Practices of this sort are usually defended, by school officials,
as part of a "zero tolerance" policy for violence, or
drug use, or sexual harassment. Unfortunately, what "zero tolerance"
often comes down to in practice is an admission that "I am
unable to think clearly and to make distinctions between an uninvited
kiss and a violent assault, between a cough drop and a tablet of
LSD, between boys pointing their gun-like fingers at one another
and a full-blown knife fight." "Zero tolerance,"
in other words, becomes synonymous with "zero critical analysis."
When I was a youngster, the attempted criminalization of such conduct
would likely have been met with questions about the competency of
school officials to supervise the learning of children. It would
have been understood that the process of growing up involves experimentation
and testing of the boundaries of appropriate social conduct. It
was also accepted that learning how to establish suitable relationships
with others came about through trial and error, and the feeling
out of the expectations of one's peers, more so than having
one's conduct constantly micromanaged by supervising adults. Only
if conduct morphed over into the realm of viciousness was it thought
appropriate to consider the transgression in criminal terms.
The "spitballer" was given a six-day jail sentence — even
though prosecutors reportedly sought an eight-year prison term;
while the "cough-drop kid," the finger-pointing "gunman,"
and the "kindergarten kisser" may have to spend the rest
of their lives acknowledging, to colleges or employers, their respective
"offenses" of "drug-dealing," "attempted
assault," and "sexual harassment." How does one satirize
The underlying cause of such nonsense is not to be found in either
wickedness or a penchant for being overly-protective. I suspect
that the school administrators who engage in such Draconian measures
truly mean to do well by the children entrusted to their care. The
problem, instead, can be traced to one of the underlying shortcomings
of our culture — one for which, coincidentally, government schools
have been the primary culprits — the ongoing war against discrimination.
We must remember that most of the school officials who cannot distinguish
between a pointed finger and a .38 caliber revolver are, themselves,
products of government school training.
There was a time when it was considered the highest compliment to
tell another that he or she had a "discriminating" mind.
Today, such is an accusation. One who learned to distinguish
truth from fashion; to critically analyze a given
set of events on the basis of intellectually sound criteria; to
have both an empirical and rational basis for his or her opinions;
to be able to separate fact from fallacy; to have one's mind well
grounded in such fields of study as the sciences, history, economics,
the classics, psychology, and the humanities; and, above all else,
to have both a sense of humility about what we know and a recognition
of the human need for transcendent experiences, that person was
worthy of being called a "discriminating" individual.
Not only are such qualities not developed in schools and
colleges today, they are actively opposed. One who dares
to suggest that the works of Shakespeare are superior to the folktales
of some primitive tribe is likely to be charged with cultural chauvinism.
To dissent from American foreign policy practices in the Middle
East is to invite an accusation of "anti-Semitism" (even
though truly discriminating minds would note that Arabs are
also Semites). To challenge the legitimacy of welfare programs,
"affirmative action," or any of a variety of other government
policies, is to run the risk of being labeled a "racist"
or peddler of "hate." Such absurdities helped to make
up the world of "political correctness," a phrase that
boils down to the failure of its practitioners to engage in discriminating
At this point, some may respond that I am only setting up a straw
man to knock over; that racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry exist
in our world, making discrimination a problem to be overcome. I
disagree. The person who uses race as a determining factor
in deciding who to hire or otherwise associate with is not,
in most instances, discriminating, but failing to discriminate!
is closely tied to another misunderstood practice: "prejudice."
Whenever we act, we do so on the basis of our prior experiences.
We "prejudge," based upon the past events in our lives,
what will occur in the future. Let us suppose that, while walking
down a dark street one evening, I am mugged by a man wearing a purple
hat. In the future, I might very well be fearful of men in purple
hats, believing that there was some connection between hat color
and my victimization. This is a common response of small children
who, having once been frightened by a barking dog, might thereafter
fear all dogs.
But as I encounter more and more people wearing purple hats who
do not assault me, I begin to modify the basis for my prejudgment
(i.e., "prejudice") about purple-hatted people. In a word,
I learn to discriminate, based upon factors more directly
relevant to my being victimized, and may eventually come to the
conclusion that purple-hattedness has nothing to do with the commission
of violent acts. Focusing upon purple hats becomes a distraction
to clear thinking.
Our prejudices can serve us well or ill depending upon how proficient
we become at making distinctions that help to further what we seek
to accomplish. If, for instance, I would like to find a restaurant
that sells pizzas, my past experiences lead me to prejudge
that I am more likely to find pizza in an Italian than in
a Szechuan restaurant. It may be the case that, in this city,
the best pizza is made at a Szechuan restaurant, but information
costs being greater than the benefits I might derive from trying
to locate such a place, I content myself with an Italian eatery.
When factors such as race, religion, or ethnicity enter into our
decision-making, however, there seems to be an enhanced likelihood
that such considerations will prove detrimental to our objectives.
More often than not, prejudging others on such grounds will fail
to predict for outcomes that we favor. The employer who refuses
to hire a woman, or a black, to operate a punch press because
of such criteria — rather than the applicant's demonstrated
skill at handling the machine — will have to forego the added profitability
from having the most competent people working for him.
On the other hand, there are times when being prejudiced on the
basis of race or other such factors is quite rational: I suspect
that, when Spike Lee was casting for the Malcolm X film,
neither Robert Redford nor Whoopi Goldberg were given the slightest
consideration for the lead. Lee "discriminated" by casting
Denzel Washington. Was Lee "prejudiced" in his decision?
Of course: he "prejudged" that Denzel Washington would
be a more believable Malcolm X — thus adding to the quality of the
film — than would Robert Redford. He made a perfectly intelligent
decision; he exhibited the qualities of a "discriminating"
mind: he knew when race and gender were relevant factors in his
Racial and ethnic bigots, on the other hand, fail to make such relevant
distinctions. In their minds, such factors become central to all
forms of decision-making. Percaled Ku Klux Klansmen and the most
ardent champions of "affirmative action" programs have
this in common: for each, another person's race or ethnicity is
a deciding characteristic. The quantity of melanin in one's skin
determines whether a targeted individual will be brutalized or given
a preference, depending upon the nature of the group making the
decision. It is not that such people discriminate,
but that they do not know how to discriminate!
Nor is this problem confined to these more vulgar forms of expression.
A friend of mine was a high-level executive for a major American
corporation. One of their divisions was having major cost problems,
and he was sent to find out what was wrong. His first act was to
pull the personnel files on the top twenty or so executives in that
division and discovered that each was a retired Naval officer. Upon
further inquiry, he learned that the official in charge of hiring
within that division was, himself, a retired Naval officer, and
when he saw an applicant with such a background, that fact
became the basis for his hiring decision. That there was no causal
connection between being a Naval officer and a competent business
executive led to employment policies that hindered corporate purposes.
The catastrophic events of 9/11 provided what has thus far proven
to be a missed opportunity for clear, discriminating thinking. Rather
than treating the attack as a criminal act, President Bush and other
government officials reacted with unfocused anger against a vaguely
defined "enemy" who, upon closer inspection, became "anyone
who's not with us" in a unilaterally declared "War on
Terror." Without any evidence of Afghan involvement in the
WTC attacks, the Bush Administration started bombing Afghanistan,
and putting together lists of "enemies" and possible nuclear
targets — whose identities were both interchangeable and subject
to continuing amendment. A number of countries were identified as
an "Axis of Evil," an appellation reflecting an unfamiliarity
with basic geometry. Draconian police state measures were also announced
that would greatly restrict individual liberties, but only for the
duration of the "war" which was, of course, to go on forever!
Those who suggested that the WTC attacks might have been in response
to American foreign policies and military actions were lambasted
by the boobeoise who, unable to distinguish between an explanation
and a justification of events, accused such critics of defending
the attacks! Bill Maher — host of the TV program, Politically
Incorrect — offered one of his few genuinely "politically
incorrect" observations when he noted similarities between
"terrorist" and Air Force bombings. For his honest comments,
he was pilloried by those whose inability to discriminate gets expressed
in terms of distinctions without meaning.
These are just a few examples of the consequences of abandoning
the pursuit of critical thinking. Analysis and reasoning have given
way to flag-waving, bumper-sticker slogans, and public opinion polls.
If you are unable to assess the propriety of a given course of action,
then ask other equally confused people what they think.
Let us pool the ignorance!
As the study of mob behavior informs us, when self-righteous rage
suppresses intelligence, an unfocused mindlessness emerges. Collective
insanity has a way of escalating quite rapidly. When top government
officials in Washington can casually discuss "first strike"
nuclear attacks against other nations, and warn dissenters to watch
what they say, you can be assured that discriminating minds are
not in charge.
Perhaps intelligent thinking will begin to assert itself over the
official madness that now prevails. There may be sufficient remnants
of discriminating thought within the life force itself to impress
upon even the most rabid of Washington warmongers that, no matter
how horrific and inhumane the attacks of 9/11, they do not justify
either a massive police state or a nuclear firestorm capable of
obliterating all of humanity.
Arthur Koestler suggested that mankind might have been an evolutionary
mistake. A killer ape with a highly developed brain might not be
a recipe for species longevity. That same brain, however, provides
us the means to evaluate the nature of our behavior, and to make
choices that either advance or diminish our lives. But how does
one make choices without discriminating among alternatives? And
if we are to make life-fulfilling choices, upon what grounds shall
we discriminate? Do purple hats really matter?