The Damaging Effects of Discrimination: Conversation

The Damaging Effects of Discrimination:
Presented by Dalhousie’s Multifaith Centre Dalhousie University, Halifax Nova Scotia

The purpose for this conference was to expand our awareness of discrimination in our cities and how to address this problem in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.[i] The discussions provided an opportunity to think about discrimination in the context of the growing importance of community and its changing daily expectations caused by our expanding awareness of racial, lingual and religious plurality in our societies. The question as a philosopher became for me one of addressing discrimination in the context of hyper-diverse societies that are thinning out their shared moral horizons and how these societies are equipped to address this problem.

First, what is discrimination? From the exchanges, we determined discrimination was a disabling, damaging and multifaceted problem that stemmed from a prejudicial attitude or disposition against someone or an identifiable group. It is in the primary instance a deeply personal problem, in the sense that it is a problem that affects the security of the person, privacy as well the social interconnectedness and the mental health of the person. It is also deeply structural problem in the sense that it has become globalized and internationalized into the structure that governs and unifies our communities, pervasively, politically and legally. It is in some cases structurally embedded in our local, regional and global awareness and practices; it is everywhere and a lot of us feel it in varying degrees. It exists on a multiplicity of bases of ethnicity, in-groups self-cleansing, out-groups discrimination, language, gender, generational gaps, primordial ties, religious, regional and cultural identities.

Discrimination is a serious problem not only because it violates our human rights and in some cases constitutional ones in Canada but also because it breaks down what I call the thin shared moral horizons of our society. It threatens and undermines the moral horizons that pull us all together for common purpose. It pacifies dialogues that are important in a society to confront its pressing problems. It is ethnocentric and produces as well as maintains itself through distortion of our differences and inner loyalties. By breaking the moral bonds of civil society, it adds stress on the legal institutions to make pluralism work. Thin moral horizons are the shared practices which have concrete moral significance by unifying all of our cultural diversity and backgrounds. I argue we need these shared thin moral horizons if we are to undermine discrimination and build a integrated future.

What can we do? First, we can use the legal instruments such as courts and human rights tribunals available to us in sheltering the vulnerable against the damaging effects of discrimination. International codifications, conventions and agreements such as the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be tools to legitimize not only court battles but also petitions to put pressure on governments and legitimize demands in the media and in civil society. Moreover, articulating the shared moral horizons embodied in these legal instruments expresses and builds deeper and longer lasting partnerships. It can also pool moral resources in the fight against discrimination rather than become dependent on the court judgments and criminalization.

Second, there is what I call the epistemic deficit and the need to organize social media and creative outlets to overcome it. Both of these, the legal and epistemic efforts, are complimentary. As Jasman Singh Aujla, vice-president of Dalhousie’s Sikh Student Association noted, the legal aspects need often to be supplement with epistemic outlets to overcome prejudice and misinformation against minorities and empower minorities with awareness of their rights and help them build partnerships integrating different horizons within and between intercultural groups. However, I would argue that most of these practices will not succeed if they are perceived or in actuality favor one group over another. What we need are neutral practices that fit and work within the community’s thin shared moral horizon.

Third, there is a need to explore and discuss in-group softer discrimination that can resolve the problem of self-oppression, inner prejudice and self-cleansing within groups, even within single persons. There is a strong need not only for positive campaigns but moral ones to tackle scapegoat and self-cleansing phenomena within ourselves and our primary loyalties. A thin, pluralist ethic that incorporates inclusively the diverse heritage backgrounds and moral sources of the society’s shared ethical horizon is a weapon against discrimination from with-out and within the person by articulating inclusively the diverse bounds, practices and multiplicity that not only ties us all together but delegitimize scapegoating phenomena.

What do we need? We need governmental, non-profit and non-governmental organizations to minimize the costs of maintaining, repairing and negotiating the fabric that holds communities together. There is an important role for political coalitions, social associations, spiritual traditions, university campuses as the custodian of moral sources and grounds upon on which meaningful dialogue and mutual understanding can occur. We need conferences and organizations to tackle issues that play a fundamental role in political complacency and misinformation that make the task of overcoming discrimination much more difficult and harder to obtain. We need organizations that help at the local personal level to properly frame the cultural and personal dialogues to respect sensitivities. We need also the insight to recognize that speaking out against or even recounting discrimination involves at times a re-living of the experiences for those that have been subject to it; this is true for me. It is important that when we do integrate and have dialogues over discrimination that we also allow others to feel comfortable to raise issues of discrimination themselves, or simply listen and reflect.


[i]The participants included Kirk Furlotte, representing the LGBTQ community; Nemat Sobhani, speaking about the persecution of Baha’is in Iran; Jasman Singh Aujla, vice-president of Dalhousie’s Sikh Student Association; Larry Riteman, a second-generation Holocaust survivor. The conference was organized by Amani Saini.

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