Friday, September 30, 2011

Vanderbilt And The Silliness Of Forced Inclusion

“Oh, I’m real.  Real enough to defeat you!  And I did it without your precious gifts, your oh-so-special powers.  I’ll give them heroics.  I’ll give them the most spectacular heroics the world has ever seen!  And when I’m old and I’ve had my fun, I’ll sell my inventions so that everyone can have powers.  Everyone can be super!  And when everyone’s super . . . no one will be.”
—Earl Hickey as the voice of Syndrome in The Incredibles

The politics of homogeneity just keeps getting sillier.
Following an incident last Fall in which an openly-gay student was asked to resign from a Christian fraternity, Vanderbilt University has placed a number of student groups—four of them Christian organizations—on “provisional status” for noncompliance with the school’s nondiscrimination policy.  At the center of the controversy is the Christian Legal Society.  Apparently the following language from the CLS constitution offends:
“Each officer is expected to lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at chapter meetings.”
According to Vanderbilt’s Office of Religious Life, the school’s policies do not permit this kind of expectation of officers in student organizations.  In other words, a student organization can’t expect its leaders to participate in and promote the organization’s ideals and purposes, because that’s discrimination.  Students may have their group so long as they don’t exclude anyone for any reason, including the fact that the one being excluded doesn’t have any interest in, or may even be actively opposed to, the group’s core premise.
This is the silliness you get when the Left mindlessly confuses preventing discrimination with forced total inclusion.  “Discrimination” does not mean the failure to include everyone everywhere in all things and under all circumstances.  Discrimination refers to the arbitrary denial of basic rights or societal benefits based characteristics that have nothing to do with the rights or benefits being denied.  Typically we’re talking about “immutable” characteristics—things that are just part of the hand we’re each dealt at birth, such as race, gender, national origin, or handicapped status (some would also argue sexual orientation here).  When we add religion we move away from immutable characteristics to matters of choice—one may voluntarily convert from one religion to another—but the fundamental essence of discrimination remains the disconnect between the right or benefit being denied and the basis for the denial.  Few would argue in 2011 that the fact that a person is black or Catholic presents a legitimate basis for, say, excluding that person from college; skin color or religious view has no bearing on a person’s ability to perform academically. 
But where there is a connection between the benefit and the denial, there is no discrimination.  For example, if the reason for rejecting a job applicant is directly and legitimately related to the requirements for the position in question and is consistent with business necessity—such as refusing to hire a blind man to drive a bus—the denial ceases to be discrimination.  The ability to see is legitimately and directly related to the ability to drive the bus.  This is the reason Vanderbilt would be perfectly justified in keeping me off its basketball team; at 5’ 7” and with no talent, no one would contend that doing so was some form of discrimination, because the reason for my denial goes directly to the purpose for which the team is organized.  
Query whether the ability to become a leader of a student organization rises to the level of a “right” the denial of which could ever constitute “discrimination.”  But that aside, CLS’ constitutional requirement that its leaders actively promote the group’s beliefs by leading Bible studies and worship—i.e., that they actually be active Christians—would seem to be directly and legitimately related to the group’s aim of fostering and supporting Christianity.  And it’s not an immutable characteristic; anyone who chooses can meet the requirement.  Excluding those who by their own free will elect not to meet the requirement isn’t discrimination, and one has to wonder who, exactly, is being harmed by CLS’ position.  Is there really a student clamoring to run for CLS president who can’t because they’re a committed atheist (and if so, doesn’t that lend even greater legitimacy to CLS’ position)?
It is no answer to say that CLS can simply remove the offending provision from its constitution and recognize that as a practical matter no non-Christian would ever actually get elected as an officer of their group.  Facially that fails to address the Manchurian Candidate concern that a poseur could infiltrate the group and only reveal his true colors after being elected.  More substantively, however, discrimination is discrimination, and you cannot do by tacit practical agreement that which you cannot do by official policy.
Not surprisingly, this policy of inclusion doesn’t apply to all at Vanderbilt, and there’s the real rub.  One imagines the school would have a hard time telling its Black Student Alliance—they of the Black Power fist logo—that they had to admit the Klan’s Grand Dragon as a member.  And witness the Association of Hispanic Students (which although the university isn’t saying, you can bet the house isn’t among the groups put on double-secret probation), whose constitution requires voting members to be “interested in promoting the aims and objectives of the association,” which include “promot[ing] Hispanic cultural activities within and beyond the campus,” and “foster[ing] the recruitment, registration, and the establishment of scholarship for Hispanic students.”  So it’s OK for the Hispanic student group to require its members to support and participate in the purposes and beliefs to which the group is dedicated, but it is not OK for the Christian student group to require that its leaders support and participate in the beliefs and purposes to which that group is dedicated.
Now, if Vanderbilt were truly interested in a totally inclusive environment, it would ban student groups altogether:
There are no gay students, Hispanic students, Christian students, or engineers; you are all Vanderbilt Commodores, and you will all be included in everything and treated absolutely equally down the last molecule of your body.
The reason it doesn’t is that at what level of common sense is left its administration surely realizes—and I agree—that student organizations like these are good things.  It is a positive on a college campus to have organizations where students of like interests or backgrounds can socialize and work to promote their various philosophies and cultures.  But such groups become pointless if they can’t keep themselves directed to the purposes for which they were organized.  So it must be not that there’s some issue with inclusion, but with the purposes themselves.
For Vanderbilt the issue isn’t really inclusion, it’s Christianity, which is odd given that the school as originally founded was operated under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  It would be one thing if Vanderbilt were telling an atheist student he can’t have an atheist student association because of his (in this case non-) religious beliefs.  But what Vanderbilt is saying with CLS is that not only does the atheist have the right to participate in a student organization, he has the right to become the leader of their specific organization despite affirmatively rejecting everything that organization exists to promote.  In essence, Vanderbilt’s position to CLS is: You can have your Christian organization, you just can’t make it Christian—a message it doesn’t send to other organizations.

So to my friends in Nashville I would pose this question:  "Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but not perceive the wooden beam in your own?" 

Ankylus: Your comment the other day somehow got lost in the system during the moderating process.  My apologies.  Please feel free to re-submit.  RDW

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