Descriptions and Discrimination

I am (at time of writing) about three-quarters of the way through Pete Buttigieg's book, Shortest Way Home. It is a fairly typical autobiographical political-personality sales-pitch book, along the lines of Obama's Audacity of Hope, or any other ordinary meet-the-candidate autobiograohy intended to give reading Americans a happy, optimistic, faux-personal view of a man with future political ambitions. Despite my cynical outlook on the whole genre, there is a lot in the book to like. Buttigieg's technology-and-data driven vision of pragmatic, down-to-earth governance is The Right Thing To Do. Not only that, but he keeps that principle within it's limits: He includes a significant caveat about the limits to (merely) spending more money on IT as a solution to social ills. These two sides of the coin fit in comfortably with the (much needed) new cooperation of business and policy people with the know-how of research universities. If the book stopped there (and if Buttigieg was from my state), the author would have made a serious case for my vote, in some future American election.

Of course, the book didn't stop there, and this essay is unfortunately not about technology, education and government - it's about discrimination. After talking about his local experience, the author launches into national politics and the culture wars, where, even if his basic idea turns out in ultimately to be correct, his basic conduct of the debate is not honest.

Buttigieg is responding in the section to Indiana's (and Mike Pence's) "Religious Freedom Restoration Act." In doing so Buttigieg commits the same basic intellectual transgression as the law he is criticizing, and the same transgression as as its main supporters. The transgression is a failure to define terms.

Buttigieg, like his opponents, launches into the national culture wars over identity-politics, government-sanctioned beliefs/activities, and above all, discrimination, without beginning with definitions. This is not unusual, but this does not make it any less dishonest. It is dishonest to act as if a key word in a controversary has a shared definition, when it clearly does not. There is clearly (in the US) no well-recognized definition for what counts as discimination, and it appears that no major political entity wants a shared definition. To establish a clear definition for a word takes away your ability to use it as a term of abuse, just as much as it takes away your ability to hide from it, dance around it, and act innocent.

Definitions are pure light, little liked in a political atmosphere of pure heat.

Still, that a behavior is normal does not make it acceptable, and so I will attempt a brief