(Quick reminder about this blog series, so as to avoid misunderstandings: I don’t want to imply that human rights are nonsense; regular readers know that the purpose of this blog is quite the opposite. What I want to do with the posts in this series is to point to the ways in which the language of human rights is used to push nonsense. Burdening the system of human rights with frivolous demands, exaggerated problems, wrong priorities and silly talk only turns human rights into a less nobel cause, easily disparaged by those who have an interest in rights violations).
It’s a fact that taller people make more money than short people, with an additional inch of height adding about 2 percent to income in the U.S. (source, source). Even among female identical twins (whose heights can differ more than you might expect), the taller sister earns, on average, substantially more than the shorter (source).
Moreover, taller people live better lives, at least on average. They evaluate their lives more favorably, and they are more likely to report a range of positive emotions, like enjoyment and happiness (source). They are also less likely to report a range of negative experiences, like sadness and physical pain (source, source, source). From 1904 to 1984, the taller candidate won the U.S. presidential elections 80% of the time, and only two presidents in the entire history of the United States have been shorter than the nation’s average height at the time of their presidencies (currently that’s 5.9ft) (source).
height of U.S. presidents
There is no denying that we place a high premium on height, be it social, sexual, or economic, and our preference for height pervades almost every aspect of our lives. Isaac B. Rosenberg (source)
The bias towards tallness and against shortness is one of society’s most blatant and forgiven prejudices. John Kenneth Galbraith, 6.8ft.
The term heightism was coined to describe discrimination based on people’s height, and some propose to include it in antidiscrimination legislation. Others go even further: a special “height tax“.
As in the case of ageism, I don’t claim that there cannot be height discrimination. Very short people are often treated badly simply because they are short. There are still some who believe - often without being fully aware of it – that short stature is an inferior trait and therefore undesirable, and as a result they view short people as inferior human beings, or perhaps even not fully human. This is despicable. If this view leads to discrimination against people on the basis of their height (or rather lack of it) then something must be done about it. Nor do I deny that some people suffer psychologically from their (perceived) lack of height, and sometimes engage in self-mutilation in order to do something about it.
What I do claim here – as in the case of ageism – is that things tend to get blown out of proportion. Is the income differential between people of normal height and slightly taller people really an instance of discrimination? Do we really believe that employers make a conscious choice to pay taller people more? Of course, discrimination doesn’t have to be conscious discrimination. But before you get all worked up about discrimination and launch proposals for legislation and government action, it’s good to consider the possibility that we are dealing with another case of the “omitted variable bias” here. Taller people don’t get paid more because they are taller, but because they (seem to) possess other valuable characteristics, such as self-esteem and positive self-image.
Tall men who were short in high school earn like short men, while short men who were tall in high school earn like tall men. That pretty much rules out discrimination. It’s hard to imagine how or why employers could discriminate in favor of past height. … Tall high-school kids learn to think of themselves as leaders, and that habit of thought persists even when the kids stop growing. (source, source)
Adolescence is a formative period for self-esteem, and when you’re tall in adolescence, you build up self-esteem and a positive self-image, something which will be rewarded in your adult professional life.
For the most part American employers probably aren’t discriminating based on height. They’re “discriminating” based on qualities that tallness seems to encourage. (source)
So it’s not heightism, yet it is discrimination none the less. But perhaps I could ask to focus our attention on other types of rights violations, many of which are much more common and harmful. Our planet is plagued by extreme poverty, famine, war, genocide, terrorism, torture and dictatorship. We can turn to heightism when we’re finished with that. But of course, I’m biased. I’m 6.3 ft, and I would certainly suffer from pro-short affirmative action if such a policy would ever be proposed. So I would dismiss it as “nonsense”, wouldn’t I?
More posts in this series.