In this wonderful modern, progressive country I live in we have advanced so far in the last few decades that it’s now extremely rare to hear a blatantly racist statement in a public place. Sure there are still plenty of racist attitudes lingering about, but it takes a very brave and/or very stupid person to actually voice their bigotry out loud in anything other than the most inbred of backwater towns (like Brisbane for example).
Even on the hottest of racial topics like indigenous welfare payments, substance abuse or asylum seekers, the debate is usually couched in very careful language to make sure the debate stays on neutral topics like economics, culture, law and anything that isn’t specifically about the colour or ’nature’ of the people involved. But if there’s still one topic that you can always rely on to start a full-blown shouting match about “those people” and “what they’re doing to this country”, it’s affirmative action.
‘Affirmative action’ or ‘reverse racism’ as it’s often known, is the simple idea that people from disadvantaged groups be given priority when it comes to opportunities. This can take a lot of forms, from businesses being given quotas of people from these groups to employ, special scholarships or reserved places for disadvantaged groups in university courses or elite schools, and even targets for the number of elected politicians that should be male/female/black/white, etc.
On paper this sounds great; disadvantaged groups being given a leg up to improve their circumstances will greatly help that community stop being disadvantaged, which is good for all of society in the long run. Whether we’re talking about poor people getting a chance to get an education, new immigrants learning English, or even women getting a better representation in parliament, the outcomes of the efforts don’t just benefit the group involved, but society in general through better integration and pooling of collective resources – less people dependant on the system and more people supporting it with work, taxes and ideas.
Where the trouble starts is when people realise the obvious flip-side of this proposal – those opportunities being given to disadvantaged groups have to come from somewhere, and where they come from is at the expense of everyone else.
Of all the topics I cover on this blog, I’m unlikely to ever find another as controversial as this one. This is not because it affects a lot of people or has particularly serious consequences for those involved, but rather because it seems so completely goddamn wrong that most people can’t help but be revolted by it, often to the point of expressing that anger publically.
To further fan the flames, a sizable proportion of the people who would generally support this sort of work – people who actively oppose racism and bigotry in society – find themselves stumped by this proposal. Why? Because while on paper it appears to be working for a good cause, it does it by deliberately discriminating against one group of people in favour of another… on the basis of race, gender and income. In other words, the exact same sort of behaviour they oppose.
The reason I’m writing about this topic at the moment is that the Victorian Government (where I live) has recently announced that, as of now, all government appointments MUST be 50% female – this includes all Victorian courts and all paid Government board positions, including the Treasury Corporation, Public Transport Victoria, Melbourne Health and the Country Fire Authority. While this quota doesn’t affect who is elected to actually make decision in parliament, it’s still a massive reform and to say it pissed some people off is kinda an understatement.
Apart from the token women-haters who jumped on the bandwagon, the majority of the people opposing this policy did so for a very simple reason – what the hell ever happened to merit? Shouldn’t the person who gets a job be the best qualified person for that job? And if the best qualified person happens to be male, then are we really going to appoint a less-competent person just because they’re a woman? Are we really going to put the essential infrastructure of the Treasury, Transport, Health and FIRE services in the hands of inferior candidates just so we can say that there’s a woman in the job?
That’s madness! Not only is it insanely irresponsible to trust such huge responsibilities to someone who was less qualified by definition, but isn’t it also massively condescending to the women we are trying to empower to suggest that they can only get their positions when we give them extra-special treatment? “Never mind ladies, we know you’ll never be as good as men at these sort of jobs, but we’ll give you a go anyway to make you feel better then clean up the mess after you’re done”. Fuck that! Any true feminist would want any women who gets such a job to win it fair and square, without relying on men to give it to her!
This is a compelling argument, but it does have one pretty serious flaw to it – this is the government we’re talking about here. Merit never had anything to do with it.
This isn’t just a snarky shot at the competence of governments in general (ok it was a little), but more a reflection on the nature of these roles: they’re not about running the department, they’re about setting the strategy in line with what the government wants. You know what you don’t need to do that? A single god-damned clue about anything the department actually does.
Case in point, meet the current Chairman of the Board for Melbourne Health: Mr Robert Doyle.
What qualifications does Mr Doyle have for this role, you might ask? Well, he’s a politician. He was also a teacher once. And that’s it – that is the entirety of Mr Doyle’s work experience. You may notice that it has sweet fuck all to do with health.
See the point of a Board isn’t to run the department – that’s what the department is for – the Board is there to oversee the direction it takes, and in the case of government appointees, to make sure that direction fit’s what the government of the day wants it to do. Christ people, these are politicians we’re talking about here! The single most cynical profession in existence? Seriously, the idea that someone is appointed by any government because they’re really good at their job in naïve beyond description – the reason a government appoints anyone is to support their policy platform, which in turn makes them look successful, which gets them good polls, which gets them more donations, which gets them re-elected. It really is that simple.
Given then that merit has sweet bugger all to do with the process, requiring that 50% of these government appointees are female actually makes a hell of a lot of sense. Why? Because the entire point of our parliamentary system is that it is meant to represent us, and given the Victorian public is currently 50% female and the number of women on government boards is closer to 35%, there is a bit of a problem here.
Ok, fine maybe this sort of thing has a place when we’re talking about government, since it’s based on a representative democracy and all. But that still doesn’t justify affirmative action in any other situation. What about all these special scholarships for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders at university? What about an entire public pool being closed so that a bunch of Muslim women can go for a swim without their burqas on (a garment we generally disagree with them wearing, I might add)? What about forcing employers to hire people because of their gender, their race or how poor they are? Aren’t all these practices exactly the same sort of discrimination we’ve been trying to stop all these years? And aren’t they all massively condescending to the groups they aim to help, effectively telling them that they could never be successful on their own?
Why should other people who could really excel with this sort of extra help miss out, just because they don’t fit the specific, arbitrary category we’ve decided should be given an unfair advantage? Hell, what about all the normal students who have less funding available to them because some of it is being funnelled off for the benefit of a small group of misfits who haven’t done anything to deserve it?
Affirmative action might be an honest attempt to help disadvantaged groups to better their circumstances, but surely these flaws make it manifestly unjust?
Well… yeah, pretty much. But then again, that’s kind of the point.
Affirmative action is unfair; it does encourage us to ignore merit, and it does discriminate on the basis of gender, race and wealth – something we have spent the better part of the last century trying to get rid of. And if we were trying to apply it in a perfect world then, yes, it would be a terrible practice that not only led to unfair outcomes but was also massively condescending to the groups it aimed to help.
But newsflash! This is not a perfect world. Racism, sexism, and discrimination on a whole range of stupid things are very much still alive and active in people’s decision-making about who they employ, who gets loans, and who should be elected amongst other things. We might have managed to iron out this sort of bigotry in public, but it still exists in private where it can’t be easily detected and removed. If someone is interviewing a group for an engineering job, and privately believes women aren’t any good at maths, then that bias is going to come through in their decision and, provided they’re not stupid enough to actually say they’re sexist, no one will be able to tell that sexism was a factor in the decision.
Similarly, if you’re looking for a rental tenant and privately believe that Aboriginal people are most likely to disrespect your property, then you’re going to give the tenancy to someone who isn’t black, aren’t you? And provided you don’t actually come out and SAY you’re a racist then there’s not a damn thing that can be done about it.
Affirmative action is also known as ‘positive discrimination’ for this very reason; it is a brute-force method to combat this passive bigotry by applying the same discrimination in the opposite direction.
Don’t want to employ people because of their race, but not stupid enough to actually say that? Fuck you, you are now REQUIRED to have 10% of your workforce non-Caucasian. Don’t like it, you can kiss my arse.
What’s that? You think all women are ‘emotionally unstable’ and therefore have no place in politics? Fuck you, 50% of all government appointments must now be female.
Oh, you reckon Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders should compete with everyone else for education positions, despite a history of oppression that still deeply affects those communities even today? Fuck you, special scholarships for people from those communities to make it easier for them. Oh, you feel the same way about poor people whose home life was so stressful it made studying virtually impossible? Fuck you, special scholarships for them as well.
I have an entire album for these gifs.
There’s no denying that these sort of ‘fuck you’ interventions are pretty ham-fisted; you’re essentially forcing people to make up for the bigotry of a few arseholes that ruin it for everyone, and it certainly makes life difficult for those who were actually doing the right thing. And yeah, that sucks but that’s also a pretty good definition of law in general – a sweeping rule that protects society from a minority of arseholes who ruined it for everyone. But that in itself doesn’t make affirmative action ethically justifiable, does it?
No, as usual what makes affirmative action ethically justifiable is the cost/benefit breakdown, ad since what we have here is essentially a choice between ‘slightly inconveniencing the majority for the enormous benefit of disadvantaged groups’ versus ‘ignoring serious, deeply ingrained and undetectable bigotry because dealing with it would be unfair’, the answer is pretty clear.
That said, there are some pretty serious limitations on this sort of regulation, and for affirmative action that limit is necessity; sure positive discrimination might be worth it to combat serious unspoken bigotry, but it absolutely is NOT justified when that bigotry decreases and disappears. Once the culture of society changes enough that these sort of unspoken biases aren’t that big a deal anymore, then effective but heavy-handed measures like affirmative action should be retired – keep them in play and they may very well start to become the counter-productive, condescending messes that we currently tend to describe them as.
Affirmative action may well be a blunt instrument that fights fire with fire and gets a lot of stuff burned in the process, but when ancient bigotries like racism and sexism are the majority of the casualties then I’m pretty OK with that. Sometimes the ends justify the means, provided of course we keep a pretty close eye on those means…