academic, ideas & perspectives, Philosophy

writing || The Problems with Affirmative Action

This was a short essay for my grade 12 politics class. It had to be about a controversial topic, so I chose affirmative action and argued against it.

Equality for everyone – regardless of race, sex, appearance, ability, and social status is perhaps the largest social campaign currently influencing the news, social media, and even our legislation. We are encouraged not only to treat others equally, but to hire and admit according to disadvantages others are either born with or faced with as a result of societal discrimination.

Affirmative action laws, which were first set into motion by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, exist in various forms in many developed nations – including the United States and Canada. They are a set of policies and legislation intended to correct discrimination towards disadvantaged groups in society such as women, Aboriginals, the disabled, and visible minorities. The problem with these laws is twofold.

First: although all life is equal, life itself is not. This is one of the beauties of a diverse biological planet. Not every human is born into the same conditions as everyone else, and although it is a symbol of a progressive society to embrace disability or personal difficulty, and provide support to overcome it, what is ultimately important is how much a person can contribute to society AFTER educating themselves to have the necessary skills.

If a lower-class woman wants to pursue the law, she should have access to the education she needs with the help of a social support system. But if a fellow candidate is more skilled for the job, why should her potential contribution to society be “adjusted” (in this case, increased) to account for the conditions she was born into?  Employment should be merit-based. Not only does it lead to a more productive society, but it is only fair.

Second: affirmative action measures are the wrong response to problems of inequality because they do not target the root causes. In fact, they can even make things worse.

As a female who has been interested in computer science for a few years, I am well aware of the backwards effect of affirmative action. Last year, I participated in a team coding contest where a maximum of three co-ed teams and one women’s team could be sent per school. The three other female coders interested in the competition and I were immediately encouraged to choose the all-female division. We were “more likely to win” that way. Sure enough, we won first place in our division. And fourth place overall. Yet, not only were we not announced as winners at the end of the competition, but we weren’t given the medals that the first place co-ed (though it really was all-boys) team received. What was the point of creating a separate category so we could win among women, when our division was not considered equal to our male counterparts’ division? To top it off, the astonished congratulations we received afterwards that, against all womanly odds, we beat some 10 all-male teams to come fourth overall were discrediting and even insulting. What a surprise, indeed! In sports, it makes sense – asking a female weightlifter to compete with a male one is unfair. But when it comes to something as purely academic and skill-based as coding, we don’t need another category. We don’t want to win because we’re female. We want to win because we’re good coders.

In the same way, affirmative action diminishes the value of merit and hard work. It leads members of the selected groups to question whether they got the job or the acceptance because of their value or their race or sex, as is implicitly suggested by the existence of such laws.

Not to mention that attributes like race and sex, though determined at birth, do not in any way directly correlate to ability or success. Those outcomes are entirely dependent on what an individual makes of his or her own life. Which lends the question: why does the law continue to generalize by assuming a disadvantage is inherently present when confronted  with people of a different makeup from the “general majority” – which (in the Western world) has been determined to be white and male?

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