IT IS FITTING that it is in Washington, D.C., the seat of the federal law of this country, that two attempts are being made, simultaneously but coincidentally, to abuse that law, to push it to extremes, to carry it to a reductio ad absurdum .

First, a handful of law students are threatening an action agaist some of the posh restaurants in the city. Their complaint is that these restaurants will not permit their male customers to dress only in shirts and pants, but are quite ready to admit (as customers or guests) women who are so dressed. This is an obvious case, say the law students, of discrimination against men.

Secondly, the third attempt is now being made to open the membership of the Cosmos Club to women. It has already opened its front door to them; when they are guests, they no longer have to use the back door. I would have thought that this is "progress" enough for a club that is 101 years old. But, no! There are John Gardner -- who else? -- and Arthur Goldberg -- who else? -- leading the cause. They want to open even the bedrooms to women.

These are only the most recent efforts in a persistent trivializing of the cause of civil rights. A legal and political principle, designed to end discrimination which causes genuine injustice or suffering, is turned into a childish game. Discrimination is offensive to the law when it is used against people in public places on grounds of characteristics they are unable to change, such as their race or their sex. This applies in neither of these cases.

A restaurant is rightly regarded in law as a public place, since it is offering its services to the public in general. But there is no reason why a restaurant should not impose a dress code which pleases and attracts the kind of customers it wants. A private club is not a public place. Its members have every right (this is the reason for clubs) to decide who they wish to be fellow members.

A dress code is a matter of personal taste. I am still puzzled when men come to my own dinner table with no jackets, although I feel differently if they ask if they may remove their jackets, but even then I still wish that they would wait until after the dessert. Part of the pleasure of a meal is that it is a ritual; after coffee it may be allowed to become a shambles.

I hasten to add to my more wayward friends that they are still welcome, although I may punish them, some particularly hot evening, by offering them one of my jackets of Harris tweed. One dresses the sole veronique in a coat of white sauce, dappled like the flanks of a doe, and I cannot see why they will not return the honor to it. This may be old-fashioned; I think it has some point.

But what is certainly true of very large numbers of people is that they do not like to go to a restaurant where the men are in shirtsleeves and shoveling the food into their mouths like navvies. Most people I know would in fact like more restaurants to impose a stricter dress code, which brings us to the issue of the male customer and his female guest who are both in shirts and pants.

Where is the difference? It really does not require much thought to find it. Jackets are not uniformly part of the conventional dress of women; they are uniformly part of the conventional dress of men. A woman who does not wear a jacket over her shirt is no more breaking a convention than if she does not wear one over her dress. A woman with no jacket is, so to speak, not making a statement.

But a man who does not wear a jacket where it is expected is making a statement, and that statement is usually that he does not care or will not take the trouble. He is breaking a convention. He is saying that he will do what he wishes, whether it offends or distracts others or not. It is also true that men are commonly much worse slobs than women; when they remove their jackets, they are more likely to behave as if in the grungiest bar in town.

What worries the law students is that the man and woman in their shirts and pants are dressed alike -- when in fact, by convention they are not -- but as an argument that leads one to consider some of the grave possibilities that could result. Suppose that the man chooses to present himself at the restaurant in a dress with a female guest who is also wearing a dress. They are dressed alike. They are equal.

It will surely be admitted that some of the other customers and guests in the restaurant would choke over their coquilles St. Jacques, or let the garlic butter from their escargots dribble down their Brooks Brothers suits, or simply collapse into their bouillabaisse and drown at the table.Yet by the argument of the law students, the restaurant must admit the man in the dress, and lose its usual customers as a result.

In pursuit of their abstract principle of equality, the law students in fact do not go far enough. There is no way of imposing that equality without enforced busing between restaurants. Outside the Sans Souci and Il Giardino, the Rive Gauche and the Lion d'Or, will stand fancy yellow buses each evening. Lights will twinkle over the warning at the rear: "Caution. Restaurant Bus."

The headwaiters will be on the telephone to each other at each seating. "Ah! Mario! Roberto here! We have two male shirts-and-pants too many. I need two female shirts-and-pants, and can send you two female dresses-decolletes . . . You have only male dresses-decolletes? That's no help. We're full of them tonight . . ." But at last the sleek yellow buses will purr through the streets, swapping their patrons until an exact equality of dress has been achieved. Discrimination will have suffered another defeat.

You think that this is fantasy? This is what 1984 will be like if we go on like this, more eerie than what Orwell imagined. And the liberals wonder why they are decisively repudiated, when they take their own thoroughly good truths and principles, and abuse them and make them irksome and at last ridiculous.

What is more, even if the law students had their way, it would mean only that other barriers would be raised, to make the same discriminations. Some bars which wish to rid themselves of the young crowd, who can sit on bar stools for three hours sipping one pina colada, simply do not make or serve drinks which need a blender. "Two strawberry daiquiris, please." "We don't make blender drinks, sorry." They can't be accused of discrimination, but the purpose has been achieved. The scotch drinkers can sit down.

If women are admitted to men's clubs, similarly, the men who dislike it will just form another club, and if women are then admitted to it, the men . . . There is no reason why men or women should not have their own places, as well as places where both can go together. There is such a thing as male company; there is such a thing as female company; there is such a thing as mixed company.

All of these can be utterly delightful; part of their delight is their differences. Their differences are not discrimination; they all have their appropriate places. The point should hardly need making. None of us uses only one language. We do not speak in the same way -- we may not even use quite the same vocabularies -- to everyone whom we encounter. They are varied; we are varied.

We use one language with our own sex; we use another language with the opposite sex -- not all the time in the ordinary course of a day, but often (and rightly) enough for it to matter. It will confuse and in the end stifle all our languages if we do not enjoy the differences.

The argument for admitting women to the Cosmos Club comes down to so banal a level. Its members can stay there. Some in fact live there. Those who do stay share the bathrooms. Women could use these bathrooms, say those who advocate their admission to the club, "in the same way as in motels and hotels in which not all rooms are equipped with bath and toilet." Yes, they could; of course, they could.

But a club is not, and is not meant to be, a motel or hotel. That is why people form clubs and join them. It simply is rather pleasant early in the morning, or late at night, to go to the bathroom without having to wonder too much if one is too carelessly robed. What one's own sex can accept as mere casualness, as one tramps around with one's eyes half open, the opposite sex may well see as deliberate provocation.

The inevitable next step would be that we would read of cases of sexual harassment in the bathrooms of the Cosmos Club, merely because some dithering Nobel Prize winner had not closed his pajamas properly and so affrighted a lady. That would be a story worth bringing from the Metro section to the front page: Nobel Physicist Accused of Sexual Harrassment in Cosmos Club Bathroom . He had merely forgotten his drawers.

There would have to be new rules; more rules; rules on bathroom doors. And there would have to be locks. It is my experience of clubs such as the Cosmos -- of which I am not a member -- that their accommodations are pleasantly tacky. They certainly do not have efficient locks to their bedrooms or bathrooms. One may be lounging in one of their baths when an old buffer comes in, and when he at last notices one in one's bath he exclaims, "Upon my soul!" It would not be quite the same -- now, would it? -- if it were a woman professor from Radcliffe.

I have never understood, anyhow, why women want to get into these men's places. I would not recommend the Cosmos Club as a barrel of fun, much though I like to be taken there for some sedate occasion. The famous man's clubs in London are places of elegant squalor and torpor.

There is the famous story of the gentleman in the Reform Club who was left dozing behind his copy of The Times for two days and nights, until a club servent who was dusting him off realized that he was dead. The idea that the conversation of men at a bar is revelry of intellectual force, wit and imagination is an illusion which only they sustain in their cups.

So why try to get in? Why wish to clean it up? The men are happy in their grime and guffaws. Why try to civilize them? They are the only barbarians we have. And let them put on a jacket, when they are at last perpared to be civil, and to enjoy what is other than them. We are not much, ladies, I agree, but we're the only men you've got; let us be, sometimes, alone. Is that not our civil right as well?