In Leonard Cohen’s song Chelsea Hotel, there is a line that goes:
She told me again she preferred handsome men, but for me she would make an exception.
The song is about Janis Joplin, who had a brief encounter with Cohen in the hotel. What the line shows is that Joplin tended to discriminate against men she didn’t consider handsome.
Discrimination is a part of life. Indeed, I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t discriminate in one way or another. When it comes to choosing a partner, whether for life or a brief encounter, discrimination is rampant.
It is also found in politics. My mother once told me she voted for a particular party because she thought the eyes of the leader of the other side were too close together. She would have agreed with Janis Joplin.
As a senator, my concern is whether this should matter to governments. Should we be left alone to discriminate as we like, or should certain types of discrimination be prohibited? If we are to prohibit certain types of discrimination, is there a rational basis for deciding what they are, and how might we prevent such prohibition becoming an unwarranted intrusion into our lives?
There is no doubt that some forms of discrimination are abhorrent. Many years ago I spent several months living and working in South Africa. It was during the apartheid era, when blacks, whites and ‘coloureds’ were supposedly living separate parallel lives. There were separate buses and bus stops, public toilets, post office entrances and residential zones, all determined by race.
Such discrimination is now prohibited, and overt manifestations of apartheid are long gone. Nonetheless, there are still predominantly black, white and coloured residential areas in today’s South Africa; people still like to live among those with whom they feel most comfortable. In other words, they discriminate.
Apartheid was a government policy, imposed by force of law. Choosing to continue living in particular areas is not. The difference is very significant.
In Australia it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, age, disability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, intersex status, transgender status, carer responsibilities, marital or relationship status, pregnancy, breastfeeding, family responsibilities, religion, political opinion, social origin, medical record, criminal record and trade union activity.
Such prohibitions apply to employment, education, access to premises, provision of goods, services or facilities, accommodation, clubs, sport and requests for information.
Depending on how she defined handsome, a woman with Joplin’s taste in men might only be unaffected if she didn’t charge for her favours.
The laws apply to both government and non-government activities. And yet, discrimination by the government is not the same as discrimination by the private sector. When the government favours certain types of people more than others, it is contrary to the principle of equality before the law. This is not something we should welcome – we do not want a country in which some people are more equal than others.
Preventing certain types of discrimination when the government is not involved is a different matter. Many restrictions are based on nothing more than disapproval, and designed to do no more than avoid hurt feelings. This is no more legitimate than laws that restrict speech that might insult or offend. Governments are there to protect our life, liberty and property, not our feelings.
What difference would it make if we abolished all discrimination laws that apply outside of government? Would there be a rush of organisations refusing to serve or employ people based on their gender, sexual preference, race or religion?
Suppose some did take that approach; for how long would they stay in business? Wouldn’t the rest of us find it obnoxious and stay away? Wouldn’t other businesses step in?
The assumption behind anti-discrimination laws is that they change the way we think; that if discriminating against people based on their gender, race or sexual preference is illegal, we will not secretly want to do it.
There is no evidence for this, just as there is no evidence that prohibitions on offensive speech lead to changed attitudes. If Joplin had been prohibited from discriminating in favour of handsome men, would she have chosen differently?
We all discriminate when we make choices, in how we conduct ourselves and the company we keep. It’s part of life, and not something the government should be concerned with.
David Leyonhjelm is a senator for the Liberal Democrats