Monday, 5 April 2010

Balancing Equality With Justice

It has to be said the Equality Bill continues to cause controversy.

After a gay couple were turned away from a B&B in Cookham the tory party's shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling has been exposed as wishing to overturn anti-discrimination legislation thereby allowing guest-house owners to vet future clients.

But that ignores the service provided by the accomodation trade: they accomodate.

There is already a clear distinction between the public and the private spheres, so really this shouldn't be a cause of contention. Yet it does uncover an inherent instability created by the legislation passed to bring about greater equality.

When the laws were written they were designed to introduce the principles of Human Rights in tangible ways to prevent discrimination in a variety of areas. First came moves to ensure sexual and racial equality (which primarily affected employment laws), these were eventually followed by laws which made it a crime to discriminate on the grounds of physical ability, sexual orientation, religion/belief and age.

Which all sounds just perky on initial reading. But as all these laws were collected into its latest incarnation earlier this year it started to become clear that parliament has created a massive grey area by failing to explain what happens when these different rights come into competition with each other, which naturally gives rise to conflicts of interest.

For example, is the law against racial incitement at conflict with the right to free speech? Whose rights outweigh the others, and most importantly, how do we decide?

In effect the anti-discrimination legislation is forcing a choice upon us where society must decide upon a heirarchy of freedoms. The consequence of which is a wealth of confusion and anger as each group feel victimised by those they must defer to with a result that a sense of inequality grows. And we begin to see that action to ensure equality has the reverse effect!

So how do we find a way round this problem by balancing the competing rights to avoid official sanctioning of ill-treatment of people and the sense of victimisation that comes with it?

Equality on it's own simply isn't enough, we must use the balancing force of justice - at which point it becomes helpful to redefine discrimination into negative and positive forms so the law can be clearer about exactly what kind of behaviour it is trying to stop and what is to be encouraged.

Historically democracy has been underpinned by the secular demand for freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state, but when we hear the many vociferous proponents of anti-discrimination legislation using it to further atheist ideology we can start to see how it is no longer an attack on certain forms of 'undesirable' ideas, but on the very pluralism essential for effective democracy.

Rationalism is good in the public sphere and the policy-making process, but it's impossible to police the private sphere where millions of individual decisions are made every second. Furthermore, the consequence of trying is precisely the authoritarian Jacobinism Britain defeated when the Bill of Rights safeguarded the freedom of conscience in 1689 to pave the way for parliamentary democracy and the foundation of the modern secular state.

Which brings me back to the case at hand of a religiously-inclined owner of a B&B turning a gay couple away from her guesthouse, which also happens to be her family home.

In this case there really is no conflict because the boundaries between the public and private sphere have already been defined by the owner for tax purposes (as la Mortimer details). It is merely a matter of confusion caused by ignorance about how, where and when these apply in reality.

It could fairly be said that the Equality Bill is a well-intentioned way of putting us on the road to hell, but we can find diversion from this seeming inevitability without abandoning any hope of achieving a fairer, more just society.

For this there needs to be a wider acknowledgement of the pluralistic values inherent to a secular state, that positive discrimination and the unfair promotion of minority interests can be equally threatening as negative discrimination and the unjust suppression of majority concerns (I think I'll need to return to the question of immigration later).

From all that it should be clear that I don't agree with the hyped-up anger that Grayling's comments opposing the equality legislation shows him to be a homophobe, but I do think it shows him willing to pander to the vested interests of groups potentially motivated by homophobia - which, in many ways, is worse.


Now, as I like addressing controversial areas it would be inconsistent for me to avoid stirring the pot by asking a testy question: are governments of developed economies tacitly supporting the spread of homosexuality in order to address demographic questions such as over-population?

Or, as it was put to me, isn't it our 'duty' to form 'unnatural' relationships in order to save the environment and make a better world?

I can't imagine how that person thought it would be a successful chat-up line - especially given the range and type of 'unnatural relationships' that might encompass!


Tim Trent said...

I think Grayling is guilty of no more than stupidity. This puts him in company with a great many MPs and MEPs.

He's trying to rationalise the impossible: Many B&Bs are in people's homes. On;es home doesn't look like a business, therefore, thinks he, the law should not apply.

At first sight this appears reasonable. But look again.

The B&B makes part of that home subject to business taxes. It is a business. The owners offset costs against profits. It is a business, and it is subject to the law.

If it's a bad law then it can be altered. Grayling could and should have argued that it is a bad law. I disagree that it is bad, but that is my right. I must still, if I run a business, adhere to it.

The Wilkinsons in Cookham will do what they will do. The press shows them to have received many hundreds of messages condemning their attitude. The Daily Mail shows that their readers side with the Wilkinsons, but that surprises no-one, certainly not other Daily Mail readers!

Grayling is just a fool, nor a homophobe.

It wasn't that many years ago that we had campaigns against the class of person we dismissively called 'wogs'. More polite folk excused the term as 'Westernised Oriental Gentlemen', but we still hated other races, especially when their skin tone didn't match our own.

Like Grayling, Enoch Powell, normally nobody's fool, was stupid, and, in the same manner that Grayling is not homophobic, Powell was not racist. But both lost the minute they opened their mouths.

Equality is a myth, even many years after legislation mandates it. But we tend towards better equality because legislation exists.

Tim Trent said...

As to your point about overpopulation, the desire to procreate is not limited to the heterosexuals of the world.

If it were a serious way of limiting populations, should we not compel every third child to be homosexual?

Oranjepan said...

Exactly - a B&B maybe located in the same building as someone lives, but utility bills etc are taxed according to the usage in different parts.

I can fully accept the point about the desire for procreation not being the preserve of straights, but if I remember my biology lessons correctly (I was quite a good extra-curricular student in my day) there does require some outside assistance to bend the rules if two members of the same sex want to have children - I mean, I've yet to hear about two sperm or two ova creating foetuses and I struggle to, er, concieve of a naturally-conducive situation where they would be capable.

So I think it's also helpful to distinguish between the individual sexual need and the human procreative wish.

Still none of it speaks well of Grayling's credentials as a prospective Home Sec.

Tim Trent said...

Ah, you are thinking of the Biology Practical, a lesson often wished for and so rarely forthcoming!

I've wondered if it is individual sexual need since reading those words. I do not think it is. One can fulfil that to a great extent by flying solo.

Heterosexuality and homosexuality and the shades between are, probably, more about the wonderful companionship provided by the adored person with the added side benefit, usually, of sex. And yet one has no need to be with the partner of one's desires for the sex to be excellent, nor with the sex of one's desires for the companionship to be wonderful.

By the way, you might as a side issue, take a look at Brody's Notes and Scribbles today. It;s a relevant side issue.


So many ministers of state are unfit for purpose! Why should Grayling be any different? Every party has its share of complete arses. As Lionel Jefferies once observed, bald headed men should put their heads together in pairs and make complete arses of themselves.

The two major parties are full of fools, loons, bombasts, windbags and a few decent men and women. I admire The Beast of Bolsover for his convictions though not for his politics. Cable has the potential to make an excellent chancellor. Widdicombe, for all her glaring faults, is staunch, though I suspect retiring.

Even so we choose to delegate authority to these rogues, knaves and charlatans, probably because we really do not want to do it ourselves. Almost any of us could make a better job of it than any of the politicians we delegate our authority to. Why do we do that?