Let's end group victimhood
Published: Sunday, November 30, 2008
in his 1999 book, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, black American author Thomas Sowell tried to explain why many black American leaders found it hard to move forward past the real victimization, which had occurred in American history.
Sowell, an economist with an eye for the economic consequences of social phenomena, argued too many leaders had become consumed not only with the promotion of justice in the present, a laudable and realistic aim, but with an attempt to create justice between past and present generations. That effort, which he labelled “cosmic justice,” inevitably fails because there is no way to correct for the effect of so many past wrongs. Too much injustice has been done over the ages by too many people against too many others. Attempts to “make up” for past wrongs will only pit the present against the past and at the expense of the existing generation.
This, asserted Sowell, was folly. He thought it wise to focus on enforcing justice in the present, a more “traditional” view of justice as he labelled it, and also an attainable goal.
Sowell's work came to mind recently when the Carleton University Students' Association voted this past Monday to stop raising money for cystic fibrosis. They said the decision was made because, as they wrongly believed, it was a disease that mainly affected only white males. Students and students' associations should be free to advocate whatever they want and on whatever grounds. Attentive readers know my position on free expression.
But the reason given by Carleton students (likely a numerical minority) didn't come out of nowhere. It originates in our society's obsession in seeing people as members of groups first and as individuals second. The focus exists in part because of good intentions: in the past, black Americans, aboriginal Canadians, Jews all over the planet, and a multitude of others, have experienced institutionalized discrimination and worse.
It has even happened (gasp!) to white males. My great-grandparents lost the family farm in Poland, first to the Nazis because the German army overran it, and then permanently to Soviet and Polish Communists because they were not Soviet, Polish or Communist, but German farmers in re-conquered Poland–which made them not exactly a favoured demographic.
In an effort to remedy such past wrongs, governments and others try to measure the current socio-economic results of one group against another. There's nothing wrong with that, except when some of the then-applied remedies create new victims. For example, when quotas are used and 200 spots in a medical school admission program becomes 190 spots, with another 10 spots reserved for members of the now-favoured group, the result is 10 students with better marks who are replaced by 10 less capable entrants.
New victims may even include newer minorities. For example, in California in the mid-1990s, black businessman Ward Connerly led the effort to abolish racial quotas in universities. He did so because he thought quotas denigrated black achievement, and also because “new” minorities took it on the chin: Thanks to racial quotas, plenty of young Asian-Americans were denied spots in universities even though young Chinese, Korean or Japanese students had higher test scores than some black Americans being admitted, Connerly's own “group.”
I've identified two people in this column by their race to make the point they are individuals who stand apart from their ostensible collective and against the obsession of too many leaders with politics, punishments and rewards based on the same. Connerly and Sowell prefer to see people as individuals first and members of groups second, if at all. In initially slamming “white men,” the students' association, which reversed its decision following nationwide criticism, parrots the rhetoric of a society obsessed with past wrongs and clueless about new injustices created by ill-advised policy. It was a dumb stance–as if some woman who has a husband with cystic fibrosis will find comfort if students raise money for “female” breast cancer instead of for a “male” disease.
The societal and institutional obsession with collectives is un-cosmopolitan, illiberal and unhealthy. Also, and critically, groups are not victims. “Groups” don't bleed, suffer and die; individuals do. It's a rather useful and important distinction.
mark milke writes every sunday in the calGary herald.