If two words can make it impossible to have a rational discussion, those two words are "civil rights."

Many - if not most - of those reacting against President Bush's veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990 have no real knowledge of its provisions or its consequences. All they know are the words "civil rights."Once these words had a clear-cut meaning - when the ordinary rights of civil government were denied by law to blacks and others. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s aimed at making these rights equally available to all.

That has long ago ceased to be the meaning of those words. Today "civil rights" has become a political label for all kinds of laws and policies, applying to all kinds of groups - to homosexuals, the elderly and the handicapped, as well as to various racial and ethnic minorities, and to women.

Such laws and policies are discussed in the political language of Newspeak, where "equal opportunity" means "preferential treatment." The word "discrimination" no longer means that someone was actually discriminated against but that employment statistics don't match what politicians and judges want to see.

While today's so-called "civil rights" policies are justified in the name of the disadvantaged, they benefit primarily the middle class. Preferential policies in fact apply to far more whites than blacks.

White women alone are more than three times as numerous as the entire U.S. black population. How can talking about the historic sufferings of blacks be used to justify preferential treatment of white middle-class women? Only politically.

It will be a tragic irony if policies benefiting primarily various segments of the white population lead to increased hostility toward blacks.

Backlashes are common features of "affirmative action" policies, whether in this country or in Australia, the Soviet Union or other countries where such policies exist. But no politicians seemed to notice.

They are looking at elections this November - and on how bad it will look if they vote against a bill with the words "civil rights" in its title. Few are likely to read past the title to what the law actually does.

The key thing that the Civil Rights Act of 1990 does is to restore statistics to a crucial position in determining whether or not employment discrimination has occurred. In recent years, judges have finally begun to recognize that statistics are too shaky to be used by themselves as proof of anything.

Unless some human being could be shown to have been discriminated against, judges have become reluctant to award big damages and big attorney's fees. The Civil Rights Act of 1990 overruled the courts, including the Supreme Court, and restored a happy hunting ground for attorneys and statisticians.

None of this was likely to help disadvantaged minorities, except for those few who are lawyers or other professionals in the various establishments dealing with racial or ethnic issues. Yet the issue has been presented in politics and the media as if it is a case of minorities vs. employers.

But employers have had many ways to minimize the damage. Hiring by quotas is the most obvious. Businesses can also locate new plants or offices far from concentrations of minority populations, as some informed people believe they are already starting to do.

It is not what the Civil Rights Act of 1990 would do to employers, but what it will do to the society, that made a presidential veto essential. Even nations with a better history of race relations than the United States have been torn apart by policies aimed at statistical "balance."