Lecture 1: Discriminatory practice as violation of rights

During our psychosocial development, we human beings develop our self-identity: “the totality of one's self-construal” (Peter Weinreich, ‎Wendy Saunderson; 2005). The term was introduced by Erik Erikson in the 1960s when he described the development of self-identity as the result of the identity crisis adolescents experience. “Identity means a conscious and unconscious assignment of oneself with big and small groups basing on some criteria” (Pavlov 2015). "Glossary of sociolinguistic terms" specifies that one should share norms and values with the group he or she identifies (Glossary 2006). Sex and gender, race and nationality (ethnicity), class and religion, as well as profession are basic elements in formation of identity (Pavlov 2015).

Following Erikson’s approach, Erving Goffman's theory introduces the concept of virtual identity, stating that there are “certain assumptions as to what the individual before us ought to be” (Erving Goffman, 1963, 2009). The gap between actual identity and virtual identity creates a special phenomenon that Goffman called “social stigma”.


Social stigma and discrimination


When we encounter a stranger, we can observe several aspects of his or her identity, but other aspects are constructed by the observer based on previous experience, social knowledge and beliefs and prejudices. Aspects of actual identity can contrast with constructed virtual identity if some attributes contradict with the observer’s expectations. The stranger “is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one” (Goffman 1963).

Discrimination is closely related to the concept of social stigma. One of the definitions provided by Cambridge Dictionaries Online for discrimination reads as follows: “the ability to judge the quality of something based on its difference from other, similar things”. Neil Thompson, author of the “Anti-Discriminatory Practice: Equality, Diversity and Social Justice” (having now reached the sixth edition!) states that “treating unique individuals as if they were simply non-specific examples of social categories” is one of the “disastrous” but “common traps” of discriminatory practice.

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari points out that Homo Sapiens historically won a bitter rivalry with other species of the genus Homo (2011). Quite possibly the roots of discrimination and xenophobia can be connected to this rivalry aspect, but it does not explain why human beings tend to evaluate strangers by setting them in categories.

American historian Michael Shermer’s explanation elaborates on the key concept of patternicity – the human ability “to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data” (Shermer, 2011). The negativity bias of the patterns was crucial for survival but nowadays we also prefer negative patterns in cases that do not have such a dramatic impact. Such phenomena as stereotypes are also based on patternicity.

In social-stigma cases, people prescribe negative evaluations not to the actions of a human but to the personality of a human being. Obviously this approach undervalues the possibility to influence one’s actions and assumes that the only way to tackle potential consequences is to exclude the human being from society. People fail “to recognize that individuals are unique partly because of the diversity of the social context that plays a part in shaping all of our experiences.” (Thompson, 2016)

Humans invented discrimination as a tool for explaining and reproducing power relations in the community. Here we understand power as control over access to resources (e.g. works by Harvard Professor Gita Sen). A long time ago a human being could only survive within a team of other human beings and collective needs were very close to the needs they all had in trying to survive in a hostile and wild world. Members of a human collective were judged by their contribution to the common cause. Discriminatory practice refers to these ancient relations between people, but why is this practice reproduced so much later in time?

Discrimination is based on narratives. The ability to unite people with an abstract idea allowed our ancestors to win the competition over other species of the Homo genus. Evolution made stories high-powered. Famous sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman found the clearest formula to explain how the social order is reproduced over generations:

The original meaning of the institutions is inaccessible to them [children] in terms of memory. It, therefore, becomes necessary to interpret this meaning to them in various legitimating formulas. These will have to be consistent and comprehensive in terms of the institutional order if they are to carry conviction to the new generation. The same story, so to speak, must be told to all the children. It follows that the expanding institutional order develops a corresponding canopy of legitimations, stretching over it a protective cover of both cognitive and normative interpretation. These legitimations are learned by the new generation during the same process that socializes them into the institutional order. (Berger and Luckman)

Narratives are not only the tool used to gain and retain power, they directly represent power relations. “How the stories are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person,” says Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.


Mass media reproduce social stigma 


When mass media render and reproduce the marginalised image of social groups, they create one-sided images of the members of this group and therefore we can say that the mass media reproduce social stigmas. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called this phenomenon the “danger of a single story”. In her talk at the TED conference, she shared her personal story of being stigmatised and concluded: “My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals”.

This feeling of pity is common for journalists who want to raise awareness of the daily life of minorities and provide a different view on their problems.

For example, the Russian online media outlet The Village (lifestyle, promoting basic liberal values) published a series of stories entitled “League of Nations” about different diasporas in St. Petersburg. Claiming that some African refugees “use St. Petersburg as a transit point”, the author continues: “Most recently, several natives who were detained at customs did not have a Schengen visa in their passports, the existence of which they simply had not guessed at.”

“We must consider each situation in its own right, rather than apply general principles in an oversimplified and dogmatic way. We must not make assumptions about ‘men’ or ‘black people’ or ‘disabled people’ or ‘Welsh speakers’, but rather consider each unique individual in the context of what we know of the influences and implications of these broad categories and their sociological significance – to link the social level of context to the personal level of unique individual experience.” (Thompson, 2016)

This approach was demonstrated in the series of publications entitled “Shameful questions” created by the Russian online media outlet Meduza (generalist quality daily). In a short paragraph about LGBT activism the author articulates:

The task of the LGBT community is not to "propagate" homosexuality, but to fight for the same right to be accepted in society, in the same way as heterosexuals. Put simply, they are looking for the opportunity to be themselves, not hiding and not ashamed. These are the simplest things that are available to heterosexuals: to hold hands in public, publish photos of the couple on Facebook, marry and adopt children, to not feel the need to hide their personal life and partner from colleagues or parents as something shameful.


Discrimination is an attack against the very idea of human rights 


This key idea that diversity is a norm and every human has a right to be themselves underpins the entire human rights system. As Amnesty International puts it explicitly and expressly:

Discrimination is an attack against the very idea of human rights. This is a systematic denial of the full range of rights to individuals and entire categories of people because of who they are and what opinions they hold. It is extremely easy for a person to be refused rights if we consider him to be "subhuman".

Therefore, the principle of prohibition of discrimination is based on international human rights law. The authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly stated that they consider the principle of non-discrimination to be the fundamental idea of the document.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by UN, states that:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (Article 2)

Hence, if one is treated in terms of rights and freedoms with distinction, then this person is being discriminated against. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights addresses this especially in Article 7:

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Discrimination means “the treatment of a person or particular group of people differently, in a way that is worse than the way people are usually treated”, but it also manifests itself in “prejudice against people” and in “refusal to give them their rights” (Cambridge Dictionaries).

“To use the technical term, a person or group “suffers a detriment” (that is, experiences a disadvantage) because they are identified as “different” in ways that are deemed to be socially or politically significant.” (Thompson, 2016)

Following the UN Declaration, other countries adopted these sanctions on discriminatory practice and embedded them in their domestic law. In Russia, for example, the Article against discrimination was included in the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses in 2011. It defines discrimination as the “violation of the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of a person and citizen, depending on his gender, race, colour, nationality, language, origin, property, family, social and official status, age, place of residence, attitude to religion, beliefs, belonging or not belonging to public associations or to any social groups” and prescribes administrative monetary penalties. At the same time, the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation punishes “the incitement of hatred or enmity, as well as the humiliation of human dignity”. Discriminatory practice is also listed as a subject of the Russian Federation’s Federal Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity, namely:

  • the incitement of social, racial, ethnic or religious hatred;
  • propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of a person on the grounds of his social, racial, national, religious or linguistic affiliation or attitude towards religion;
  • violation of the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of a person and citizen, depending on their social, racial, national, religious or linguistic affiliation or attitude towards religion.


The students are now ready for the second part of the session.


Anna Smolyarova, Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communications St. Petersburg State University (Russia)

An online manual on intercultural understanding, ethics and human rights to be used by teachers and students in journalism education. Read more.

Email : post@journalism-edu.org

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