective, we need to understand something liberalism does not: how natural and traditional institutions work.

Established social patterns normally reflect a great deal of wisdom, if only because error destroys itself. For that reason, they usually have considerable stability, within communities and very often across them. That's why tradition makes sense as a guide.

Nonetheless, such patterns differ by time and place. Each reflects universal truths in its own way. Their content and contours are shaped by history and what people find appropriate and satisfying, and that varies.

The marriage of man and woman is an example. It is basic to social functioning, and a society that degrades it or tries to turn it into something it is not will have serious problems. People won't reproduce, children will be brought up badly, and men and women will be perpetually at odds.

On the other hand, specific customs and attitudes regarding marriage vary by time, place, class, and people. Those customs and attitudes, along with the other standards, relationships, functions, and social identities that define our lives, usually have ethnic and religious aspects. A system of cultural patterns enduring and comprehensive enough to define a community takes on ethnic qualities, and one that deals with basic issues regarding man and the world--as the culture of a community inevitably must--has religious aspects.

Why exclusion is necessary

To maintain definition and functionality such systems need boundaries: that is, they must discriminate and exclude. For that reason discriminations and exclusions related to ethnicity and religion are necessary to any complex and well-developed way of life. A truly diverse, inclusive, multicultural, and multifaith society would be entirely uncultured and uncivilized.

People object to the role of particularity in human life because they want to equalize the benefits of society. However, those benefits arise in idiosyncratic settings rather than through an overall scheme that can be reconfigured to meet this or that demand.

The benefits of a party might be more fairly divided if an official supervised the event to make sure everyone in town had an equal chance to have a good time. It would not be much of a party, though.

The example might seem specialized, since parties are notoriously easy to spoil. Nonetheless, the same principle affects all pursuits. Man is social, and no serious pursuit is altogether individual. Sportsmen have teams, believers gather in churches, artists and thinkers form schools, academics have colleagues and colleges.

Each group and activity does things its own way, and would not do them as well if outsiders came in and forced it to follow a comprehensive external rulebook.


Human goods are realized within networks of common habits, understandings, and loyalties that depend on local cohesion. We are social, not because we are cosmopolitan but because we carry on our lives through participation in specific communities.

More concretely, we carry on our lives largely through networks of "people like us" by reference to whom we understand our situation, and with whom we prefer to deal because when we do we are in a setting we understand and trust.

Such networks are basic to any life worth living. They make us part of a functioning web of habits, attitudes, loyalties, and beliefs that restrain, order, enlighten, and refine our thoughts and actions. They give our lives definition by giving our goals coherence and stability and our actions purpose and rationality.

Most of the things we do would seem pointless without them. Lots of people want to be CEO, but hardly anyone would bother to do the things a CEO does for the material benefits of the position enjoyed in hermit-like isolation. Apart from their social implications, the position and its material rewards would not seem worth the effort.

How they grow up

Family and friends are obvious examples of the networks that enable us to orient ourselves and understand our lives. The larger communities within which we live--church, neighborhood, city, region, nation--involve other more extensive and enduring networks.

Those networks normally grow out of elective affinities and the common memories, habits, and understandings that give rise to culture and make social cooperation possible. As such they involve connections and understandings that differ by time and place because they grow up in particular settings.

They cannot be fully inclusive as to religion or lifestyle, because they involve beliefs about the world and the good life. Nor are they often inclusive as to ethnicity, because communal ties are usually connected to family ties, and depend on the habits, attitudes, and sense of common history and destiny that grow up when people live together for a long time.

Human society as a whole is a complex of such networks. Everyone is included in some of them and excluded from others. The exclusions are affected by legal distinctions and social conventions that are often viewed as arbitrary, but in general are less external impositions than a consequence of autonomous principles of cohesion and social functioning.


What defines us distinguishes us, and to distinguish people by the identities corresponding to their place in social networks is to recognize that such networks are basic to social functioning, and that our position in them is connected to habit, attitude, aptitude, duty, loyalty, and memory.

Not everyone fits in an equally easy, informal, and productive way into every position in all the arrangements of mutual cooperation that make up society. "Diversity is a challenge," and rather than try to change fundamental features of human life people mostly do what comes naturally and choose settings in which they feel at home. They discriminate.

In concept, discrimination is simply dealing by preference with people of one sort rather than another. There is nothing extraordinary about it. Everybody makes distinctions, and what brings us together with some sets us apart from others.

There are usually sufficient grounds for the choices we make. That is as true in choosing people as in other settings. We normally prefer those to whom we already have a connection. We know how established connections work, so they raise fewer issues. We prefer some connections to others, because of taste and sentiment, or more practically because of convenience, predictability, and efficiency.

Sometimes the connections we prefer are natural connections like sex and common descent, but they can be based on any habit, expectation, or inclination. There are some people we like to be with, and others we like to avoid. We have a better impression of some than others in this setting or that, and tend to choose accordingly. As in most things, we should follow our own inclinations, impressions, and understandings unless there is good reason to the contrary. If things seem some way to us there usually something to it.

Irrational hatred?

Proponents of inclusion often claim discrimination is based on irrational hatred. They could equally claim that any choice is based on hatred. People who take their coffee breaks at Joe's Diner must hate Bob's Coffee Shop. Those who join clubs for graduates of their own colleges must hold alumni of other institutions in contempt.

Such claims would be silly. They become no more sensible when transposed to discriminations relating to sex, ethnicity, lifestyle, and so on. My innate and acquired tendencies, my manner of life, and the tastes, values, connections, loyalties, and expectations with which I grew up, determine how I am to deal with at least as much as my academic background. There is no reason people should ignore the former but not the latter when they deal with me, even when the former bring sex and culture into the picture.

Further, settled patterns require discriminations of some sort. Sex and culture are important, so people deal with them in patterned ways. How could they do that without making distinctions and classifications and acting on them? To say people should not discriminate on such grounds is to say they should have no settled way of dealing with basic human concerns.

Extreme or groundless dislike can play a role in the distinctions we draw, but among normal people it is hardly dominant. The need to speak of hidden or unconscious racism shows as much. If racial hatred is undetectable, why assume so much of it is around? Life is complicated, and there are always a thousand explanations other than hatred for how events sort out.

Genuine hatred, contempt, and fear are hard to keep hidden. Many liberals hate and fear Republicans, fundamentalists, and white Southerners, not to mention Sarah Palin, and they make no secret of their feelings.

Their attitude should not shock us. Some people are crabby, others annoying, and tastes differ, so we have little trouble finding reasons to dislike each other. The dislike is often mutual and sometimes justified, and circumstances are often complex, so there is no universal rule for what to do when people feel at odds.

Sometimes they should try to moderate their aversions, sometimes they should change the conduct that makes them disliked, and sometimes they should avoid those who make them unhappy. The last is often the most effective and sensible course: "absence makes the heart grow fonder" applies especially in the case of people who rub us the wrong way.

It is true that hatred can be dangerous, but there is little hope of suppressing it legally. A basic difficulty is that when extreme and irrational hatred is a real problem there will never be agreement that it is a problem. The Nazis did not see antisemitism as a problem, and progressives do not see hatred and contempt for non-progressives as a problem even though it has repeatedly led to murder on a vast scale.

Artificial divisions?

Another common claim is that discrimination has to do with arbitrary categories defined by exclusions that advantage some at the expense of others. "White," for example, means "not colored," where "colored" refers to those whose exclusion constitutes "whites" as privileged. There are prominent academics who turn even sex into an artificial social construction.

Again, the best response is that ordinary people know more than academic theorists about what distinctions make sense. The claim that traditional forms of identity are based on exclusion, like the claim law is based on punishment or hierarchy on dominance and submission, provides some with a pleasing thrill of horror but it reverses the fundamental causality at work. In each case, the positive--what is constructive rather than constructed, what frees rather than oppresses, what unites rather than divides--normally comes first.

It is true that human language and concepts are partly conventional. To distinguish cabbages and kings has an element of choice, and to speak of "whites" we must classify some as nonwhite. Nonetheless, people do have lives, and the things they find of interest are usually the things that help carry them on.

Identity matters because it helps us function. It does not exclude simply to exclude but to provide a definite setting with standards that facilitate stable and productive patterns of life. It tells us what we are, what other people and things are, the nature of the situations in which we find ourselves, and what actions make sense in those situations.

The family, for example, involves distinctions and boundaries, but it is primarily defined by functions and connections. Its normal functioning demands a degree of mutual loyalty, understanding, and support that could hardly exist in an open-ended group. Exclusion is secondary to that basic need. Adam and Eve and the Swiss Family Robinson formed families, even though they had no one to exclude.

Other traditional distinctions and exclusions work the same general way. Race and ethnicity matter because people connect in clusters and networks that help them deal with life by fostering common patterns of habit and understanding. Those clusters and networks typically grow up over time in settings provided by natural connections like physical propinquity and blood relationship.

To discriminate and exclude based on such connections is normally to maintain a setting that enables established patterns of life to go forward. The Japanese prefer to limit immigration not because they hate other people but because they are attached to their own way of life.

Once classifications of identity are established, of course, they can be used and abused for all sorts of purposes. If I identify myself as distinct from other people and allied with these people rather than those, the awareness can facilitates self-organization and it can facilitate abuse and aggression. The latter possibility does not affect the nature and function of identity itself any more than the abuse of government and property means that government and property should be done away with.

Stereotypes and their nuances

Discrimination involves stereotypes. The latter are social expectations as to what we are and do, and are inevitable organizing principles of human life. To participate in a functioning pattern of social conduct is to submit to stereotypes. If you want to be a husband, host, or historian, you act like one. If you refuse to play the part, people will justifiably be annoyed.

To avoid stereotypes is to insist that the same expectations apply to everyone. To avoid sexist stereotypes, for example, is to use only the category "human being" instead of supplementing it with separate categories for "man" and "woman." To fight sexism is to insist that everyone restrict himself that way, and not take into account whether people are male or female.

The justification for the insistence is not clear, and it is impossible to make it stick. Nor does it seem useful. Requiring us to ignore pervasive differences that we cannot help but recognize as basic to human life is a recipe for cynicism, irrationality, hypocrisy, and fanaticism.

And in any event, "avoiding stereotypes" does not avoid stereotypes, since we will have expectations of some sort in any event. Instead of stereotyping men and women, we will stereotype generic human beings, or maybe proles and professionals. The result will be a cruder fit between reality and our patterns for dealing with it. What's so good about that?

Statistical tendencies

Discussions of stereotypes are often confused by a tendency to view them as simpleminded to the point of absurdity, for example as assertions that all Italians are excitable, or at best as statistical generalizations regarding fairly simple qualities.

The former view confuses stereotype with caricature, but the latter does point to one way they function. Groups differ on average in many respects, and group membership provides some evidence regarding the pertinent qualities. If people see several young black men on one street in a seedy part of town and a small group of elderly women of indeterminate origin on another, most would feel safer going down the second street.

The inference might, of course, be false. The elderly women might be suicide bombers about to detonate, the young men pious monks vowed to poverty and good works with robes that look from a distance like hoodies and baggy pants. That information, if available, would be far more useful than gross statistical tendencies.

On the other hand, particular indications must be interpreted by reference to their setting, and Bayes' Theorem tells us that group membership continues to provide evidence regarding the real situation regardless of how much other information we have. If all we knew about each group, for example, is that some of their members have drug-impaired judgment, it might be reasonable to interpret the information differently in each case.

Implied relationships

More often, however, stereotypes relate less to simple characteristics that can easily be reduced to statistics than to complex and often subtle patterns that have to do with social roles. Doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs differ and should be treated differently, but not because of statistical tendencies with regard to simple human qualities. They differ by role.

How people act depends on a complex of habits, attitudes, expectations, and reactions that varies by situation. They pick up that complex mostly from those around them, so it varies from group to group and by position to position within a group. The result is that even people who are similar in many ways may act very differently in this setting or that.

Those differences will usually be somewhat predictable. We expect dealing with the French to be different from dealing with the Dutch even though the two have lived side by side for many centuries and are not strikingly different on most measures. People try to capture some of those differences by speaking of the Cartesian French and the stolid Dutch, but the distinctions are subtle and often ambiguous and cannot be applied in a mechanical way.

Similarly, men and women are notoriously different, but the exact differences can be difficult to pin down. Whatever men and women say about each other, and however true it may be, it often seems that the opposite is also true in some sense.

Basic distinctions

The subtlety and complexity of human distinctions is part of the subtlety and complexity of human life. Social settings are always complicated, and each is somewhat different from all the others. To live competently as a human being is to deal with the complications and differences in a way that makes sense.

Part of that process is taking particularities of group functioning into account. When the point is enhancing functionality judging us "as individuals" is often an error. All-star teams never measure up: in many connections cohesion, complementary qualities, and common understandings are more important than individual talent and skill.


A group of men, a group of women, and a mixed group act and function differently. All societies have recognized and made use of the differences, so sex has always and everywhere been basic to social organization.

Acceptance of human nature, tolerance for natural inclinations, respect for the universal consensus of mankind, and consideration of the damage done by increasingly ill-defined sex roles on family stability and human well-being suggest that we should accept sexual differences and let them affect attitudes and actions.

Sex roles should therefore be accepted socially. But if that is done, men and women will be brought up differently and--quite apart from natural differences--it will be no more irrational to discriminate between them in employment and other connections than to discriminate between applicants who differ in formal education.


Ethnicity also affects social functioning. An ethnic culture is a system of social cooperation, a structure of habits, standards, attitudes, and roles that has grown up among people who have lived and worked together for many generations. Those systems differ, so different groups do things differently. It is normally easier to be productive among people who have a similar understanding of how things should work. That is a big reason those who share ethnic culture generally find it more pleasant and productive to live and work together.

That is also why "cultural sensitivity" is necessary when we deal with those from other ethnic backgrounds, and employee diversity is a major challenge requiring special training and procedures. Not every employer wants to multiply his problems, so it is as reasonable for one who would rather have some things just work without special effort to seek out a niche in the market for people he hires--to engage in employment discrimination--as to look for a niche in the market for what he sells.

A Japanese person has been brought up since childhood to function in a Japanese setting. It is legitimate for an organization to take that background into account in hiring and promotion. Conversely, if O'Hara and not Ohara gets hired at the Dublin office, because people expect him to establish better working relationships with the people there, that is rational even if his advantage has to do with common ethnic background. And it is legitimate for O'Hara to go to work for Donovan's Pub instead of Nakamura's Sake House because he likes to hang with his homies, and for each establishment to bear that kind of concern in mind when they decide what kind of work environment to offer their employees.

Formal and informal institutions

Social networks become concrete in institutions. Institutions always involve distinctions and therefore discriminations of some sort. They differ greatly in degree of formality. Good manners and tailgating at football games are institutions, and so are the federal income tax and the Lisp computer language.

As always, the formal depends on the informal. Statutory law is formal, social attitudes informal, and it depends on the latter how the former is understood and applied, and indeed whether it carries any weight at all.

The predominance of informal institutions was especially notable in earlier times. In traditional European monarchies, for example, position in the government was often a direct matter of personal connection to the king. A "count" was originally the king's companion ("comes"), and you got to be king by having the king as your father.

That kind of informality meant people got by with much less bureaucracy, regulation, and formal training than today. They relied instead on custom and on networks of informal relationships. Particular history, culture, and relationships were of necessity accepted as basic to what a man was and to his position in the world.

For that reason, an animus against "discrimination" would have been inconceivable. That attitude persisted until quite recently. Not long ago it was common sense to distinguish a Connecticut Yankee from a Southern black, to expect very different things from each, and to act accordingly.

Today such a distinction would be considered outrageous. Instead, people think it reasonable to distinguish a Harvard graduate from someone who is a former Marine and high school dropout. Technology is considered the rational way to deal with things, so people judge each other by how each has been processed. Harvard turns out one kind of person, the Marines another, so the two should be treated differently.

The attitude reflects a society in which formal expertise, bureaucratic regulation, and global markets are considered the sole rational means of social organization. In such a society, people come to view informal institutions and their particularities as irrational and illegitimate. The view is understandable but makes little sense. Not everything can be formalized, so informal institutions and the roles, exclusions, and discriminations on which they depend are still fundamental. Intentionally to disrupt them and try to keep them from affecting social life is to strike at the root of social functioning. In this as other respects, liberalism is able to exist only by what it rejects.