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Language of Choice

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How Language Reflects, and Affects our Beliefs

It is well understood that our language tends to evolve over time. As this occurs, some of the changes reflect various social and political attitudes of our time.

Sometimes words pick up new, additional meanings. For example, many of the younger generations think a “cell” is something you carry in your pocket so you can take pictures, access social media and surf the world wide web. Those who weren’t paying attention during the evolution of the cellular phone may not know why we even call it a “cell phone” at all.

Some words may lose their original meaning, or even come to mean something literally the opposite of what they once did.

Life and language are alike sacred. Homicide and verbicide—that is, violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning, which is its life—are alike forbidden. Oliver Wendell Holmes

Sometimes an unfortunate event in history will taint a word for ever more. How many people would choose to name their child “Adolf” or “Judas?” The words we will discuss include “discrimination” and “segregation.” These are examples of words once deemed harmless, representing concepts not necessarily bad or good. Today, they are over-shadowed by a single, specific form of their meaning—conjuring up images that are nearly always bad.

Annoying as it may be to purists, some of the linguistic mutations are quite harmless. But in other cases, they may have negative consequences for society. Just as the changes in language reflect changes in our social consciousness, so can our language shape the way we think and perceive our reality. If you have ever learned a second language, you can relate to the occasional discovery of a word that just “doesn’t translate.” Is it possible, an idea or concept exists there is no word for—at least in the language you speak? Chances are, if you don’t have a word for it, you probably don’t think about it that much. Conversely, if it is a concept critical to your way of living, you will have one or even many words to describe it in all the different ways it deserves.

Language is important to the concept of free will because our choices are affected by our perceptions of reality. We make choices according to our values, our faith, and our understanding of right and wrong. We make choices we hope will bring us joy and happiness. We choose from among the set of choices we are aware of. And we try to project in our minds how those choices will affect us in the future.

Let us examine a few words of particular interest to the struggle for equal rights in the last century. These words have definitely evolved as they have been used and, in some cases, mis-used to shape and modify public perceptions. We will embark on a potentially dangerous and possibly futile effort to rehabilitate these words and rescue some of the important concepts they used to represent before their more recent transformation.

Word 1: Diversity

What do you know about “diversity?” If you have been paying attention to the political dialog in recent decades, you have probably heard, it is super good and we really need a lot more of it. Unfortunately people, and especially corporations, don’t like it so much. So we never seem get enough of it. Fortunately, the government is making new rules all the time to help solve the problem.

So what is it really, diversity? Why is it so important? And is it really as important as we are being told? What is its opposite? Homogeneity? Similarity? Are those bad things?

In the study of evolution, we know genetic diversity is a very good thing because it enhances a species’ chances of survival in the face of parasitic viruses and bacteria. For example, if the individuals in a species all have exactly the same genetic code, an illness that afflicts one is likely to afflict the whole group. In contrast, if the population consists of individuals with a wide variety, or diversity of genetic characteristics, it is more likely some of the individuals will have or develop a natural immunity to the ailment. So even if some individuals die off as a result of the infection, others will live on to propagate with a stronger, more resilient gene pool.

Likewise in society, a broad mixture of ideas, opinions and cultures can enhance humanity’s chances of discovering the best ways of organizing themselves constructively. Certainly social groups, organizing in a variety of ways are bound to enjoy their own strengths and suffer from their own weaknesses. As the opposing forces of social evolution test such social structures, hopefully the best practices will win out and survive for future generations to enjoy.

Even more important than these practical examples, diversity is desirable because it is the by-product of individuals exercising their ability to choose. In other words, different people tend to hold their own individual values and opinions. So, given the opportunity to choose our own paths, we usually produce a wide variety of outcomes such as:

  • Where we live.
  • How we protect ourselves.
  • How we work to sustain our lives.
  • How we educate our children.
  • How we adorn our bodies (clothing, makeup, hair styles, tattoo’s, etc.).
  • How we celebrate culturally significant people and events.
  • What we do for fun.
  • How we treat each other.
If you don’t particularly value freedom of choice, you may not have an inherent appreciation for these types of choices manifesting themselves in a wide variety of ways. Maybe you think everyone should be made to do all these things in some approved, or appointed way. But most people would prefer to live free, at least as it regards their own choices in these matters. Unfortunately, we are not always so generous when it comes to other people exercising their choices. This is where the meaning of “diversity” has begun to get a little twisted.

Imagine we were hiking and came upon a mountain meadow with a wonderful diversity of wildflowers. Let’s say this was the most beautiful meadow we had ever seen. There were flowers of blues, yellows and reds. In all our travels, we had never seen such a beautiful mixture of color and flowers.

The other areas of our hike had been through barren sandy flats and mountain slopes filled with nothing but domineering pine trees. Imagine we judged the meadow to be more desirable because it was more diverse and we judged the flats and the hillsides to be less desirable. We might set forth to spread the diversity we had found in the meadow. With sufficient determination, we could chop down the lofty pines. We could import better soils and route sources of water to irrigate the sandy flats. Finally, we could collect seeds from all the wild flowers, planting and nurturing them on the flats and hillsides. After a great deal of effort and strain against the natural forces of nature, we could likely get the desirable diversity of flowers to grow in the additional areas—not just in the naturally fertile meadows.

So the question is: did we increase or decrease diversity?

The answer depends on your perspective. True, the hillsides that were previously populated only by a single species now contain a greater diversity of plants. And the flats which hadn’t supported much at all are now more beautiful—just like the meadows. But from the larger perspective, true diversity has been lost—not gained. Now we have only populations of wildflowers—no more shady slopes and no more sunny flats.

So we see that diversity is an elusive thing. The minute you begin to manage it, you have suddenly lost it.

True diversity in the environment is best achieved by allowing nature to evolve according to its own inherent laws and forces. Where the natural habitat is more suitable for trees, we will eventually see trees. Where only cactus and scorpions can survive, that is what is sure to develop.

Similarly, true social diversity has evolved naturally over the centuries by individuals, families and nations exercising their own choices according to their own natural values, hopes and desires. The result a broad diversity—many different cultures, practices and traditions that have evolved independently. Just like the mountain slope, populated only by pine trees, individual human cultures are sure to look much more homogenous. African tribes are likely to be populated by (guess who) Africans. Dutch settlements are likely to be populated by the Dutch. Go to Chinatown, and you stand a pretty good chance of running into some Chinese people.

In addition to geographical divisions, we also group ourselves in churches, clubs, corporations, and so forth. In these groups as well, we are sure to find homogenous groups of one kind or another. One company, like a modeling agency for example, might be staffed primarily by attractive young women. Another company, like a furniture moving company, might tend to attract strong young men who are not yet formally educated. Some clubs might cater to the likes and needs of only men. Some churches might show higher concentrations of one particular race or ethnicity.

But in recent years, the Federal government has embarked upon an effort to replace this natural kind of diversity with a new one of their own creation. Certainly we have seen efforts to micromanage the racial composition of clubs, and schools. But the most concerted effort has been focused on the hiring practices of corporations. We no longer allow corporate owners and managers to exercise their free choice to hire the people they feel are best qualified to meet the needs of the company. Rather, we now measure and quantify the racial makeup of the population in the states where our companies do business. Then we attempt to force them, by various means, to make their hiring decisions on the basis of race—attempting to match the racial distribution of the underlying population.

For example, if you do business in a state with 60% Caucasians, 30% blacks, and 10% asians, you had better hire employees in those same proportions or you may face retribution of one form or another by the Federal government. To say it another way, our regulators have determined what optimum diversity looks like. And they are attempting to enforce it across the society—even in those areas where it may not be natural to do so.

Imagine this succeeded. Imagine every company was composed of the perfect racial distribution. By Federal standards, we would have achieved a high level of diversity. But would we really be more diverse as a society or less diverse? Regular people, still in possession of common sense, can answer the question easily.

As a society, we don’t have to panic if people begin to organize themselves in groups that seem homogenous along racial, ethnic or gender lines. We need to recognize the freedom of those individuals and corporations to choose their own associations and relationships. Freedom of choice is much more important than some regulator’s idea of maximized diversity.

How would you answer these thought provoking ethical questions about diversity?

  • Should a home owners’ association be allowed to set a standard for their residents on the basis of:
    • Affluence: For example, all homes must be at least 4000 square feet in size.
    • Religious beliefs: All residents must believe in Sharia Law (or Christianity).
    • Ethnic Origin: All residents must be of African (or European) descent.
  • Should a company be allowed to set a standard for hiring:
    • Only women (or men)
    • Only college graduates with an engineering degree
    • Only Jews (Muslims, or Christians)
    • Only attractive people
  • Should a religion or social club be allowed to restrict membership to:
    • Only those who abstain from alcohol/drugs
    • Only those who practice a specified code of honesty
    • Only those who practice a specified code of sexual behavior

Word 2: Discrimination

What do you know about “discrimination?” It is really really bad, right? And it should never ever happen.

Interestingly, discrimination used to be considered a very good thing. It just got a bad name when it became associated with the practice of treating people wrongly because of their race or gender. One of the last remaining bits of evidence of this is found when we use the word in the sentence: “He is a very discriminating person.” At least those in our elder generation will still remember what that means, and that it is a good thing.

We can clarify our meaning when we want to make sure we are talking about the bad kind by using the form: “He is a very discriminatory person.” But it may not be so clear if we say: “He is always discriminating.”

Historically, discrimination wasn’t necessarily good or bad. Rather it was, at its very simplest, a choice. Additionally, to discriminate meant to choose between that which was desirable and that which was not as much so. Someone who was “very discriminating” liked fine things and would always prefer to choose them over that which was less desirable.

Choosing is at the heart of what makes us different from lower life forms. As intelligent, thinking beings, we have the ability to imagine more than just our immediate reality. We can think about things that may not be real or may not have happened yet. We can think about whether we like or dislike things. And we can even contemplate ourselves thinking about all those things. This high level of intelligence allows us to contemplate such advanced concepts as right and wrong, good and bad.

While a lemming may feel bound by instinct to leap off a cliff right along with his associates, a human possesses the ability to first simulate the jump in his mind. He may then choose to jump or not to jump based on what he thinks is best for his long-term happiness. We don’t always agree with one another about what is good or bad. But most of us have an opinion, one way or the other.

So the very dignity and exaltation of mankind is based on our ability to discriminate. Hopefully we will use this power wisely. Will we choose education or illiteracy, charity or selfishness? Will we choose productivity or slothfulness, cleanliness or squalor?

In a very real way, the answers to these questions define who we are, and will become, as human beings.

How would you answer some thought provoking ethical questions about discrimination?

  • Should you be allowed to discriminate when choosing a partner to share a personal relationship with:
    • On the basis of race?
    • Religion?
    • Gender?
    • Religion?
    • Physical appearance?
  • Should you be allowed to discriminate when choosing who will enter your home or private property?
    • Any of the bases listed above?
    • Your familiarity with the person?
    • An arbitrary or capricious basis?
    • A prejudiced or biased basis?
  • Should you be allowed to discriminate on any of the listed bases when choosing with whom you will engage in trade?
  • What if that trade involves you buying something from the other person?
  • What if that trade involves you selling something to the other person?
  • What if that trade involves you working for the other person?
  • What if that trade involves you employing the other person?

Word 3: Segregation

We all know segregation is a bad thing, right? What possible redeeming quality could this word have? After all, who would advocate a society where people are forced to live, work and attend school in a different place simply because of their skin color? And yet this is precisely how the word picked up its bad reputation.

But segregation, generically and untainted by its shameful part in human race relations, is something we engage in every day. And it is actually thought of as quite respectable.

It is one of the ways we provide security and safety for ourselves. It is a perfectly valid way of improving the quality of life for nearly everyone. So what is this "good form of segregation."

People come in a wide variety of backgrounds, professions, faiths, beliefs, and practices. Some of these are more compatible with each other and some are less so. For example, let us say you wanted to build a home and you hoped to live in a safe, quiet neighborhood with other people who shared similar aspirations? Then, imagine someone buys the lot next to you and uses it to start up an auto salvage business. They begin stacking up wrecked cars on the property and soon there is a constant flow of tow trucks and parts customers driving in and out of the neighborhood. While you probably have no objection to the idea of an auto wrecking yard, you probably don’t really want one in your back yard.

This problem has typically been avoided by a mechanism called "zoning." Zoning, at its heart, is simply a method of segregation. The idea is simple: we develop categories of the activities people engage in, and then define different zones or locations where the more compatible ones can be carried on in proximity to each other. In well planned cities, the heavy industrial businesses tend to be clumped together someplace where they won’t have a negative impact on other, lower-impact uses. Likewise, there are places designated for retail stores and similar commercial activities. Hopefully, there are also some quiet, safe neighborhoods where people can expect to enjoy a glass of lemonade on the front porch without too much disturbance from the bustle of commercial enterprises.

So zoning is the process of defining physical or geographical boundaries around various mutually compatible land uses. Once the standards for each zone are established, the hope is that people’s freedom of choice is enhanced—not diminished. If you want to engage in a particular activity (like auto wrecking), you just find an appropriate zone and you can do it there. If you don’t want to be exposed to that kind of activity, make sure you don’t build your house in an industrial zone. On one level, freedom of choice is limited: you can’t build a wrecking yard anywhere you want. But from a broader perspective, freedom of choice is enhanced: One person can build a wrecking yard, at least somewhere; and another person can enjoy a quiet neighborhood somewhere else.

So zoning in particular, and segregation in general, imply a system of regulation to define and enforce boundaries. The boundaries might exist as a legal barrier or, in some cases they might also include a physical wall or fence. In any case, there has to be a mechanism to restrict those who are not inclined to honor the defined zones voluntarily. In other words, there has to be an enforcement mechanism if the system is going to work.

At most levels, such systems are enforced by government, such as a City or County zoning department. In a less formal example, a home owners association might set and enforce standards for those who buy and build homes within their boundaries. In this case, the regulation is conducted privately, but with the support and backing of government. In addition to the compliance brought about by such regulations, people tend to segregate themselves without being forced to. Most people who want to build a house or start a business will naturally seek the most desirable place to do so. Most often, this will be in an area with compatible uses.

As it turns out, people’s likes and dislikes go far beyond just homes and wrecking yards. There are as many different tastes, ethics and opinions as there are people in the world. For example, most of us are willing to respect the private property rights those around us. We would prefer to live in a place where we don’t have to lock our doors and windows. In other words, we want to be able to trust others. And we are willing to be trustworthy ourselves.

But some people choose to live by the rule that they can take whatever they want from others as long as they don’t get caught. What are the rest of us to do to protect ourselves and our property?

To solve this problem, we regularly use a system of segregation called “prison.” Those who don’t steal are allowed to live outside the prison walls. Those who demonstrate themselves to be thieves, hopefully end up on the inside.

So these are some systems of segregation we are used to. We have become fairly well accustomed to land use ordinances which are enforced by fines and penalties. And we are quite familiar with the criminal justice system and what happens to people who can’t resist the urge to steal or otherwise victimize their neighbors. But what do we, and what should we, do about the broader range of varying human aspirations and desires?

For example, some people want to engage in the consumption of alcohol and/or mind altering drugs. Others may not want to be exposed to that behavior. Some people would enjoy living in a more sexually permissive society where things like prostitution and pornography are readily available. Others may wish to raise their children in a more socially conservative environment where such things are not allowed. How should we address these varying human wants and desires?

Traditionally, we have tried to deal with the issues of drugs and sexuality in much the same way as theft. In essence, we use a system of democracy to determine the wishes of the majority. We then declare certain unpopular practices to be “illegal.” Those who break the new rules will end up inside the prison walls so the rest of the people can enjoy their own preferred set of choices on the outside.

Throughout history, a number of practices resulting from personal choices have ended up defined as crimes. Among other things, these include alcohol consumption, drug use, prostitution, and homosexuality.

The problem is, there is a fundamental difference between theft and say, something like alcohol abuse. While theft is a direct offense against the free will of an innocent victim, alcohol abuse brings its consequences primarily upon the person making the choice. That is why these types of offenses are often referred to as "victim-less crimes." And while no self-destructive behavior is truly victim-less, still we can see the basic distinction between the two different kinds of acts. Theft and assault reaches out to aggressively harm another innocent person while alcohol abuse is a behavior the majority just don’t approve of—typically on moral or religious grounds.

So why should the majority have a right to imprison a minority simply because they engage in choices that are unpopular? What if instead, we were to look to our land use and zoning model for guidance?

After all, we don’t really have to imprison people just because they do things we don’t approve of. Why not instead embrace the idea that different places, or zones, can exist with different standards of personal behavior? Then, let people segregate themselves into the area where they are most comfortable?

In fact, we already do this to some degree today. For example, would you like to legally smoke marijuana? Move to Colorado or one of the other states where it is legal to do so. Want to legally hire a prostitute? Go to Nevada. Would you like to watch pole dancing in a night club, get drunk, gamble away your retirement and then risk getting infected with a sexually transmitted disease? Visit the strip in Las Vegas. You can probably find pretty much anything you are looking for there.

Or would you prefer to avoid all that? Move to a smaller town in a more conservative state and you can probably find a more wholesome environment in which to raise your kids.

This is a process of voluntary segregation at work. It involves having a variety (or diversity) of jurisdictions which can each make their own set of rules. People are often happiest living in an area where they are with others who share their ethical and moral beliefs. We all prefer to associate with those we are most comfortable with. There is nothing wrong with that.

So if we already have a system of self-segregation and a diversity of different places to live, what is still wrong that could be made better? How could we use the positive aspects of segregation to improve choices and happiness for everyone?

Bringing our Newly Rehabilitated Words Together to Make Positive Change

Today, most things are moving toward greater centralization and away from natural diversity. For some reason, we seem to have an irresistible urge to migrate every regulatory standard up to the federal level. Why not let more of our decisions be made by States, communities, or even individuals?

For example, when questions dealing with sexual practices and other personal choices are dealt with by federal law, we really end up with only two choices:

  • Maintain socially conservative standards and then imprison or otherwise punish those who wish to live more liberal lifestyles; or
  • Embrace more socially liberal standards and thereby impair the freedom of those who wish to live in a more socially conservative environment.

Neither option is very appealing if you have any kind of respect for the right of individuals to choose how they will live. These choices seem particularly bad when you consider that there is really no reason why everyone can’t get what they want.

Under the Constitutional system of federated states, originally envisioned by the American Founders, states were responsible for defining standards by instituting their own laws. The Federal government was really designed more as an agent to interact with other nations than as one to define the rules for its own citizens. Some have described this system as one where 50 individual “laboratories of Democracy” would be free to experiment and develop ways of living according to the values of their citizens. There were initially few restrictions, other than a basic Constitutional framework to limit the powers of the Federal Government. The rest was left up to the States, and the people, to figure out on their own.

Unfortunately, some states made bad choices. As it turns out, allowing the exercise of free will always does run that risk. In this case, the Southern states continued to embrace slavery while the North sought to grant freedom to those held as slaves. North and South fought a civil war which ultimately would decide if states were truly independent and sovereign or if the Federal government could force them to abolish such reprehensible practices as slavery.

We are all very grateful for the most obvious result of the Civil War, the end of the immoral practice of slavery. A less obvious side effect, and an unfortunate one, is that any federal policy could, forevermore, be imposed downward upon the States.

What if instead of abolishing slavery explicitly, and by sheer federal might, we could have somehow done so without completely losing the principle of individual sovreign states? For example, consider these policies which would surely have ended the practice, but which would have done so according to the principles of choice, rather than simply by sheer federal might:

  • Citizens are subject to the jursdiction in which they reside.
  • No person may be impaired in the exercise of his free choice to leave any state or local jurisdiction.

This may seem like a subtle difference as opposed to just abolishing slavery outright. Obviously, all the slaves in the South would instantly have been free to simply travel to the Northern states where people were much more enlightened on this particular subject. If anyone tried to impair their mobility, that person would be guilty of a federal crime and would accordingly be subject to punishment.

The primary difference in this alternate approach is, the role of the Federal Government is kept within the limitations originally envisioned by the founding fathers. Specifically, the federal government would simply be ensuring the right of all people, enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, to live their lives in liberty, and to pursue their own happiness, in whatever state and jurisdiction they felt was in their best interest. Most importantly, it would not have set a precedent that federal law always trumps state law. In other words, a state could technically still allow slavery, but it could only be practiced in cases where both parties entered into the arrangement voluntarily. Modernly, we call this employment.

Today, we see an ever-increasing push to impose moral and ethical standards nationally. Special interest groups fight to get their own views implemented as the official standard. The topics include:

  • Gay marriage
  • Employment standards
  • Civil rights
  • Abortion
  • Hate crimes
  • Drug legalization
  • Health care
  • Education
  • Social safety net
  • Land use
  • Environmental policy
  • Immigration

There are a few states which occasionally push back on the process, attempting to assert their right to develop their own local standards. But for the most part, they are impotent before the might of burgeoning Federal power. For the last 100 years, the Federal Government has broadened its authority to now tax citizens individually, and then distribute that money back out to the States as long as they will conform to Federal requirements. This has moved unimaginable power up to the Federal level and has rendered the States virtually powerless.

It has also removed the otherwise natural requirement that individual state policy be fiscally sustainable, in addition to conforming with local standards. In other words, states should be free to choose their own policies. But they must also be accountable when those policies are not fiscally sustainable. States which choose unsustainable policies should not be subsidized by states which act more responsibly.

When you get to the core of each of the debates, most share a common thread: They come down to the individual ethical choices we all should be free to make on our own, but are ever-increasingly told by the Federal Government what we must do. If we could simply be assured the freedom to migrate anywhere within the country, we could self-segregate, moving to an area where the ethical standards were most to our liking. The result would be:

  • More choices: a greater degree of freedom for a greater number of people.
  • Diversity, the real kind: an aggregated manifestation of 300 million individual acts of personal choice.
  • Discrimination, the good kind: the primary responsibility of all citizens would be to choose between what they judge to be good and bad. The eventual outcome would prove the wisdom of their choosing for all to clearly see.