Where now for equality?
Equality is the dominant idea of our lifetime.
Our government has collapsed, and stayed that way for over a year, because of arguments ostensibly about this very concept.
The history of Northern Ireland is one of sectarian tension and an incomplete grind towards living with each other in shared respect and on equal terms.
The Troubles themselves emerged soon after the civil rights movements of the late 1960s found its feet. Bloody Sunday, which took local violence to a new level, was a horrific outpouring of violence at a march for those rights.
Local green and orange divisions persist but are both less pronounced and less impactful on day-to-day life.
The impact of equality has, of course, been felt far beyond Northern Ireland (which was not the only place to have a civil rights movement in the 1960s). The West has transformed itself in the past half century: birth control and changing attitudes to sex emerged at a similar time; homosexuality has gone from a taboo, even criminal, subject to something far more readily accepted; race relations have improved.
Equality has achieved great things but nowadays has reached a new kind of controversy, with some campaigns under its banner accused of being disingenuous, dangerous, illiberal or autocratic.
Free speech and equality are ideas that, in some quarters are at variance. Some people see political correctness as a problem. Others who do see many of its benefits feel it is overreaching.
At the same time as these new arguments emerge, some of the older conflicts are not settled. Victories have been won but nothing is immutable.
Whether you like it or not, equality has been a huge force in shaping modern society.
But what does it mean?
This week saw the annual Imagine! Festival take place across Belfast, with scores of events looking at the ideas of the day. No surprise, then, that equality was one topic under discussion.
Yesterday afternoon at the Black Box the Equality Commission organised an informal discussion that was chaired by the BBC’s Mark Carruthers, with a panel comprised of Malachi O’Doherty, Bimpe Archer from the Irish News, and the News Letter’s Ben Lowry.
Equality: a Question of Attitude proved to be a lively and civil 90 minutes. The Commission said they decided to hold this event to generate and listen to some debate, with one eye looking back at their latest public opinion survey, itself also called A Question of Attitude and published in January.
It is worth taking a look at that publication and seeing the difference in the views of the public over the past decade. Every group – broken down by religion, ethnicity, sexuality and gender – has a more positive perception among local people now than was the case ten years ago.
Public attitudes are the bedrock of prejudice and anti-prejudice. The latter is a crucial part of equality. But it is not the only part.
The first question put to the panel at the event was what equality means to them. The answers were interesting.
Bimpe Archer said: “It’s about making sure we all have the ability to be all we can be, and to have what we are [as individuals] protected. I think equality of opportunity is where we should be, that should be for everyone.”
This gets to the heart of possibly the most agreeable form of equality – that everyone should have the same chances in life, as far as is reasonable and practicable.
If only it were that simple. Equality reaches further than that – but the consequences can be tricky.
Proportionality and disingenuity
Ben Lowry said that his “literal” answer to the question posed was that: “[Equality] doesn’t mean very much to me.
“I’m not trying to be controversial or smart. Some years ago someone suggested I contribute to a series of essays about freedom. I declined because I thought I did not want to get involved in that, because freedom is a big word used to justify a lot of bad things. For example, people sometimes cite economic freedom when they mean extremely rapacious or exploitative practices. I think equality is a similarly big word.”
He said extreme inequality causes all manner of horrors, and is the root of some of the biggest issues in the world, past and present. However, he also outlined his own scepticism which, broadly, has two strands.
Firstly, that some of the topics at the forefront of equality discussions are, worthy or not, not the most pressing issues of the day – noting that wealth imbalance is not given the prominence it should have as “probably the single biggest moral stain on the world” – and that “if you live somewhere where gay people are thrown off buildings, that’s the big thing; if you are a woman in Saudi Arabia, that’s the big thing; if you are black in America, that is still the big thing.”
Secondly, he said that other lines of argument under the equality banner are not really about that at all.
“I’m very concerned, in the western world, about the hijacking of the word equality, in some examples, by political movements that are not only dishonest but in some cases are bordering on the wicked.”
Empathy – and its limits
Malachi O’Doherty pointed out that appealing to people’s empathy was a crucial part of real success in any battle against prejudice and in pursuit of equality, noting: “The ultimate goal is to change minds rather than [merely] behaviours.”
He talked about the prevailing attitudes towards homosexuality when he was a child and young man – “It was seen as a fault, basically” - saying that empathy had been what had forced through change.
Furthermore, he warned that some modern campaigns calling for equality were in danger of losing that power to really change minds.
“Why did we change attitudes for gay people? Why did that [marriage equality] come so easily in the Irish republic? It’s because we all have friends who are gay and, in the end, that’s how it will work over time, with other issues.
“There is a perception now that, in equality issues, language use and behaviour are being imposing by a new coterie or authority in our society and that rankles with people.”
Mr O’Doherty is correct about the power of empathy. But it has its limits. As was pointed out during the debate, when it comes to wealth inequality, there is no guarantee that people will have close relationships with others living in wildly different economic circumstances.
And, while everyone knows someone who is gay, what about trans rights? Transgender people make up a relatively tiny proportion of the population.
On a bigger picture, ingrained sectarianism is at its worst in sections of society that exist in green or orange silos.
Ms Archer said: “Personal experience informs attitudes, but I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to take each case [equality issue] on its merits and some things call for a range of approaches.”
Whether the underlying argument is good or bad, campaigns calling for equality that are hectoring, virtue-signalling or autocratic are no good.
If nothing else, the approach does not work – and, at worst, make people suspicious of the word equality itself.
Civility and a light touch are good things. They do not mean you are not taking a matter seriously.
The Equality Commission seems to know this. They hosted a debate that was vibrant and, if it was spiky, it was so in a positive way.
They even chose Tim McGarry to open the event – “Equality issues are absolutely everywhere. For example, our host this afternoon is the magnificent Mark Carruthers, the fabulous BBC broadcaster. But this is an Equality Commission event, public money is being spent on it – and I think if public money is being spent on this then the Equality Commission should have hired a female BBC presenter and paid her 20% less.”
Equality issues are emotive issues – but that is true of everything that matters.
Constructive discussions are half the battle. Empathy does drive progress, but where that can not win the arguments for you, over time, there is always considered debate.
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