A difference without a distinction?

Yesterday, I brought up the subject of hate crime laws. I expressed my distaste for them, and a host of people all chimed in. I found the arguments on both sides pretty compelling, and didn’t find my position had shifted much.

Until I read Bat One’s. That one sold me.

I’ve always been fascinated with math. One of the reasons is that, in most cases, it’s black and white. Something is correct or it is not. There are very few nuances, shades of gray, and conditionals in math. And applying mathematical principles to political and social issues has been a great boon to my decision-making.

For example, in the area of affirmative action, as I recall the Michigan Law School case, the score needed for admission was 100. Minorities were automatically given 20 points for simply being minorities (more points than perfect SATs were worth, as I recall). I wondered at the time what people’s opinion would be if the minimum score was lowered to 80 — but any non-minority was docked 20 points, while minorities were exempt. In practical terms, the standings were unchanged. Mathematically speaking, it makes no difference if you add 20 points to one set, or subtract 20 points from another — it will not affect the order in the least. But how would if affect people’s opinion if instead of tacitly punishing one group, by denying them a benefit granted others, was made explicit? In my case, it’s enough to sell me.

Likewise, Bat did the exact same thing with hate crime laws, and I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it first. Instead of making it an additional crime to beat someone because they’re gay, why not simply ratchet up the penalty for assault, then allow the victim’s status to serve as a mitigating factor? “Your honor, my client did beat the crap out of Mr. Jones, sending him to the hospital, but Mr. Jones is a heterosexual white male, and my client was merely upset that Mr. Jones had spilled a drink on him. I’d like that to be taken into account, and have his sentence reduced accordingly.”

Mathematically, it makes no difference. The end result is the same — those that commit a crime out of a sense of discrimination or hatred of a group or class will serve longer sentences. The only thing changed is the way the sentence is calculated.

And as the only saying goes, a difference that makes no difference is no difference.

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  1. SilverBubble February 3, 2006
  2. Phinn February 3, 2006