Discrimination

Ingrud BergmanShaun Cronin post on The Biggest Loser raises issues that I’ve been thinking about for some time, and found difficult to get very far with.

Sean raises the issue of the way in which the program, which is a ‘reality’ slimming program for those who don’t know raises the issue of discrimination and stigmatisation of certain body images.

Even leaving out things over which people have some control like their weight, the whole issue of appearance – the appearance of people’s faces for instance – is hugely important for their lives as commonsense and the empirical literature demonstrate.

Discrimination on a grand scale is going on, but we don’t really think much of it. For if we did, and we thought it was a bad thing – which we do when it’s discrimination on the grounds of gender, race or whatever – we wouldn’t have the foggiest idea what to do about it. Try to stop people enjoying others’ good looks, disliking others perceived ugliness?

It’s things like this that make a mockery of the ideas we routinely deploy as absolutes (that discrimination is bad and that we should do what we can to stop it.) I’ve wondered about this for a while. How do we draw the line between discrimination we regard as completely beyond the pale – racial discrimination being the worst I guess, though the Taliban don’t do a bad job of sex discrimination – and discrimination that we decide for one reason or another that we won’t do much about – as for instance in the case of appearance.

Does anyone know some insightful stuff on this. I guess it’s the philosophy of discrimination. But when I put “the philosophy of discrimination” into Google, I find umpteen articles on IBM’s or whomever’s philosophy of equal opportunity and so on.

I’d be interested in people’s views and in any material they could refer me to.

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Kim
Kim
15 years ago

Nicholas, this isn’t a comment on “the philosophy of discrimination” – as I’m not sure what you mean by that, can you perhaps clear it up a bit? But if you have a look at org and social psych literature, you’ll find that (perceived, I guess, according to what the norms are) attractiveness is a major factor in the workplace – in recruitment and promotion particularly. Just as tall people tend to have an advantage in the labour market!

Kim
Kim
15 years ago

I think it’s because of differences in the fixity of identity. To claim that you’re being discriminated against you need a powerful sense of how your individual identity coalesces with that of a group which you identify as being hard done by. For instance, before say, Betty Friedan or Simone de Beauvoir’s works were read by women who would go on to be second generation feminists, many women felt their place in society was “natural”. But you also need an identity with relatively firm boundaries – it’s easy (almost all of the time) to say who’s a man and who’s a woman, less easy to say who’s black or white (hence the unstable position of “coloureds” in South African society, or going further back, Anglo-Indians), but not at all easy to either say what’s attractive or overweight, and of course most people are going to be loathe to self-identify as unattractive. Groups that try to mobilise overweight people have trouble because we tend to see being overweight as a choice rather than as something pregiven – and we’re less sympathetic to claims of discrimination based on behaviour that we view as having been chosen – the reason why in America (at least) a lot is invested in the argument that homosexuality is genetic.

In short, discrimination only becomes a live issue when people push for it to be so (not when benevolent authorities try to stop it) and that only works when identity can be relatively fixed, and for that matter, politically and socially salient.

Glen
15 years ago

Nicholas you are describing philosophies of difference. It has been one of the major preoccupations of post-war thought. Post-colonial theory is organised around various critical appreciations of difference. Part of Deleuze’s phd was published as _Difference and Repetition_. then there is derrida, etc.

what turns difference into discrimination is that, firstly, certain differences are selected out from the infinite number of perceptible differences in the world (a function of the relation between perception and language, rather than ‘reality’), and, secondly, these differences are selected because they ‘matter’. To whom they matter is a good question, normally whoever enjoys the luxury of being in power at the time (or the media, or who the media favours!).

So for example the current government’s line on Muslims — that if you don’t like Australia’s values then go home — selects a certain population according to some imagined cultural difference (a difference of ‘values’). **How this difference actually plays out in the real world doesn’t matter**. If it was assessed relative to real world events, then you would immediately find that Joe Blow in fact wasn’t stopped from having his mates round for a BBQ the other weekend because Saddam up the road wouldnm’t eat his pork sausages.

So there is difference in itself and then difference that is combined with others (through selection) as mattering for some reason, this transform the appreciation of difference into a judgement. A judgement is a selection of which differences matter. Such judgements are reproduced through recognition and are stored and circulated as ‘good sense’. When a given group comes to power they work to circulate their ‘good sense’ as ‘common sense’.

So, for example, I don’t follow the common sense deployed by John Howard in the comments he often makes. Therefore my ‘good sense’ is different to his ‘good sense’, and because he is in power, the version of common sense that is now (well and truly) circulating also conflicts with my ‘good sense’.

Rob
Rob
15 years ago

Well put, Glen. But more could be said.

The non-concept of physical beauty, so “called”, is merely syncretistic attitudinising. It embodies the net non-worth of pseudo-patriarchal unvalues. Discrimination on those grounds, therefore, is a consequence of the application of non-knowing assimilarities and discontiguities. Fatness, for example, is not just a non-invented disembodimentation, but, more importantly, a politically inconstructed non-disseminational hyper-realistical variability. This being so, it follows — though not non-logically, interestingly enough — that each anti-instance of the imaged body is the locus of an multi-linear (or at least not pre-configuratively or post-cognitively variant) non-temporal event. From this important insight we can begin to understand what we are talking about.

Further research on this important issue is urgently needed.

Craig Malam
Craig Malam
15 years ago

Hmmm lost me there Rob. My intuition easily comes to life with many of the points made by Kim and Glen though. Seems pretty clear that the differences in the way discrimination works would have sociological causes (or least be influenced by them). Whenever I’ve thought about this underlying ambiguity over discrimination its always struck me as having alot to do with what kinds of difference we are capable of influencing ourselves, since a significant part of our socialisation seems to be conducted via altering our external appearance (he says with a silly peice of coloured material tied tightly around his neck). So we obviously use appearance alot, but the degree to which we are in a position to alter that appearance is significantly involved (at least with many people). We might make our inferences about a bad tie, but there’s less than can be done with a person’s disfigurement. The Biggest Loser show is really a side issue to this because its about the battle to escape these kinds of inferences. I guess the show really speaks to some of the compassion we’d suspect is warranted when we see the work required in altering their appearance.

Craig Malam
Craig Malam
15 years ago

I think my point speaks somewhat to the ethics (but it isn’t very clear).

As I said already, most people feel better about excercising judgements based on things we have some control over, so in some sense we feel better about this kind of discrimination.

But I think it also works in another way; we use discrimination based on looks as part of our everyday socialisation, as a way of signalling to people who we are or what ‘group’ we fall into. At one end of the spectrum is wearing a tie, (or wearing a dress, or both) at another end is not doing any excercise and eating badly. In both cases (but to varying degrees) the appearance is a signal of actions we have undertaken or not undertaken. Based on appearance in these ways, we make judgements or infer information.

This is accepted by many people as part of the way we do things. So even the more extreme forms of it, such as investment banks that hire only tall and good looking individuals, are examples which are tolerated more easily. But where such signals are less useful, signally nothing of any accepted value to most (like race), then the tolerance for such discrimination is less.

Anna Winter
Anna Winter
15 years ago

Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice might be the kind of thing you are looking for, Nicholas.

Basically, his argument is that different “spheres” – say: work, wealth, love etc. – have different forms of currency, different skills and attributes – such as: brains, looks or power – that help one benefit in that sphere. While you can’t always stop that, you can at least try and stop those things getting people too much advantage in other spheres where that currency should not be relevant.

Anna Winter
Anna Winter
15 years ago

Sorry, pressed submit too soon…

He also argues that usually these things don’t have too much of an advantage in other, irrelevant spheres; that as long as there are many ways that people can gain advantage and benefit, that it will mostly even out.

That is, one person may have wealth and power, but others may benefit in the love sphere, the happiness, or the leisure sphere. So we should concentrate on keeping spheres separate, so that it becomes more difficult for one person to gain too much of an advantage, or disadvantage, in all spheres.

Gary
15 years ago

I wouldn’t leave out primal instincts. An obeese person isn’t much use catching food or defending the tribe. Contemporary seen as a drain on welfare.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Nicholas – This might not be exactly what you’re looking for, but Elizabeth Anderson grapples with some of the ethical problems posed by differences in intelligence and physical appearance in a paper called What’s the Point of Equality.

Anderson’s paper is an attack on a kind of egalitarianism that she calls ‘luck egalitarianism.’ This is the idea that the government ought to compensate individuals for undeserved bad luck but not for the results of voluntary action.

Consider Thomas Nagel’s view: "When racial and sexual injustice have been reduced, we shall still be left with the great injustice of the smart and the dumb, who are so differently rewarded for comparable effort…. Perhaps someone will discover a way to reduce the socially produced inequalities (especially the economic ones) between the intelligent and the unintelligent, the talented and the untalented, or even the beautiful and the ugly."

Anderson imagines what kind letters a State Equality Board might send to ugly people:

To the ugly and socially awkward: How sad that you are so repulsive to people around you that no one wants to be your friend or lifetime companion. We won’t make it up to you by being your friend or your marriage partner-we have our own freedom of association to exercise-but you can console yourself in your miserable loneliness by consuming these material goods that we, the beautiful and charming ones, will provide. And who knows? Maybe you won’t be such a loser in love once potential dates see how rich you are.

"Could a self-respecting citizen fail to be insulted by such messages?", says Anderson:

If it is humiliating to be widely regarded by one’s associates as a social clod, think how much more degrading it would be for the state to raise such private judgments to the status of publicly recognized opinions, accepted as true for purposes of administering justice.

Rather than demeaning judgments about the value of a person’s appearance and abilities Anderson argues that in a liberal democratic society it’s the state’s job to ensure people have the capability to participate as equals:

People may not make the possession of a disability, repugnant appearance, or low intelligence the occasion for excluding people from civil society, dominating them, beating them up, or otherwise oppressing them. In a liberal democratic state, all citizens are entitled to the social conditions of their freedom and standing as equals in civil society, regardless of handicap, physical appearance, or intelligence. Moreover, these conditions are sensitive to variations in people’s circumstances, including their disabilities. People who can’t walk are entitled to accommodation in civil society: to wheelchairs, ramps on public buildings, and so forth.

 

Anna Winter
Anna Winter
15 years ago

I think it does address your question in part. I mean – is this really such a big problem on its own? Is inequality in society due in large part to people’s looks? I’m not so sure it is.

When we’re talking about women and beauty then we have to also look at related issues. The fact that women’s looks are seen as part of who they are, much more so than with men, suggests that it isn’t so much looks as it is plain old-fashioned gender discrimination.

It also seems to be something that is more of a problem in the lower rungs of the economy – the service industry – shops and airlines, for example – where having good looks might get you further than you would get if you were ugly, but still not very far, comparitively.

The higher up one gets in the career, the less important it would probably be, if people want their businesses to succeed.

Can you list some examples of where you think it’s happening, where it isn’t also due to other, bigger, factors?

Kim
Kim
15 years ago

Like Anna (I think), I’m still not entirely clear about what you mean by “the ethics of this”, Nicholas. I think my comments do go to the issue (as I understand you, and I’m not sure I do) in that something has to be recognised as a source of disadvantage for a group that shares that characteristic in common for it to become ethically problematic. Otherwise, as Anna implies also, there’s just an individual wondering why their cards in life don’t fall their way. I also think Glen’s point is relevant – what do we single out as “difference”?

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

Like Anna and Kim, I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at either, Nicholas. I doubt that people are significantly discriminated against on the basis of obesity or ugliness in relation to provision of accommodation or most other services. It’s certainly true that there IS some such discrimination in relation to employment in areas where physical appearance is perceived to matter e.g. “front of house” type jobs (Virgin Blue hosties, for instance, or restaurant waiting staff). To some extent such discrimination is caught by state discrimination laws which generally prohibit irrelevant discrimination based on age, disability, marital status etc. Ugliness and obesity don’t correlate precisely with any of those categories, but there is some overlap (although beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder).

Don Arthur’s comments above, and reference to Elizabeth Anderson’s work, sound like they might be the sort of thing you’re looking for. From a less academic viewpoint, there is a real question IMO about just what sorts of “discrimination” we think should properly be constrained or prohibited in modern society. When all is said and done, discrimination is simply making choices, and doing so on the basis of factors that we as individuals regard as relevant. We may or may not be right in our use of heuristics to guide our choices (in that they may or may not have strong predictive value), but we all inevitably use such shortcuts. To what extent legislative proscription serves a useful purpose in constraining the range of ostensibly permissible heuristic elements is open to question. Anti-discrimination laws only catch people who are unwise enough to express or record in writing the factors they took into account in making a decision subject to the legislation. Cunning discriminators seldom get busted under these laws.

Is society better because we prohibit discrimination on the basis of factors people can’t control like race, gender, age or sexuality in specified areas of endeavour or even factors they CAN control like religion or marital status? I certainly think so, despite such problems of enforcement. But I doubt that adding discrimination on the basis of obesity or ugliness to the list would improve matters. Don’t forget that anti-discrimination laws generally only proscribe tangible discriminatory action e.g. unequal treatment in access to services, employment etc. They don’t prohibit making fun, social ridicule, being ignored at parties etc, unless those things can be classed as “vilification”, and only a few states prohibit vilification on racial or religious grounds (let alone other ones) because the whole concept is so problematic from freedom of speech and other standpoints.

Then there’s the Darwinian aspect. Contrary to what someone commented earlier, I recall seeing a TV doco series which argued quite convincingly that ideals of facial beauty are to a large extent universal, and relate to the ratios of certain key facial dimensions. Asians are able to recognise and agree on what amounts to a beautiful European face and vice versa. Those sorts of dimensions may also provide some crude heuristic clues to the possession of strong genetic makeup, and therefore to selection of a mate most likely to be good breeding stock. Laws will never stop individuals from making instinctive choices about friends and life partners on such bases, nor in my view should they.

Obesity may be a more interesting topic than facial beauty in this regard. While ideals of facial beauty may be universal, the ideal body shape has certainly changed over the decades and centuries, from Rubens and even Norman Lindsay to the far skinnier norms of today. This strikes me as less obviously related to Darwinian factors, in that Lindsay’s models certainly had far more optimal child-bearing hips than many of today’s anorexic, androgynous super-models. Personally, I’m much more interested in exploring why the general ideal of female beauty has become progressively skinnier over the last century than I am in teasing out the nuances of the ethics of discrimination on grounds of ugliness or obesity.

Anna Winter
Anna Winter
15 years ago

“Anna, I don’t think you’re right when you say that the issue of looks is more important lower down. It doesn’t seem to be the case with supermodels for instance. They get a fair way on their looks.

More to the point I think you’re too easy on yourself. You ask “Is inequality in society due in large part to people’s looks?”

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Nicholas – You say that “there’s lots to be worked out about where we deploy the concept of discrimination as if it were self evidently wrong and where and why we don’t”. And of course you’re right.

I remember sitting on an interview panel once and saying that what we were doing was discriminating between people — obviously the aim was discriminate against those with less ability to do the job. Nobody wanted to agree with me. It was as if I’d said that the pope was a bachelor — technically maybe correct, but it wasn’t the right way to use the term.

The ‘right’ way to use the term ‘discrimination’ is hemmed in by all kinds of tacit understandings. One of them, as you’ve said, is that it’s a morally bad thing to do. So athletic competitions don’t discriminate against slow runners. Employers don’t discriminate against underqualified applicants. And black women don’t discriminate against white men when they choose not to go out with them.

To use the term the ‘right’ way you need to make a case that the attribute on which you’re basing your decision to grant a benefit or harm is irrelevant. So it’s wrong to disqualify an athlete because they’re not white, choose an applicant for a back office job because you like looking at them, or refuse to serve customers in your cafe because of their race or sexuality. To do so undermines the purpose of the activity you’re engaged in.

Naturally what’s relevant and what’s not is controversial. In human service jobs it might be relevant to recruit people from the same gender, ethnic group or sexual orientation as the clients. If a person can do their job more effectively by having the same personal experience as the clients then how is this discrimination? But then, what about customer service jobs where customers respond better (spending-wise) to staff who are young and physically attractive?

And then there’s the boundary between public and private. It’s understood that your choice of spouse, friends, and sexual partners is a private matter. If you’re a desirable sort of mate, you’re not obliged to run an equal opportunity program for your affections. And part of the problem here is where the boundary between public and private lies. Most people think that a customers choices are private but not everybody agrees that the business that serve them have that right. For example, if you run a cafe do you have the right to refuse to serve women in headscarfs?

So yes, it’s a good question. And maybe it’s worth asking why we try so hard not to make the reasons for our judgments explicit.

Nabakov
Nabakov
15 years ago

“Personally, I’m much more interested in exploring why the general ideal of female beauty has become progressively skinnier over the last century”

It’s the transition from Veblen’s ‘conspicuous consumption’ to what Nicholas Bentley called ‘conspicuous thrift.”

When finding food is a central task, fat, um, sticks out and says we’ve got it happening baby unlike you proles. Today when the majority of western civilisation is abundantly well fed by historical and gloabl standards, thin says I’m special because I can afford to pick and choose and lavish attention on my body shape.

Well that’s my dashed off take on the issue. But I think there’s food for thought there.

And Rob, that hamfisted parody was like listening to a tone-deaf person trying to take the piss out of Denis Roussos’ vocal stylings.

Francis Xavier Holden
15 years ago

I’m not sure what exactly you are saying Nic.

You might like to listen to some of the songs about Big Women I’ve linked to at my place.

Rob
Rob
15 years ago

Thanks, Nabakov, though I know you didn’t mean it that way.

Kim
Kim
15 years ago

I agree with Anna’s point about supermodels – a better comparison might be professional athletes, in that they’re valued largely for their physical qualities, and as those decline with age, so does their earning power. And I think you’d find that getting to the top in modelling is hardly based on some objective criterion of who’s the most attractive. It’s more likely to have a lot to do with personalities, power, and networks.

But on life chances – as I said at the top of the thread, there is research that shows that in recruitment and selection and promotion decisions, more attractive people (actually in practice women but there’s also an effect for men) tend to go further. But as Anna says again, this is more or less a subset of gender discrimination.

There seems to be a lot of incomprehension on this thread – most commenters have found it hard to get what you’re getting at.

But you write:

I’d wonder if you’d care to unpack that idea. That where someone is discriminated against it’s unacceptable if they share that characteristic with a group that they identify with but otherwise they’re just wondering why the cards didn’t fall their way.

I don’t like the look of it at all.

It’s not a normative or an ethical judgement. If I’m not conscious of the fact that the labour market tends to discriminate against women (let’s just take that as a given for the sake of the argument, rather than debate it for the moment) then if I am rejected for a job, I will make the assumption that it’s my lack of merit, l how I performed at the interview, or whatever, that caused it. So I won’t “see” the discrimination. A similar point arises from the experimental studies where people send out identical job applications with Anglo and ethnic names attached to them. Unless you’re (politically) conscious that members of your group face similar hurdles, the default meritocratic assumption that governs our society (ie – your success or failure is the result of your efforts or failures) tends to be how you perceive it.

It’s a sociological observation.

And it’s relevant here, because as I said earlier, I think there are few people around who would be happy to wear the label “ugly” when applied in their own case.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

I don’t know about the Demis Roussos analogy. Like Kamahl, he’s beyond parody, tone-deaf or otherwise.

Rob
Rob
15 years ago

Sorry, Nicholas.

Kim
Kim
15 years ago

I’m not arguing it’s ok in the slightest, Nicholas, I’m just talking about the mechanisms by which people become aware that they’re suffering from discrimination as such. Can you please try to understand what I’m saying? I’m talking about how we tend to accept blame for hardships that come our way because our culture teaches us that things are fair and individuals are judged on their merits and we only perceive that’s not always so when we realise that there’s a pattern by which others who share the same characteristics as us also suffer.

I’ve always been uneasy about it because it’s not seen as one aspect of harrassment more generally.

That’s a good point.

Kim
Kim
15 years ago

Hey, leave Kamahl alone!

Kim
Kim
15 years ago

Yes, fair enough, Nicholas, perhaps I didn’t word it well.

But I think that you need to identify common characteristics for there to be “discrimination” – logically and politically, as well, as I’ve argued. I see no need to regard such groups as “victims”. I don’t see feminism as a movement which can be characterised that way, and I’m sure Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela would not see their anti-racist movements in that way either.

Anyway, maybe there’s a category mistake lurking around here somewhere.

saint
15 years ago

Hmm, I am not sure I have followed everyone’s comments or can even really understand your question Nicholas.

Why don’t we pay attention to some discrimination? I guess maybe because at heart we are a bit selfish and if it doesn’t affect us or can’t see any direct causal links that bear some impact on us we don’t really care?

I am not sure that Ken’s comment is true:

“I doubt that people are significantly discriminated against on the basis of obesity or ugliness in relation to provision of accommodation or most other services.”

I think you will find for example, that some employers do sometimes unconsciously discriminate against fat people because they equate it with laziness or whatever. They may not be aware of it or won’t admit to it until pressed to explain decisions but surely that can be tested (eg. by getting employers to make an initial assessment based on say a phone interview rather than in person)

And I wonder if we would pay more attention to discrimination against ugliness if we knew it kind of had an impact like this.

Craig Malam
Craig Malam
15 years ago

Nick, your question is why we feel differently about it in different situations, mainly when beauty is involved. The definition of these circumstances is clear – it doesn’t matter whether the discrimination occurs at the interview or not – we still discriminate by buying more coffee from attractive people (or flying on airlines with attractive hostesses). The practice of hiring people in this way as strategy to get more people in the door is proof that we freely discriminate on the basis of looks. So for me, Nick’s question is clear.

I agree this is a tough question. My intuition is that as humans we generally tend to condone dircrimination when it is somehow justified or useful. That is, coming back to the idea that it’s involved in inference, whether the discrimination is accurate or acheives any purpose.

This is why when we discriminate on the basis of beauty or good looks, we feel that it is harmless (for purposes of finding a mate), or less harmless but evidently more excuseable – eye candy. That is, people just enjoy looking at well formed people, whatever the fashions of the day say that should be. I don’t agree that this is completely harmless, but it is less so than racism for example.

Racism as a type of discrimination on the other hand is netiher harmless nor accurate or useful, as a basis for inference. And for me, this is the line in the sand as far as our ethical response to it. We react differently according to the purpose or intent, and to whether or not it is useful. Groups are involved because groups (and some commonality among each group) are needed to infer from, and indeed as Kim pointed out, to infer whether we are being discriminated against.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

Saint

If you read my comment again, you’ll see I differentiate (discriminate?) between the area of provision of services and that of employment. I doubt that there is a significant amount of discrimination against the fat or ugly in provision of restaurant meals, admission to pubs or clubs, provision of rental accommodation etc (i.e. provision of services). On the other hand, I certainly accept that there is discrimination in employment on thee bases, at least in jobs where there is immediate contact with the public, where the employer may perceive rightly or wrongly that having slim, young, attractive “front” people is important to the bsuiness’s image and therefore commercial success.

Nicholas

I suspect I’m still not following what you’re getting at. If we remove any common/associational element from the posited discrimination, then it becomes just meanness to an individual we don’t like for whatever reason, and we’re simply back in the realm of a need for civility (a long-time Troppo favourite). Craig Malam explained it well just above.

Moreover, I think it really DOES ultimately come back to norms of civility. There are some forms of discrimination against people with particular common characteristics that we all (or nearly all) regard as beyond the pale and deserving of legal sanction. That will sometimes be where the characteristic is innate/unchangeable, or where a chosen characteristic is one which we regard as involving a basic freedom that requires protection in a democratic society (e.g. religion, political belief, marital status, and perhaps sexuality to the extent that it involves choice). What all the normally protected bases of discrimination (and the areas of endeavour to which they relate) have in common is that we broadly agree that it’s unfair to discriminate against people with these characteristics at least in the proscribed fields of endeavour, in large part because that sort of discrimination is seen as irrelevant to the activity in question.

How do ugliness and fatness stack up against these criteria? Ugliness is certainly innate/unchangeable, but if I’m right that it mostly only occurs in relation to employment as “front of counter” staff, then I think prohibiting it is problematic. Maybe business proprietors are correct that significant numbers of customers (depending on the type of business) react more positively to attractive counter staff, although speaking for mysef I don’t give a rat’s. I just want good service. And even if there’s no clearly demonstrable instrumental value, it all smacks distinctly of rather precious nanny state-ism. Maybe people need to just come to terms with their personal strengths and weaknesses. Some people are smart, some are fast runners or swimmers, some are slim and beautiful, and will suffer as their beauty fades with age if they’ve made it a keystone of their identity.

Obesity doesn’t really stack up as innate, although it’s certainly impacted by inherited body type and dietary habits instilled in early childhood that the adult person then finds very difficult to change. But prohibiting discrimination on grounds of obesity would be even more problematic, not only for the reasons outlined above for facial beauty, but because there is a very wide range of situations in which obesity has significant health disadvantages and makes a person less capable of performing satisfactorily. Maybe we also tend to view it as indicative of personal indiscipline. That’s certainly true in my own case when I put on a bit of weight (and the reverse when I get fitter).

Note that I’ve quite deliberately couched my discussion in terms of legislative proscription of discrimination. It seems to me that if we don’t consider it in those concrete terms, we’re “just” talking about interpersonal civility. I assume that we all agree that being rude to someone or making fun of them because they’re fat or ugly is uncivil and unacceptable, and that people who engage in it are ignorant dickheads. But then, maybe we should protect ignorant dickheads from discrimination too!!! It’s possibly inherited or learned behaviour from early childhood too. I think it’s an interesting and perhaps useful discussion, but I’m not sure where it takes us.

Yobbo
Yobbo
15 years ago

“where the employer may perceive rightly or wrongly that having slim, young, attractive “front”

marcus
marcus
15 years ago

I remember a joke from my youth, ” a gentleman holds the door to both the pretty and plain”. It really does come back to the “norms of civility” as Ken mentions. The polite, and smart option is to spend a bit of time looking beneath the exterior.

Perhaps, when all things are equal, an employer might discrimate against a physically unnatractive job applicant in favour of an attractive one but so what? We are fortunate to live in a society where, in time talent will reveal itself and there are plenty of people who will appreciate it.

saint
15 years ago

Ken yes. Apologies. On the other hand you do get the odd reports of discrimination against the obese with airlines, hotels, bouncers at clubs….perhaps government services are unlikely to do so as they tend to operate on certain set criteria and don’t have to “attract” business.

Neverthless I don’t buy Yobbo’s line of thinking that attractiveness is an “absolute” in sales. Maybe if you are a prepubescent teen buying small ticket items from barely pubescent teens working on a minimum wage in a store that doesn’t stock anything for anyone bigger than an anorexic teen. But I think as you get older you value service, product knowledge, honesty, value, courtesy.

I think you are right in that it goes to civility, but I think it also goes to something deeper, in that how we think of ourselves and other people (e.g. if I self obsess about me then I am likely to be more critical of the traits in other people that I don’t like about myself) and perhaps how much interaction we have.

I also don’t advocate legislation for such stuff.

David Walker
David Walker
15 years ago

Nick, like you I’m convinced that discrimination on a grand scale is going on, in a way that presents interesting ethical issues. As I think you are trying to do, I try to separate ethical issues from moral and legal ones. (I’m also interested to see how many people have to work hard to understand what you are on about.)

The biggest questions here, I think, are:

* “What is unfair?”
* “What makes a particular breed of unethical discrimination politically and socially salient?”
* “When should we stop worrying about these issues?”

It’s probably easier to understand the ethical issue here if you’ve had to choose between potential new hires. If you think looks might make a difference, you might easily begin to favour the best-looking of two equal candidates. But neither the fact that looks are useful in the job nor the absence of law in the area will prevent you from thinking that you’re being in some way unfair to the less attractive candidate. (What the law is would not make much of a difference in most cases anyway, since the law is usually ineffective in these circumstances.)

Then again, at some point you have to realise that characteristics are not evenly distributed, and that genetics matter in all sorts of ways. I am lucky to be the biological child of my parents. So is Nick. There’s not much that can be done about this at a practical level.

Now to the data. From the Wikipedia entry on “heightism” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heightism

“A survey of Fortune 500 CEO height in 2005 revealed that they were on average 6 feet tall, which is 3 inches taller than the average American man. Fully 30% of these CEOs were 6 foot 2 inches tall or more; in comparison only 3.9% of the overall United States population is of this height. Equally significantly, similar surveys have uncovered that less than 3% of CEOs were below 5’7″ in height, and that 90% of CEOs are of above average height.”

The CEO data is easy to find, and hence represents a good starting point for study of the issues you describe. I am fairly sure I’ve seen a similar study showing that good looks were unusually common among CEOs.

The heightism studies are interesting in part because:

* There is not the “fixity of identity” issue that Kim raises.
* I’m sure it occurs to plenty of 5’6″ executives that their height works against them in the job interviews.
* There’s no necessary Foucault-style political/power angle to the height question. (This has been particularly true in Australia for most of the past 23 years :-) )

In case anyone’s wondering, I’m 6’0″, or 6’1″ when the headhunter calls.