Discrimination, victimology, and retributivism

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Electric Venom noticed a recent story about three heterosexual couples who got kicked out of a hotel for being straight. She raises some worthwhile questions. First of all, this was in fact illegal in a town that has laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It makes me wonder what kinds of parallels can be drawn between this and affirmative action, which quite obviously discriminates on the basis of race, which we amended our Constitution to make illegal. (As my forthcoming post on affirmative action will explain, I don't think it's immoral to discriminate on the basis of race when you have a good reason to do so, and affirmative action in some cases might be a good reason, but it is in fact unconstitutional, as three Supreme Court justices realize).

She mentions that some will simply take delight in seeing this as the shoe now being on the other foot for these straight couples. I can testify that this kind of thinking is extremely common among groups who perceive themselves to be oppressed or discriminated against (whether correctly or incorrectly -- what matters for this psychological phenomenon is that they perceive themselves to be a certain way). It shows a weird sort of delight in a second wrong like the one done to oneself. Isn't that suprising? After all, doesn't the person who really knows what it's like to be oppressed or discriminated against know enough to know that they wouldn't wish it on anyone? That suggests to me that people who make such claims don't know real discrimination or oppression, not the kind that really did take place against black people in this country only half a century ago. This at least raises questions about how much of the complaining about kinds of discrimination today is mere victimology and not a serious charge of victimhood. (This isn't to say that there isn't real victimhood. It's just that people crying out about victimhood who would be prone to take delight in the situation being reversed probably aren't real victims.)

The other interesting thing about this argument is that it reveals a moral principle (misapplied, I believe) that most liberal philosophical thinkers today want to reject: retributivism. The only reason it can be morally justified to mistreat people because they'd mistreated you or others (although in this case it's questionable whether these people had done so to begin with) is if the correct reason for punishment is because people deserve it for their actions. By doing something to someone, you deserve to have that very thing done back to you. No one really holds the extreme version of this, since it's completely unworkable (how can we vaginally rape a man for vaginally raping a woman or kill the family of someone for killing my family if he doesn't have a family?) The more reasonable versions of the view involve killing someone for killing but treat those crimes as special. Other crimes don't deserve exactly the same penalty as the effect of the crime on the victim because there's something special about human life and the taking of it.

Anyway, what struck me as interesting about the delight in poetic justice here is that it involves a more extreme retributivist view than what's allowed even on the standard defense of capital punishment. I suppose there might be a way to have a retributivist view without capital punishment that allows for this kind of thing, but it's such a weird combination of things that hasn't to my knowledge been explored in a moral theory that it shows something odd, at least, about the mindset of these people.


You raise some excellent points, Jeremy. But my main argument was simply that the hotel's actions demonstrate that many people, hetero- and homosexual alike, are uncomfortable both observing and being observed in the process of public displays of affection by those not sharing their sexual orientation. That doesn't make it wrong; it just makes people human.

This whole incident struck me as ironic because one of the long-standing gay rights' arguments has been that such things shouldn't matter when, evidently, they matter quite a bit.

I somehow didn't get the PDA thing at all. I agree that PDA of each might make the other uncomfortable. I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with almost any sort of PDA, unless it's fairly unobtrusive. Sexual orientation might add to that, but it's there the start with.

Your last sentence also seems to me to parallel a race issue. The standard line nowadays is that race shouldn't matter. Once you say that, you've now trained people not to talk about it and pretend it doesn't affect them. Then when unconscious patterns of behavior still affect people, they don't address it and pretend it's not there, because they've been told it's not important.

Precisely! On top of which, pretending it's not there gives rise to a certain amount of dehumanization on both sides. The race issue's an excellent example: many of my minority friends say they feel their race is "invisible" to the point where it's awkward for them to celebrate it, while my white friends feel they have to ignore my minority friends' racial heritage or else be thought of as a bigot.

"Only half a decade ago?"

Was racism really so widespread in 1999?

Ah, I suppose I should change that to "century". This is what I get for blogging at bedtime.

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