Friday, 26 February 2010

A thought on discrimination

I suppose it is inevitable that every government will try to defend itself by putting as good a gloss as it can on the state of things under its stewardship. Equally inevitable is that some aspects of life are bound to improve under a government of any party, and a government in power for a decade or more will be able to point to quite a number of such issues.

Of course whether a change is an improvement is a matter of taste. Some things that were generally perceived to be improvements in one age might be treated with utter derision a generation or more later and be reversed to (perhaps temporary) universal acclaim. How many "improvements" are actually caused by government is always open to debate.

Looking back over the last thirteen years it is probably fair to say that far fewer people today are refused employment because of their pigmentation, gender or choice of intimate companion. There can be no doubt that each of these "improvements" was intended to be a result of the massively expensive programme of attempted social engineering undertaken by the present government, but no one can measure the effect government policies have had. Perhaps they sped-up the process of open-mindedness, perhaps it would have happened anyway - after all, the acceptance of homosexuals and those of dusky hue progressed at accelerating pace throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.

I have long been doubtful of the power of government to do anything other than steer the agenda gently in one direction or another on such social issues. Introducing laws to make it an offence to discriminate on the grounds of gender or so-called race must, I suspect, have had an effect because they brought to the issue to the fore and required employers to think a little more about whether someone was suitable to fill a vacancy. We are a generally law-abiding people, even if we do not like a particular law, and I suspect many an employer who resented having legal limits put on who he might accept or reject for a job nonetheless complied with the law when previously he might have acted differently.

Yet there is only so much that can be achieved by such laws. If they are to be effective I believe they must tap into an existing chain of thought. I remember hearing many a narrow-minded bigot in the 60s and 70s say he wouldn't want a black family in his street or a black colleague at work because they are different or untrustworthy or inherently idle or dishonesty. And there was always a "but". It was always the same "but" ... "but I don't mean Mr Patel at the Merrymart down the road, he's a lovely bloke, keeps that shop open to nine at night, very convenient, much better than old Frank who had it before him" or "but I don't mean Winston next door, he's a lovely bloke, cuts old Doris's hedge, lovely family" or "but I don't mean Mr Khan at the curry house, he's a lovely bloke, does great food he does and he gave our Sharon a job in her school holidays". And so it goes on.

The "but" is nothing more or less than "but those I know are actually just the same as us". And how true it is. All over the world countries are full of the clever and the thick, the idle and the industrious, the honest and the crooked, albeit with a different balance between these various elements, just as they are full of the old, the young and the middle aged. Anti-discrimination laws are just part of a package of factors that steer us towards greater acceptance of people from backgrounds different from our own. To my mind the most important factor in persuading people not to discriminate unfairly is exposure to those against whom they might be inclined to act. The unknown is always slightly scary, it become far less scary when it ceases to be unknown. As time passes we will all experience people from a wider and wider variety of backgrounds. The unknown will not just be countered by knowledge of one Mr Patel, one Winston or one Mr Khan but by knowledge of dozens of people from varying backgrounds.

That is not to say that such knowledge is a one-way street. When immigrants from a particular country are drawn almost entirely from the bottom of the pile the impression they give is unlikely to be positive. That might well be unrepresentative of their country's native inhabitants as a whole, but the evidence available to us will inevitably lead to certain conclusions being drawn whether or not they are fair. We can only form views based on evidence and the quality of the evidence dictates the range of conclusions we are likely to draw.

Similarly, some countries have a greater culture of self-sufficiency than others. In some you work or you starve, in others you work or you get a hand-out from the UN. In some you work and have the chance to improve your standard of living steady throughout your life, in others you can never expect more than mere subsistence. You would be hard-pressed to find someone from Thailand who is content to draw benefits. Not only is their economic system one of work-or-starve, but their culture is that living on the result of another's work is shameful. Not so if you are from, for example, Somalia - a country so poorly managed that it is dependent on vast amounts of aid simply to feed its people engenders a culture of dependency. Not just that, but work is not rewarded there for ordinary people, they cannot hope for anything more than subsistence. It is hardly surprising that they do not understand that working in the UK can produce a standard of living far higher than benefits could ever give them - it is just a different world, a world wholly outside their experience. When you also consider that the standard of living they enjoy here on benefits is higher than they could ever expect in their homeland, it is hardly surprising that there is no work ethic.

No amount of law or regulation will prevent people seeing what is before their eyes. It can, if aimed carefully, point their eyes in a different direction so that they see something that was previously out of focus, but it cannot turn apples into oranges.

There will always be justified discrimination against some immigrants because the culture of their country of origin gives rise to a fair presumption that they are unlikely to be industrious. It would be wrong to make too much of this point, it can only ever be a presumption. However, all true presumptions are based on evidence not on irrational prejudices. Once anti-discrimination policies seek to contradict evidence they are bound to result in practices that are both economically and socially harmful. It is one thing to make the previously unknown known, it is another entirely to pretend that what is known as a fact is actually a fiction.

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