[VIEWPOINT]The many sides of discrimination

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[VIEWPOINT]The many sides of discrimination

Han Wan-sang, deputy prime minister for education, last month proposed that employers drop educational background on job application forms. The proposal is to rid Korea of the practice of using an educational pedigree as one of the most important tools in judging a person's qualifications.

I believe Mr. Han's suggestion, which has sent small ripples through the administration, was more of an eruption of an egalitarian attitude that has been flowing through Korean society for some time, rather than an out-of-the-blue idea from a policy-obsessed minister.

Every human being on this planet wants to live in equality. In fact, freedom and equality are the two greatest ideals that humanity has ever harbored.

The irony is that these ideals inherently contradict each other.

Why? Because people are bound to be unequal if they are given unrestricted freedom. Each person on the globe has different talents, capabilities, personalities and family backgrounds.

If all people are given unlimited freedom, that will inevitably generate inequality. In other words, some people will live well, while others will suffer from poverty.

If inequality prevails beyond an acceptable level, the government should intervene and try to narrow the gap. To secure equality, freedom should be restricted to a certain degree. But I also believe there should be limitations in how much that freedom is restricted.

History has taught us that the more liberty that is taken away from people, the more that a pie meant for all people to share will shrink. If freedom is completely restricted, as it is in communist countries, everybody would go bankrupt.

Then how much liberty should be given up for equality? What is genuine equality? These are questions that countries around the world have pondered for a long time.

The United States can be said to be a prominent contemplator, because racial inequality and income gap has always been serious problems in the country. Thus the United States was pushed to test the ideal ratio of freedom and equality. The U.S. Supreme Court laboriously contemplated the issue, and came up with the following answers.

First, to "discriminate" does not necessarily mean to damage equality. In other words, "evening out" does not always mean "making equal."

Compensating someone who produced 5 handbags and someone else who made 10 with $5 each may seem equal in the eyes of the producer of 5 handbags, but not to the person who made 10. Discriminating by giving $5 to someone who produced 5 handbags and giving $10 to the person who produced 10 is more fair.

Well-grounded discrimination is necessary for the development of society, the U.S. Supreme Court argued. If we do not discriminate, who would make an effort to improve? Students with good grades go to better schools and outstanding workers are paid more wages, both of which are the result of discrimination. But those are examples of virtuous discrimination, the Supreme Court said. That kind of discrimination drives people to work harder.

That does not mean that we can discriminate against people infinitely. The Supreme Court said it is unacceptable to discriminate against people based on reasons that cannot be changed no matter how much effort people make. For example, blacks cannot become white regardless of the effort they make. By the same token, women cannot become men, and the old cannot turn younger. So discriminating based on ethnicity, gender or age is fundamentally unfair, and thus violates constitutional equality, the Supreme Court concluded. But other well-grounded discrimination does not go against equality, which is a theory that also applies to Korea's Constitution.

In Korea, misunderstanding equality is prevalent in every sector of society, whether it be labor, business, education or medicine. Another of society's ills is that people confuse equality and fairness, and they tend to connect discrimination to egalitarianism. Equality should be brought to question when we discriminate against people based on their gender, age, ethnicity or hometown. It would seem our civic freedom might be too restricted because of our incomplete egalitarianism.


The writer is a professor of law at Sejong University.

by Junn Sung-chull

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