Dumbest arguments against anti-discrimination laws, part 1

Quit squirming cartoon.
“Quit squirming!”
So the U.S. Senate appears on the brink of passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act which would bar businesses from taking into consideration sexual orientation when making decisions of who to hire, who to fire, and who to promote. And all the usual arguments are being trotted out as the usual suspects go into a frenzy. I’m not going to pick the overt haters’ arguments apart here, but what I really get tired of are the people who insist that they aren’t in favor of discriminating against anyone, for goodness sake. And then they say, “However…”

A law can’t stop someone from discriminating. People will find ways to get around it! So there is no point in passing this law.

On one level this is a true statement. However, it is exactly as true as this one: “A law can’t stop someone from stealing. People will find ways to steal no matter what the law says, so there is no point in making theft a crime.”

A law can’t make someone tolerant and enlightened, it’s true. But that isn’t what laws are for. Laws outline boundaries for a civil and just society. They say, “If you do this thing, you have stepped outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and when you’re caught you will suffer consequences.” They also say, “If this is done to you, we as a society will do what we can to make amends.”

Anti-discrimination laws give people who have been wronged options, whether it be to file a complaint with an agency that may fine the offender or to file a lawsuit. They provide a disincentive for businesses to engage in overt discrimination, and more importantly a disincentive to turn a blind eye when employees engage in discriminatory practices.

Wouldn’t you rather work for someone who wants you there, rather than someone forced to hire you by law?

First of all, the law doesn’t force anyone to hire anybody. It simply says that when you decide who to hire and who to fire, you can’t use an applicant’s sexual orientation as a criteria.

More importantly, this argument is the equivalent of saying, “Wouldn’t you rather be allowed to live because everyone you meet loves and respects you, rather than be alive because murder is against the law?”

Some people will object to my equating job discrimination with murder, but this isn’t a case of me being hyperbolic, but rather substituting an unambiguously wrong act in order to expose the flaws in the structure of the original argument. The argument presents two alternatives: being accepted enthusiastically, or being accepted under coercion, as if those are somehow related to each other, and that there are no other options. The argument also relies upon several unspoken propositions. The first is the equivalent of the earlier argument: a law can’t make someone think one way or another, so we shouldn’t pass it because what other purpose could a law possibly serve? The second is, discrimination happens to you because you didn’t do your due diligence of only interacting with people who don’t discriminate, it’s your responsibility not to put yourself in situations like that, rather than the responsibility of the discriminator to treat you fairly.

One of the people who has used this argument in a personal debate with me (a person who claims to be a compassionate christian and goes to some trouble cultivating a public image of her deep feelings of empathy for others), went so far as to say, “Anti-discrimination laws just make people resent and hate you more. It would be better if you just turned the other cheek and waited for god to soften their hearts.”

She wasn’t happy when I replied, “Would that be your response if someone was being dragged off by a lynch mob? Stop struggling and wait for god to soften their hearts?”

You put that on your resumé?

This one is a variant on an older moldy oldie: Can’t you just keep quiet about your personal preferences? Why do you insist on shoving your private sexual practices in other people’s faces?

A few years ago when I was looking for work, there was one place that I had such a good phone interview, that the guy asked me to come in that day for an in-person interview, and that went so well, he took me to another office and said, “I want you to talk to him now, rather than wait.” By the time I was done, they had scheduled a follow-up interview with the entire department the next morning.

At the end of that group interview, the guy hiring the position was very enthusiastic, told me he was really happy how things went, and told me that he was confident I was the right guy for the job. So confident, that the reason he’d left the group interview midway was to go find out if the H.R. person could meet with me and go over the benefits, so when he got the job offer to me later that day, we could act on it right away.

So, during my talk with the HR person, when we got to the subject of the medical and dental insurance, I had to ask whether the insurance would cover my legally registered domestic partner. Washington state voters had not yet passed marriage equality, and even though the state allowed you to register as domestic partners and provided, at the time, a very small number of legal rights to such partners, whether a company extended spousal benefits to domestic partners was entirely up to the company.

And at that point, it was an extremely relevant question. Whether the salary and benefits meet your needs is an important consideration when accepting a job offer.

Her face froze, and she got the full-on deer in the headlights look. I knew, at that moment, that I was in trouble. She stammered out something about having to check with the insurance company (I love when they say that, even though it isn’t the insurance company that makes that decision, it’s the people who buy the insurance for their employees who make that decision) and get back to me.

As chance had it, I had to get out of there, anyway, because I had another interview at another place that same day. So it was much later in the day that I got home to find the two emails in my inbox.

The first was from the manager who had verbally confirmed that I was the guy he intended to hire. From the timestamp, I could tell that he had composed the message while I was still in the HR person’s room. The message repeated how he was looking forward to working with me, and he was so anxious to get me started right away that he was trying to push things through to get me an official offer that day.

The second was sent a couple hours later by the HR person. It was a completely impersonal cut-and-paste of “thank you for your interest in the job, I regret to inform you that we’ve decided to pursue other candidates.”

Fortunately, the other interview at the other place went well, and I was working at the other place the following week. That isn’t the point. I did not run into the room and announce, “I’m gay and I think working here will be fabulous!” and start throwing glitter around. Obviously, I didn’t even ping anyone’s gaydar in any of the interviews. I was in no way shoving anything in anyone’s face. I asked a reasonable question about whether the benefits would cover my family.

When I mention that I have a husband, I am not throwing my private sexual preferences out into the conversation, at least not any more than when one of my straight co-workers mention their spouses or their children.

And before you raise the religious arguments, that an employer shouldn’t have to support a “lifestyle” he disagrees with, think about this: a lot of conservative religions oppose divorce, and especially oppose divorced people re-marrying. If a straight job applicant asks during the discussion of benefits whether their step-children are covered by the insurance, they’ve just implied that their spouse is divorced and they have remarried. Do you really think an employer should be able to use that as a reason not to hire someone? No matter how sincerely his beliefs against divorce are?


(To be continued…)

4 thoughts on “Dumbest arguments against anti-discrimination laws, part 1

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