Whilst I've been writing all about privilege, the government have been talking about the new Equality Bill, which is suring up age-discrimination legislation and pay transparency. But the biggest story form this concerns a backwards step.
I guess the reporting of this story proves a point I'm about to make. What is being proposed is that rules about discrimination will be loosened up so that in some cases, people can discriminate between groups where discrimination has previously been illegal. The legislation will make it equally legal to discriminate in favour of men as in favour of women as it will vice versa (if this can be justified), but it has been presented as exclusively about promoting the interests of women and minority groups to the extent that even the Observer ran with Equality move could hit white men
There are a few different terms for this practice; in the UK it is generally called positive discrimination, but some people prefer the more euphemistic and American term of affirmative action. The Equality Minister, Harriet Harman, has opted to combine the two into positive action (full of meaning, that one). In any case, it is all very disappointing.
The only way to achieve equality is to win the argument. People think that a particular difference matters when it doesn't matter at all. Through the power of reason, the truth is revealed. Unfortunately, it is not just one argument that takes place at one point in time, after which everyone is convinced - if this were the case, we'd have eliminated every conceivable form of prejudice several millennia ago. So the argument must be made and repeated again and again. Even after societal consensus is achieved it bears repeating so that we remember why we behave as we do.
Legislation which outlaws discrimination supports this process in several ways. It raises the profile of the argument and provides an official line. Age discrimination now has official disapproval. It is also effective against the worse excesses of discrimination. The matter is taken more seriously because it is the law, as opposed to a nice idea, to treat people equally. And by enabling some people to get the jobs they deserved (or whatever else), it provides empirical evidence as to the wisdom of equality; look what these folks have achieved when just a short time ago they wouldn't have been given a chance.
However, legislation can only ever support this process. The more entrenched a prejudice is, the longer it takes and if society is fundamentally against a thing, it cannot work at all. And anyway, equality legislation is fantastically difficult to enforce; it is the civil law so affected individuals need to litigate to have their rights upheld. And unless the defendant has been very careless, discrimination in something like recruitment is almost impossible to prove; there are lots of subtle factors that can distinguish any two promising candidates. Excuses can often be found.
Positive discrimination actively stalls this process. One cannot argue that men and women should be treated equally and then choose a woman over a man because she is a woman. Any more than you might address sexual harassment in the workplace by making sure that male subordinates have their bottoms pinched on a regular basis.
So it's unfair and contrary to all arguments for equality and that's the most important objection. But it is also very dangerous.
Victimhood is the very first refuge of the bigot. Racism in post-Imperial Britain is all about victimhood; the outsider is allegedly invading, stealing our jobs, housing and resources, corrupting our young, conspiring against us, pushing their political agenda with undue influence. White people are treated like a minority in our own country and the language of racist movements is always about preserving an imaginary way of life, protecting white people as if they were the ones who were hard done by. Of course, many white people are hard done by, so it is only a small step to blaming their misfortune on an even more disadvantaged group.
The same applies to sexism; women are taking over the universe, becoming the oppressors of men. But the example of racism is a particularly important one because we know just how dangerous that is. Victims are justified in fighting back; victims are allowed to feel resentment and let that resentment build to a point where it has to come out. We saw that kind of mutual victimhood manifest in sectarian and racial violence in the UK throughout the twentieth century with deadly consequences.
Of course, enshrining real equality in the law is bound to piss off your true bigots; people said that things were going too far the other way when women first loosened their corsets. But, in the case of positive discrimination, the bigots get to be right for once.
Positive Discrimination is extremely rare in the UK because it has not been generally legal. Men and white people can sue and do sue for sexual and racial discrimination. In politics there have been a handful of experiments with all-women short-lists for certain posts. However, the mere concept has given many people the impression that things are being weighed against those with historic privilege. See the coverage of this news story.
This matters terribly because it stalls our progress towards equality. It provides a caricature of what egalitarianism is about – one that is totally and utterly contrary to what egalitarianism is about. It delights our detractors and alienates potential allies.
Finally, on a more personal note, I find Positive Discrimination enormously defeatist. Harriet Harman said of the proposals, "There might be controversy but you don't get progress if there isn't a bit of a push forward."
But this isn't forward. Frankly, if I believed that women and minority groups really couldn't achieve equality by other means, I'm be inclined to think we didn't deserve it.