Saturday, 22 May 2010

The divisiveness of diversity

When I was a lad we did diversity. We were really rather good at it.

Those two chaps who ran the sweetshop and lived in the small flat above - they were left to live their lives in peace because they did a good job running a valuable local facility. Whatever their willy habits in the privacy of their own flat, they didn't thrust them down our throats so we minded our own business. That girl at school with cystic fibrosis who asked to stay back rather than climb a hill on an outward bound weekend, we attached poles to a dining chair and took her with us as though she were the Queen of Sheba. She didn't ask and she certainly didn't demand, but it was a group outing and she was part of the group. That family that fled Tito's Yugoslavia and was granted asylum was welcomed with boxes of food and voluntary lessons in English. They asked for nothing but we knew they had suffered enough and had come here for a new start, so we rallied round and helped a little.

Those three examples are real experiences from my life. There was something unusual about them because they were, well, unusual; perhaps they could be called extreme. But they are just examples of the way civilised people behave towards others. It seems I should say "behaved" rather than "behave" because treating people in a civilised manner is now something we must do according to an instruction manual. I am grateful to my friend Gerard for bringing this to my attention. He is undoubtedly correct in calling it "comedy gold".

Nothing creates divisions more than "official" classification of people. It is one of the great ironies that a policy intended to break down barriers actually creates new and stronger barriers. The irony is made tragic by the fact that the intention is entirely honourable, muddled but honourable. People bearing a particular characteristic were believed to be treated as lesser beings, so it was felt necessary to place them on the same level of playing field as everyone else. That is when the muddle set in.

When a particular group of people is perceived to be being treated unfairly there are three ways of dealing with the situation. You can do nothing and allow unfair treatment to continue, or you can tell those who are being unfair to behave themselves, or you can hold up the disadvantaged group as objects of pity and try to shame the rude people into treating them better. The first is only an option if you are a callous bastard. The difference between the second and third options is profound.

Of course all of this supposes we have a generally accepted standard of what is fair and what is unfair. In many fields this gives rise to all sorts of problems but when it comes to how we should treat people of different nationalities, pigmentation or preference of gender of adult bedroom partner I believe there is a common standard to which the UK subscribes. It is that all should be treated equally both in our personal dealings with them and in their treatment by the law so that their nationality, pigmentation or bedroom habits should not lead to them being treated as lesser beings. If I am right in believing that to be the generally accepted standard, the question arises how those who do not live up to that standard should be persuaded to change their ways.

This is nothing to do with opinions, it is all about behaviour. You can be of the opinion that a particular person should not be in this country either because he is a foreigner or because of his skin colour, but that should not change the way you treat him or the way the law treats him. So also if you believe it is morally repugnant for ladies to like labia or chaps to crave cock. Your opinions are matters you can debate if you wish but your behaviour towards others is what makes you civilised - "manners maketh the man" as the old saying goes. That is why the men in the sweetshop, the girl with cystic fibrosis and the Yugoslavian family were treated as they were. It's just how you treat people, it's the right thing to do because they are human beings. And it is all about equality, it is not about diversity at all.

Those who do not treat others with respect are, in my view, in the wrong. The victims of their rude behaviour are not the cause of that wrongness, the cause is the attitude of the "ruders" not the "rudees". Address the behaviour of the rude people and you tackle the issue whilst maintaining the equality of the rudees. If, on the other hand, you choose to shame the rude into politeness it is inevitable that you will highlight differences rather than teach the simple moral lesson that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.

In this context there is no way of highlighting differences without promoting inequality and division. Instead of the message being "all human beings are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect" it becomes "these people are different from us but you should treat them with dignity and respect anyway". The emphasis changes in a fundamental way. No longer is the spotlight concentrated on the core fact that we are all human beings, rather it switches onto the differences between people and concentrates the attention of the rude onto the very matters of opinion that should not feature at all.

I gave some examples of good "diversity practice" from my childhood at the start of this meandering. I'll end it with an example from my life today. I have a neighbour who turns 80 next week. She's as black as the ace of spades. Came here from the West Indies in the late 1950s with no formal qualifications and through a combination of talent, charm and hard work ended her working life in a senior managerial position in a very large company. She has lived close to FatBigot Towers for more than forty years. I doubt that any of the neighbours or the local shopkeepers or the hundreds of people she deals with during her still busy life of voluntary work for charity and church think of her pigmentation or nationality for a moment. She isn't different or diverse or even divers to those who know her, she is just a (splendid) human being.

And she objects vociferously to being labelled and to others being labelled. The view she has expressed to me is that everyone must be treated the same. She says give everyone the benefit of the doubt while they are learning, encourage them, guide them, help them gain promotion as far as their abilities will allow and don't hold back on either praise when they get things right or constructive criticism when they get things wrong. Very few will sink because there is a place for everyone who is prepared to make an effort, the vast majority will swim and live productive lives. She adds that all this must happen without labels because labels devalue achievements earned by merit and cause resentment in those who do not rise as far as they hoped they might. She tells you everything you need to know about why the modern approach to "diversity" is divisive.


Petr said...

Perfectly put. I always get angry when I read "America's first black President" or (recently) "The UK's first black woman MP". Delete the word "black" - because it's irrelevant - and you're left with nothing to say. So don't say it. I've struggled for a long time to put this into words. You've just done it. Thank you.

Mark Wadsworth said...

The "diviseveness of diversity"?

That spelling is very, er, 'diviseve'.

TheFatBigot said...

"That spelling is very, er, 'diviseve'."

Woops. Ta very much, corrected.

Stan said...

Hear, hear - essentially it comes down to that old British trait which we were often pilloried and ridiculed for - having manners.

When we gave up manners and politeness in favour of "expression" then we lost something precious.