Connor Kianpour, George State University
Discrimination has become a dirty word though it is something which, as human beings, we simply cannot avoid. Moreover, it is something at times that we whole-heartedly embrace. People welcome, and indeed sometimes encourage, the discriminatory practice of “voting with your feet” when certain business owners act reprehensibly or make known their questionable moral commitments. Why, then, can the state of Washington prohibit discrimination on the basis of one’s weight? Do individuals have a right to fat acceptance?
The Washington Supreme Court recently ruled that the state’s anti-discrimination law protects obese individuals from employment discrimination because obesity (regardless of its origin) falls under the purview of a disability. While some are amenable to obesity caused by an underlying physiological condition being categorized as a disability, many parts of the country have decided that obesity alone is not a classifiable disability.
People tend to overlook that many cases of obesity not caused by underlying physiological conditions can be explained in large part by the existence of psychiatric disorders. Despite this fact, it is not right that the state of Washington has prohibited discrimination on the basis of weight. Individuals do and ought to have a right to discriminate against others. While this seems radical and regressive on its surface, there is a strong sense in which respecting one’s right to discriminate is an expression of individualism and autonomy.
Many will argue that employment discrimination on the basis of race or sex are important to curtail because there ought not be barriers standing in the way of undeserving groups from pursuing their desired livelihoods. While there was a time at which this could have seriously alienated marginalized peoples, it appears as though private businesses would have great difficulty being outwardly and irrevocably discriminatory toward certain peoples. Racism is routinely called out, gender discrimination of any kind warrants public outcry, and fat-shaming is met with disgust and substantial media coverage.
This is not to say that marginalized peoples are without cause for complaint given the way they can be treated in this society. It does seem odd, however, that people find it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that people are not discriminated against when we acknowledge that discrimination is one of the most powerful tools that can be used for social change.
As consumers, we are afforded the privilege of expressing disapproval for business practices by discriminating against corporate establishments. Prejudices informed in large part by our personal values are used as the basis for treating certain businesses with contempt. We can choose not to patronize certain establishments and we can choose not to apply for jobs they may offer even if we have skill sets that would benefit them. Why is this behavior legally permissible, though, when it is impermissible to use prejudice as the foundation for hiring and selling practices as employers?
One of the dissenting opinions in the weight discrimination case out of Washington stated that the ruling was too broad with respect to what could be classified as a disability worthy of legal protection. The fact that this view exists is proof that reasonable people can have disagreements over what constitutes a legitimate instance of discrimination, given that discrimination is an inherently prejudicial and arbitrary enterprise. Furthermore, this speaks to the fact that the government has no place in paternalistically deciding who should be given consideration in matters of employment and for what reasons.
When we are stripped of our ability to discern, discriminate, and choose, — as employer or employee, as producer or consumer — we are subsequently being denied the ability to express our values. So, we may not have a political right to be accepted as we are under any and every circumstance, but we have the right to decide to fill our corners of the world with people, ideas, and establishments that do. Hopefully our laws and court rulings will begin to reflect the importance of this reality.