USS Clueless - Discrimination

Stardate 20020819.0023

(Captain's log): The vast majority of people who write to me are polite, friendly and articulate. Occasionally I get hate mail, and that I typically ignore. I have not, however, had anyone try to use my mail to smear me before. In the aftermath of my postings over the weekend about such issues as discrimination, John Ray began to write me mail about the question of the basis on which employers would be justified in using some criteria in what I guess could be called "nonstandard" ways.

Over the course of several letters, I made what I thought were strong statements against the idea of racial discrimination in hiring, and in response each time he pushed the idea yet again, and seemed to be trying to convince me that it was actually justified in some cases. I finally decided that I had somehow attracted the attention of a white supremacist and that I was wasting my time with him, so I ended the discussion as politely as I could.

What he then did was to collect the entire email transaction and send it to John Hawkins, proprietor of The Right Wing News, who has reproduced a couple of my posts on his site (with my permission) and who links to me quite often from his "Daily News" sidebar (which I appreciate). Ray sent a cover letter to Hawkins attempting to pretend that he'd talked me into supporting discrimination.

Under the circumstances I think he has forfeited any consideration of confidentiality, and I choose to publish the entire interchange here just to make sure it's all on the record. I do wonder if he sent it to anyone else besides John Hawkins.

What Ray wrote will be in green below; what I wrote in black. What is reproduced here is what John Ray send to John Hawkins, but it includes substantially everything that passed between us (with one exception).

RAY: Your view that "society" should remedy discrimination sounds like the worst sort of liberal nonsense to me. One of the most pernicious forms of discrimination today is the discrimination against flat-chested women and short men. Both find it hard to get mates. What should the government do about that? Treating all its citizens equally is about the full obligation of government as far as I can see.

DEN BESTE: I was referring to discrimination in hiring.

RAY: If I was hiring people I would be darned careful not to hire lazy people. What should the government do about that sort of discrimination?

DEN BESTE: For most people, "discrimination in hiring" means to make selections between candidates based on aspects of them which do not directly relate to their ability to perform the job at hand.

Laziness is clearly job related, and making a decision based on that (were it possible to determine about a candidate) is not discrimination.

RAY: Predicting how a person will perform in a job is difficult but important and EVERY hirer does his/her best at it. Any criterion we use will be (say) only 80% right. But we will still use what we can. Ruling out people with thick lips might give us the best hit-rate in selecting people suitable for the job. Should the government stop us from choosing the best people for a job?

DEN BESTE: You would have to actually establish a connection between thick lips and job performance before you could use such a criterion.

I do not find your arguments credible.

The government should not stop us from choosing the best people, but the government has a manifest interest in preventing us from using rationalization and junk science as a way of pretending that "choosing the best people" is in practice a way of discriminating. We are permitted to choose the best people, but we don't get to define "best" in quirky ways; "best" is a general criterion set by our society, not explicitly by us.

If you were using a criterion such as "thick lips" to differentiate candidates, the government would be entirely justified in saying to you either that you had to stop doing so or else present significant justification for why that particular characteristic of candidates truly did affect their ability to perform the job. In general, my opinion is that any use of unusual and bizarre filters can reasonably be assumed to be wrong until proven right, and its use illegal until justified.

It's not as if the process of interviewing and hiring is totally mysterious. It's been getting done for a long time, and when we're hiring, for instance, engineers of a given type it's reasonably well understood what does and does not make one a decent choice to hire. "Thick lips" or "curly hair" do not make sense and if we tried to use such a criterion, we'd be in deep trouble, no matter what explanation we used for why we thought that made sense.

And we'd deserve every bit of it, too, for being blithering idiots.

RAY: What if I had found from experience that people with thick lips were generally bad choices for my sort of job? Should I be prevented from using my experience?

In his transcript to John Hawkins, Ray left out an exchange at this point. I responded to his question with one word: "Yes". He also responded with one word: "Why?" My next letter was the answer to this query.

DEN BESTE: If you can make a legitimate case to someone else (i.e. the government) for why that matters, then you should be permitted to do this. But only if you can. The default assumption when using a criterion like this is that you're wrong, until you can prove that you're right. That is the only way it can be.

If your only explanation is, "It's been my prior experience that..." then it should not be allowed. You may be telling the truth, but this opens the door for others to lie and use the same explanation to cover up discrimination.

"It's been my prior experience that..." isn't good enough. If that is all you have to justify it, then you should be prevented from using that criterion when considering hiring.

Like all cases this is a balancing act between the rights of different people. All of us have to yield some liberty to increase the liberty of others. In this case I think there is no doubt whatever that it is in society's best interest that employers be restrained from exercising unlimited rights to choose who to hire so as to increase the ability of the members of society to find jobs without facing discrimination. I don't consider the arguments on either side of this issue even slightly close, in fact; there's no case at all to be made that society or the vast majority of those who live in it would benefit by letting employers use a flimsy excuse like this as a way to rationalize discrimination.

So the only way that this kind of rationale could be permitted is if you well and truly proved that it made sense. Otherwise you should absolutely be prevented from using this kind of way of evaluating candidates, even if your experience has been that it did make a difference.

If it really did make a difference, you should have no trouble proving it to someone else.

You should not be forced to hire what society thinks are unqualified applicants. What you think are unqualified applicants doesn't matter and you should not be permitted to create and use your own definition unless you can prove to society that it makes sense. If you, and everyone else, were permitted to do that then we'd have too great a chance of reverting to the old days of "Negroes need not apply" appearing in the help wanted section.

Look, you seem to have some point you're trying to prove. I understand the point you think you're making. I unconditionally disagree with it.

RAY: So you agree that if I did a proper scientific study trying out different criteria for job selection and thick lips turned out to be the best predictor then the government should allow me to use that criterion?

DEN BESTE: Some questions are so hypothetical that there isn't any point in discussing them. "If a pig had wings, would it be a pigeon?" The only answer to a question like that is to say, "Let me know when you've found one, and I'll look at it then and tell you."

I am EXTREMELY confident that it is not possible to prove that point with a proper scientific study, and therefore I do not feel any need to consider the possibility of what we would do if such a study actually did prove that it were true.

When you've done the study and think you've made such a case, let me know and then I'll consider it.

In the mean time, I don't care to continue this discussion.

I would be happy to correspond again with you in future, on different subjects, but I will not be writing any more letters about this subject.

Thus it ended. Here is Ray's cover letter sent to Hawkins, along with the above letters:

Steven Den Beste is one of the internet's most popular "bloggers". He runs a site which he aptly calls "USS Clueless". His popularity seems to stem from the fact that he is a political centrist -- he has something for everyone. Fence-sitters, however, often have the unfortunate experience of finding that the fence is made of barbed-wire and so it proved to be when I recently subjected him to a Socratic interrogation about his support for affirmative action. When the debate rapidly showed that his ideas came perilously close to supporting discrimination AGAINST Negroes, he terminated the discussion! You may find the debate amusing. I reproduce it below.

John Hawkins responded that he didn't agree that this indicated that I supported discrimination. He also copied me on his response, for which I'd like to thank him.

I receive questions like this (well, not really like this) all the time, and nearly always those who write are genuinely confused about something they've read on my site and are seeking clarification. When I write in return to provide further explanation, such correspondents will actively seek to understand what I'm saying, and to interpret it the way I intend it to be interpreted.

It had become clear to me that Ray was doing his best to be obtuse and to try to twist my words, which is why I began to suspect that I was dealing with a white supremacist. I could see what he was trying to do and I didn't want to play the game any longer. That's what the final paragraph of my second-to-last post tried to communicate: Yes, I know that you're trying to justify discrimination. I don't agree.

And when I received his next letter, my reaction was exasperation. This bozo is still trying to press that point? After everything I'd already written? It was obvious he was never going to let it go, especially since the last question was what lawyers refer to as a "leading question", and not a genuine attempt to further understand what I thought. I considered ignoring him, but after several exchanges I felt some obligation to let him know that I was no longer going to reply.

I did not suspect that he was actually trying to set me up until I received the copy of John Hawkins' letter. And I still do not have the faintest idea why he did this.

I leave it to you, good readers, to decide if he did indeed manage to use the Socratic method to make me admit that sometimes discrimination should be justified, or if I did indeed cut off the discussion because he had me backed into a corner.

I'm sure my new friends Max B. Sawicky and Demosthenes would be quite surprised to see anyone characterize me as a "centrist". See, guys, I'm not a conservative after all.

Update 20020819: John Ray writes as follows:

Dear Mr Den Beste

I refer further to the fact that you have implied that I am a “white supremacist” on your website.

In the matter concerned, I am simply a traditional conservative who believes in equality of opportunity and who hence opposes affirmative action as unjust to the people who have earned their opportunity but been denied it because of their white skin or their male gender etc. Judging by various votes that have been taken, many ordinary Americans have similar views. I therefore used the Socratic method of simply asking you questions that followed on from your own statements to show that your own quite reasonable fundamental assumptions and values contradicted your support for affirmative action. My own views are set out in some detail at: .

I think therefore that you owe me a public retraction for implying that I am a “white supremacist”. Such an epithet is highly defamatory and therefore almost certainly highly actionable these days.

(Dr) John Ray

It's a first for USS Clueless: my first time where someone tries to use a threat of a lawsuit to shut me up. I guess this means I've arrived.

I recommend that John read this and this. Then read this definition of "actual malice" and stop trying to intimidate me with empty threats. I'm not impressed. Neither will any lawyer be that you talk to.

At the time I wrote it, I honestly thought it was true. Thus even if I was mistaken, there is no "actual malice" and libel against a public figure cannot be proved.

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