All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1991

The Terrible D-Word

Mr. Smith is a writer living in Santa Maria, California. He is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.

As a person who makes his living with words, I am often disturbed by the misuse of a word. The word articulate, for example, does not mean knowledgeable, but only that a person is easily understood. Infer and imply are often used interchangeably, even though their meanings are quite different. Irregardless goes a step further by having no meaning at all.

These words, however, are only minor annoyances when compared with the over-used and misused discrimination, the terrible d-word. It is a far more serious breach of linguistic rules because it has the backing of government, which is another case of federal, state, and local governments going where they have no business being.

The once legitimate word has become so. pejorative that one can imagine a group of street thugs taking it into a back alley and working it over until it is time to call for an ambulance. When used today, it is accompanied by excess amounts of sneering and finger waggling, all with government blessing, so that it is not only an accusation but an indictment.

The simple truth is that discrimination is not always a bad thing, only something that can, under certain circumstances, be undesirable. There is bad discrimination and there is good discrimination. Let’s call them “X” and “Y” discrimination. “X” discrimination can be demonstrated by telling a non-white person that he or she cannot use a city facility when that person’s taxes are helping to pay for it. It is indeed the proper function of government to enforce anti-discrimination laws in this instance and open the use of public facilities to all citizens.

“Y” discrimination is another matter entirely because it exists almost exclusively in the private sector. An example would be an all-male organization barring females from membership, or an all-female organization barring men. In these instances it is not the function or the business of government to enter the picture at all, and most certainly not to pressure or threaten such groups to change their membership policies.

In the case of private organizations—clubs, lodges, associations, and interest groups—there will necessarily be discrimination because that is the sole reason for existence. An organization is formed only to bring certain kinds of people together and therefore excludes those who are not of that kind, persuasion, or general interest.

The Knights of Columbus, for example, is a fraternal society for Roman Catholic laymen. As such, it excludes from membership all women, all children, and all men who are not Roman Catholic. It is obvious that this organization excludes a whopping majority of the human beings who populate this planet. This is discrimination in its most blatant form, but what rational person can argue that it is wrong? The Knights of Columbus would serve no purpose if it didn’t exclude these people.

An alumni organization is another example of gross discrimination because it excludes all people who did not graduate from a given university; but, again, how could such an organization exist otherwise?

There are social clubs for tall people, which serve the very legitimate and understandable purpose of bringing together men and women who are considerably taller than the norm; but they exclude people who aren’t tall. There are clubs for left-handed people, for people over and under a certain age, for twins and triplets, for women who have had mastectomies, and for ex-band singers. There is even a Jim Smith Club, which excludes everyone on earth who isn’t named Jim Smith.

All of these are examples of “Y” discrimination and they all serve to bring certain kinds of people together, which is another way of saying that they exist only to exclude other people; they discriminate. They have to bemuse it is their only reason for being, but it still isn’t difficult to foresee the demise of these groups due to pressures from a government that cannot see the difference between using a public building and getting a date with another tall person.

There is truly a super-sensitivity existent in the land that, to quote the Bard, “makes cowards of us all.” We generally knuckle under rather than face an accusation of discrimination, even when that discrimination is justified and in fact desirable. I well recall the sports announcer who covered a televised fight between a black man and a white man and consistently identified the black fighter as”the one in the blue trunks.” The_distinction was made for identification purposes only and the obvious difference was that one person was black and the other white, but the announcer preferred to play it safe with the blue trunks. Presumably if he had seen Gary Coleman in conversation with Wilt Chamberlain, he would have differentiated between the two by the color of their socks. After all, we don’t want height discrimination.

We see the pervading fear of Big Brother at work when the Los Angeles Friars Club, an all-male group of entertainers, backed down and admitted a female attorney who was ready to take them to court. We see it today in the presence of female reporters in male locker rooms, when owners of professional sports teams can no longer decide who will, and who will not, be admitted to their own facilities. We see it in hiring quotas for private businesses, in committee memberships, and even in Little League. We see it in the regular use of such contrived, and rather stupid, words as chairperson and spokesperson.

It is time, I am convinced, to call a halt to all of this nonsense by the simple and well-tested American practice of telling government that we have had enough and that we want the executive, legislative, and judicial branches to do those things that they were created to do and to get out of our personal lives. As a recent First Lady so succinctly put it: just say no. []

Ideas On Liberty


Many of the leading problems of our day, I believe, stem from a thought-disease about discrimination. It is well known that ,discrimination has come to be widely scorned. And politicians have teamed up with those who scorn it, to pass laws against it—as though morals can be manufactured by the pen of a legislator and the gun of a policeman . . . .

If a man is to continue his self-improvement, he must be free to exercise the powers of choice with which he has been endowed. When discrimination is not allowed according to one’s wisdom and conscience, both discrimination and conscience will atrophy in the same manner as an unused muscle. Since man was given these faculties, it necessarily follows that he should use them and be personally responsible for the consequences of his choices. He must be free to either enjoy or endure the consequences of each decision, because the lesson it teaches is the sole purpose of experience—the best of all teachers.

—F. A. Harper

  • Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Freeman, lives in Santa Maria, California.