Liberté, Égalité, Fratenité #3
|The other anniversary today is of course the birth of Satyagraha, exactly one hundred years ago today. Satyagrapha was the method of non-violent resistance employed by Gandhi and friends against apertheid in South Africa and which eventually suceeded in outing the British Raj from India. The basic principles can be found here, the Wikipedia entry needs some cleaning up. And if you're really keen, you can read the entire book Satyagrapha in South Africa by Mahatma Gandhi on-line at the Official Mahatma Gandhi Archive.|
Thought it worth a mention. And so continue my ramblings on the interaction between liberalism and egalitarianism. As I said a few weeks ago, the vast majority of issues facing disadvantaged groups in the UK involve a lack of positive freedom. Today I am going to use the example of disabled people.
It is unusual for disabled people to be enslaved in any way, but most of us have some difficulty being the masters of our own fortunes to the same degree as non-disabled people. In other words, it is not that there is (usually) anybody actively preventing us from living independently, getting jobs, having families and so on. But society often denies us the positive freedom to do so.
I am not talking about some strange utopia where the ladders on fire engines are made accessible for wheelchair-users. However, a related example: The fire-fighter Simon Hawkins did not return to active duties following a below the knee amputation. He regained his fitness, but because of his impairment, it was not considered that he would be able to go back to doing the job he used to do.
Now when I first read about this, I am sure the article I read referenced the Disability Discrimination Act and explained that following the Act coming into play last October, the Fire Service were effectively forced to allow Mr Hawkins the opportunity to prove that he still has the physical capacity to be a fire-fighter. However, I cannot find such an article and I wouldn't want to falsely accuse the Fire Service of being less than enthusiastic about Mr Hawkin's ambitions. But anyway, his family, friends and colleagues raised money for a state-of-the-art prosthetic and he did prove himself just as capable of doing his old job as ever he was. So now we have our first amputee fire-fighter in the UK, perhaps the first in Europe.
That's what I am talking about when I talk about to positive freedom. There was no rule that said amputatees are not allowed to be fire-fighters - there are rules about the physical capacities necessary to be a fire-fighter, but these are perfectly sensible. However, a few years ago it seems unlikely that Mr Hawkins would be even given the chance. But he was, and as a result he is (presumably) doing the job he loves and making a tremendous contribution to society.
Education is another very important issue in the positive freedom of disabled people. Education is one of the most important positive freedoms that exist; rarely are people actively prevented from getting an adequate education, but a failure to provide an education for a person effectively denies them all number of opportunities for personal development, lifestyle choices, income and all sorts, for life. And a lot of disabled people experience exactly that to a greater or lesser extent.
And just being made to feel like you are less than other people, or that your life is worth less than the lives of others is a pretty major infringement on positive freedom. But of course, you cannot directly legislate about how people are made to feel.
So, what to do? One way of solving this would be to take over the country with me as benign dictator, and I could put in all sorts of legislation which would begin to make things fairer for disabled people. Eliminating certain words from our language in the hope of eliminating the accompanying concepts would be double-plus good. Banning certain books and films which portray disabled people in a less than positive light would at least relieve us of The Da Vinci Code...
More seriously, how about positive discrimination which meant that disabled people occupied a representative one in seven posts in government and public service broadcasting? How about vigorous auditing of big businesses to make sure that they are doing everything within their power to employ and serve disabled people? How about moving the Disability Discrimination Act from civil to criminal law, making it a criminal offence to fail to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people?
Draconian rules would be effective, at least in the short term, in massively increasing the positive freedom of disabled people. But at the cost of a disproportional infringement upon the negative freedom of everyone. Society would have missed out on the opportunity for genuine development.
The truth is that at this stage in our history, society does not want to stop discriminating against disabled people. The argument is yet to be won. And coercion does not win arguments.
However, what the Disability Discrimination Act and other existing anti-discrimination legislation does do is to force people to listen to the argument. To me, this represents a tiny chink in our negative freedom which results in a significant increase in the positive freedom of disabled people in the short term and a tremendous increase in positive freedom in the long term. Nobody is forced to employ anybody, but for every disabled person who finds it easier to get a job now, you have another visable example in the workforce of how there’s nothing problematic about employing disabled people. This, in turn, will make it much easier for many more disabled people to get jobs in the future.
Similarly for every other hurdle disabled people face which can actually be touched by such legislation. Eventually of course, these knock-on effects should have supplanted the need for this small print in employment, commercial and planning law.
And this represents the relatively small proportion of the problem we face which can be dealt with through the law.
The rest, alas, is kind of up to us. We have to win the argument.