Jeffrey Vanderziel, B.A.
January 23, 1998
Discrimination – An Analysis of the ConceptIn the last few months the concepts of discrimination, civil rights, racial prejudice, xenophobia have become some of the most discussed issues in the media. The Czech Republic has recently been accused of having been too passive in acting against violating human rights, especially as far as the Romany are concerned. It has been implied that such policies could be a serious obstacle in the entrance of the Czech Republic into NATO. I believe it must have been quite a surprise for the ordinary people in this country. Are we racists!? I am convinced that many people had not thought that it could be as serious as it was regarded from abroad. But in the course of time it became clear that we had been too idealistic when we thought that racism and discrimination were not present in our society.
Discrimination is a dangerous phenomenon in the sense that it is present in our behavior but we are not aware of it. The more difficult it is then to get rid of it. The first step that must be done to eliminate discrimination from our lives is, from my point of view, to realize what discrimination is, what are its symptoms and what faces it has in our society. That is why I would like to make an effort to explicate the concept of discrimination and some related concepts in this essay. First, I would like to present some statements that are chosen from some newspaper articles dealing with the phenomenon of discrimination and on their basis I would like to find a general context in which the concept of discrimination can be used. By realizing in what way the concept is used we might, I believe, find out what it means to discriminate or be discriminated against in the most general sense.
Most of the following statements have been chosen from the daily PRAVO. I believe the choice of only few sources cannot threaten the general character of this analysis, since the statements are not to be used as arguments for justifying my personal views, but rather as examples of the use of the terms related to discrimination and contexts in which the terms are used. It is the states of affairs captured by the statements rather than any evaluations of them that will be analyzed in the essay. (Important terms are in italics.)
“Projev před delegáty summitu pronesl také palestinský vůdce Jásir Arafat, který napadl Izrael za “judaizaci Jeruzaléma“. “Izraelská vláda svou politikou judaizace Jeruzaléma úmyslně napadá cítění arabského a muslimského národa a zlehčuje jeho historická a náboženská práva.““ (Thursday, December 11, 1997)
“Právě skutečnost, že Bulharsko bylo obviňováno z nedodržování lidských práv etnických Turků žijících v zemi, vedla k tomu, že bylo v roce 1986 zaneseno do uvedeného seznamu Organizace islámské konference…Přestože bulharská ústava neobsahuje pojem “národnostní menšina“, podepsal prezident Bulharska Petar Stojanov ve Štrasburku v říjnu Konvenci o ochraně menšin, což bylo rovněž kvitováno velmi kladně.“ (Friday, December 19, 1997)
“Podle Evropského centra pro práva Romů stát popírá porušování lidských práv vůči Romům a kompetentní orgány brání občanům romského původu, aby se zapojili do slovenské společnosti. Autoři upozorňují např. na speciální školy pro romské děti a tento postup přirovnávají ke kulturní genocidě.“ (Thursday, December 11, 1997)
“Česko-německé vztahy dnes zatěžuje na obou stranách nedostatek invence společenských elit, neochota přijímat nové impulsy - stále stejní účastníci na stále stejných konferencích opakují stále stejné projevy. Ve veřejné debatě o česko-německých vztazích dominují zastydlí obrozenci, kteří chtějí bojovat svůj věčný boj proti němectví, a apoštolové porozumění, kteří vnucují smíření dávno smířeným…“ (Monday, December 29, 1997)
“Demonstranti Le Pena napadli především kvůli jeho výrokům o “nerovnosti ras.““ (Monday, December 29, 1997)
“Romové přicházejí z jiného světa, mají divné zvyky a neumějí se přizpůsobit.“ (BLESK, November 17, 1997)
One more article should be added, this time from the weekly REFLEX. J.X Doležal analyzes the causes of racism in the Czech Republic:
“Je to dáno mnoha faktory. Především celkovou nekultivovaností, myšlenkovou rigiditou většiny populace, která pochází jak z přestálých čtyřiceti let totality, tak z tradičního českého maloměšťáckého omezenectví.
Za druhé pak mimořádně nepříznivou sociologickou strukturou masy (na první pohled rozpoznatelných) cizinců, se kterými se má většina české populace možnost setkat. (Pravděpodobnost, že statisticky průměrný Čech potká častěji arabského profesora než arabského dealera, je zanedbatelná.)
Za třetí pak výrazně odlišné kulturní zvyklosti naší barevně odlišné menšiny – Romů. Přispívá samozřejmě i skutečnost, že se Romové často dopouštějí trestné činnosti či žijí parazitickým způsobem života.
Konečně pak je za vysokou míru rasismu u nás odpovědná vláda. Její laxnost k projevům rasismu, fašismu a k vysoké kriminalitě Romů ukazuje celé společnosti, že je to vlastně v pořádku.“ (4\98)
“To discriminate” is an expression that stands for a relation. It is clear from the above examples that usually there are two groups, one of which discriminates and the other is discriminated against. For example, the Romany are discriminated against by the Czechs, blacks are discriminated against by whites, the Muslims by the Jews, the Turks by the Bulgarians, etc. Generally: group A is discriminated against by group B/group B discriminates group A. The original meaning of the word ‘discriminate’ is to ‘recognize that two things are different and understand the differences between them.’ (Collins Cobuild Dictionary) Each of the two groups is characterized by a set of properties that are regarded typical of the group. Let us say that the group A has got a set of properties that is different (at least partly) from the set of properties of the group B, and according to which A can be distinguished from B. I think, the concept of familiarity should be stressed at this point. A is discriminated against by B on the basis of some properties that B does not share with A and thus are unfamiliar to B. However, the fact that A has some properties unfamiliar to B does not explain the relation of discrimination. There is one tendency in the process of discrimination that cannot be explained just on the basis of the analysis of the concept, but we have to move to the field of psychology. For centuries the unfamiliar has had the tendency to evoke feelings of distrust and fear. People tend to avoid, eliminate, destroy the strange, unfamiliar. An example of these tendencies may be seen in the emergence of witch hunts in the Middle Ages. And this move from unfamiliar to bad is, to me, the major cause of discrimination. This also explains why discrimination is such a widespread phenomenon. I believe if the causes of discrimination were rational, it would be much easier to control it and it would not be so common. But since the causes of discrimination emerge at the level of human psyche, we are hardly aware of them.
The next step, which is closely connected to the preceding one, is the generalization of the relatively negative properties of a group. It means that from the set of characteristic properties of the group A one or more are chosen (usually those that are regarded negative by the group B) and on the basis of these conclusions are drawn about the other properties of group A (I have personally heard a white man seriously claiming that mental abilities of African Americans are somewhat lower, the proof of which is that some of their physical features are more ape-like that human; another example might be the notion of the Muslims as fundamentalist terrorists, or the Jews as misers).
We might find some other patterns of the relation of discrimination. In most instances of discrimination the group that discriminates is in a sense a majority while the group that is discriminated against is a minority. An example may be gays and lesbians, various ethnic groups in a larger society, such as Native Americans, etc. But in some cases the two groups may be quantitatively equal or the discriminated group may be even more numerous. The denial of rights of women is, I think, a good example. Even more general distinction is the polarity insider/outsider whatever the set of properties is. It is interesting that this distinction makes discrimination group-relative in the sense that any group can potentially be discriminating and discriminated against. History books say that Christians were discriminated in the Ancient Rome. A few centuries later it was the Roman “pagans” who were discriminated against by Christians. And again a few centuries later it was Catholics who were discriminated against by Protestants.
Now we come to the heart of the problem of discrimination. On the basis of the differentiation of properties and on the basis of the psychological move from unfamiliar to bad the group of “insiders” begins to deny the rights of the “outsiders”. It may be worth mentioning some of the properties that most frequently lead to discrimination among human beings. These are for example belief/religion, race, ethnicity, appearance, opinions/teachings, sex, sexual orientation, wealth, nationality, diseases, and some other characteristics. The concept of human rights has a long history. Many great thinkers, beginning perhaps with the Stoics in the Ancient Greece and Rome, stressed that all human beings possess some inalienable rights that must be respected. These rights are natural rights, i.e. belong to the natural essence of all human beings and cannot be taken away. The Declaration of Human Rights specifies the rights. Apart from that, every human being has some rights following from his or her status as citizen of a state, i.e. civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights following from the fact that people are sociable beings living in a society ruled by economic and interpersonal relations. Discrimination is based on the denial of some of these rights. The right that is denied determines the type of discrimination. Thus we speak about religious discrimination, racial discrimination and other types.
I believe it is important to mention one more concept and that is what is called reversed discrimination. It is a phenomenon that appeared relatively late in the history of discrimination and that is mainly because it is connected with the effort to fight discrimination. Let us say that our hypothetical group A is discriminated against by the group B in the sense that the members of the group A cannot perform certain activities that the members of the group B can (e.g. they cannot get a job and work in a field). It is decided that the members of the group A must be permitted to perform those activities, which means that the number of the members of the group B performing the activities is reduced. Group B now claims that if preferences are given to the members of the group A the members of the group B are being discriminated against.
This example shows that discrimination is an extremely complex issue that is hard to tackle. In my view, discrimination in a broader sense is present in all aspects of our lives, because it is a result of what Friedrich Nietzsche called “Will to govern” and which is, whether we like it or not, one of the underlying principles of the modern Western World. However, neither the long tradition of discrimination, nor the fact that it is a very sensitive issue, should discourage us from trying to control our emotions and prove that the notion of rationality that we have been proud of for so long in our civilization is justified.