In March 2006, I did some more equalities training. Because it was the pilot run of a new course, we were asked to give fuller feedback than would normally be expected.
Here is some of the feedback I gave from the usual form, along with some further thoughts on this and similar courses I have attended. [And some explanations for people who are not familiar with equalities training courses, or with what was said on this one.]
[This next part was prompted by a discussion in which I said that the law could not prevent people from being racist, but it could prevent them from acting in a racist way in certain contexts, and maybe this would lead to people thinking about the issues, and lead to them becoming less racist over time. I didn't think legislation could solve the problem, but it could move society in the right direction. This seemed (and still seems) to me to be a reasonable position, but I was strongly attacked for it, and told that all racism was completely unacceptable: hidden racism is just as bad as explicit racism. I agreed that it was all bad, but suggested we need to prioritise our efforts and tackle the worst problems first. This, one of the course leaders told me, is completely wrong: we have to aim to completely do away with all discrimination, however serious or however mild.]
I really do have a serious problem with the whole "this problem is as bad as that problem" mentality, and the associated claim that everything is as important as everything else.
It seems to me that if you try to apply this thinking in real life, everything becomes unimportant, as you cannot live as if everything is important. In real life, you have to make choices; you have to prioritise.
If everything is as bad as everything else, I might as well give up, as I will never be perfect. [And, presumably, society will never be perfect, either!] I don't think this is a good message to give in a training course.
Surely the main point of equalities training comes from the fact that we have to make choices, so how do we make good ones? I need to be careful to be non-discriminatory in my recruitment procedure precisely because I can't employ everyone who applies. I have to make choices, so how can I be confident of making choices using the right criteria?
The day did not help me in the areas where I struggle, but I didn't expect it to. For example, I know more or less how to recruit people in a non-discriminatory way. But as well as not discriminating in any given recruitment decision, and advertising in a variety of places so minority groups will know they are invited to apply, I must also aim to have a diverse workforce. But how do I balance the need for hardworking, competent and qualified employees against the need to be diverse? If two applicants are equally good, I can choose the one from the under-represented minority group. But no two applicants are ever completely equal. So it comes down to balancing competing principles, and there is no guidance from anyone on how to do this.
[It has been suggested that the previous paragraph assumes that people from minority groups cannot be hardworking, competent and qualified. Not so. It simply recognises that, in any given set of candidates for a job, the most hardworking, competent and qualified candidate will not necessarily be from an under-represented group. If this are, that is wonderful. If not, then I have two competing principles I am seeking to satisfy.]
Finally, I want to say loudly and clearly that discrimination is a good thing! The ability to make judgements, and to make them well and efficiently, is one of the qualities we look for in new staff, and when we employ new staff we have to exercise discrimination.
In the equalities world, we are so used to using the word 'discrimination' as shorthand for 'improper discrimination' that we have started to talk as if discrimination is a bad thing. This leads on to the absurdity of 'positive discrimination'.
[Positive discrimination is the idea that treating people unfairly because of their sex or skin colour is a really bad thing, so we will do more of it. The answer to unfair discrimination is not positive discrimination, but affirmative action - putting more effort in to communicating opportunities to under-represented groups, offering additional assistance to some people to enable them to compete on as level a playing field as possible, and so on. It's not perfect, but then nothing is.]
It seems to me that the real value of equalities training is in helping people distinguish (discriminate!) between improper discrimination and proper discrimination. Is the quality being considered a valid one in the circumstances, and are we making our judgement on an objective and fair basis?
It might also be helpful within the training course to look at the difference between positive discrimination and affirmative action, and to give some good examples of the latter.