Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Non-Discrimination at the University, or, Principle and Political Practice

An argument that I find very weird has broken out across American academia over whether colleges will officially recognize groups that discriminate in any way:
After this summer, the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship will no longer be recognized by the college. Already, the college has disabled the electronic key cards of the group’s longtime volunteer advisers.

In a collision between religious freedom and anti-discrimination policies, the student group, and its advisers, have refused to agree to the college’s demand that any student, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should be able to run for election as a leader of any group, including the Christian association.
This leaves me scratching my head. Why are the universities standing on the principle of purely theoretical non-discrimination in cases where it cannot possibly make any practical difference? Why force an Evangelical group to accept the possibility of an atheist Jewish leader when the members would never elect such a person? Is this really a question worth fighting over? It reminds me of the scene in Life of Brian where they Judaean rebels argue over whether one of the men has the right to have babies. Not only that, but in enforcing this bizarrely theoretical non-discrimination they are in practice -- objectively, a Leninist would say -- discriminating against Evangelical Christians. If the end result of your non-discrimination policy is to achieve zero new rights or freedoms for anyone -- since the Evangelical groups will never elect an openly atheist leader -- while effectively banning a very large religious group from your campus, maybe you should rethink your policy.

Meanwhile the Evangelical groups are, it seems to me, behaving almost as weirdly; why do they care so much about writing it into their guidelines that their leaders must be Christians? Are they worried that they might elect a Muslim by mistake? I have a better idea: they should jettison their constitutions altogether and model themselves on the secret churches of early Christianity, using University's hostility as a tool for creating a more intense community of belief.

More broadly this whole argument shows the problem with focusing on principles instead of people. This is the fallacy of all ideologues, from communists to libertarians. The beauty and purity of your philosophy are, as far as I am concerned, so much filthy mud compared to the real lives of actual human beings. If adhering to your high and awesome principles leads in practice to cruelty and stupidity, then I care not a fig for them. Compassion, not cant, is always the answer.

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