Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Ambrose Bierce

Scribbler, n. A professional writer whose views are antagonistic to one's own. (Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, c. 1911) Reverse Discrimination A reader objected to my use (here) of the term “reverse discrimination.” I explained that the word “reverse” indicates that groups once discriminated against are now being discriminated in favor of. He wrote back testily, saying he wasn’t asking for an explanation. He said it’s discrimination, period. There’s no need to modify the noun. But while there may be no need to modify the noun, there’s no harm in doing so, as far as I can see. Ronald Dworkin entitled one of his essays “Reverse Discrimination.” (See chap. 9 in Taking Rights Seriously [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978], 223-39.) The term appears routinely both in speech and in print. What’s wrong with taking note of the fact that the tables have been turned on those who once benefited from discrimination? What’s wrong with indicating the direction of discrimination? Perhaps the reader thinks the term “reverse discrimination” implies that it’s not really discrimination. But that’s not how modifiers work. A modified X is still an X. Male nurses are nurses, but not all nurses are male. Young dogs are dogs, but not all dogs are young. Reverse discrimination is discrimination, but not all discrimination is reverse. I actually prefer the term “reverse discrimination” to various euphemisms, such as “preferential treatment” and “affirmative action,” for it makes clear that one group of individuals is benefiting at the expense of another. Whether this is justified is another matter (Dworkin says yes; I say no); but let’s be clear about what we’re doing.

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