Diversity and Inclusion - a concern  
In the beginning was the Race Relations Act 1965. It was quite revolutionary for its time and made unlawful a new category of behaviour which for millennia had been regarded as perfectly acceptable - looking after your own at the expense of the incomer, the foreigner (in the widest sense). For the first time, the law banned racial discrimination in public places. For the first time, also, it made illegal the encouragement of an emotion - hatred - on the grounds of “colour, race, or ethnic or national origins”.  Of course, as a moral statement, it had something of the magician’s ‘smoke and mirrors’ about it, as controls on immigration remained.  So then we were against discrimination, but only for those already here or for the relative few permitted to come here by our immigration laws.  Which meant that most of the world was in fact kept out of our newly-benign regime.  But although our new-found morality began and stayed at home, the Statute was criticised by some for being little short of the introduction of ‘thought crime’.

However things did not stop there. Although a major change, it was shortly afterwards criticised for failing to address those areas of life where discrimination was in fact most prevalent - employment and finding somewhere to live. This led to the passing of the 1968 Race Relations Act, which made unlawful any discrimination with regard to employment, housing and advertising. From 1970 onwards, the scope of the circumstances under which discrimination was to be regarded as illegal was extended to such things as disability and sex discrimination of various sorts. Following the issuing of a Directive by the EU, all of the old law, with an extension to include ‘harassment’ in respect of any of the ‘protected characteristics*’, was incorporated in the Equality Act 2010.

These days, large organisations, such as companies and universities, feel they must be seen to be taking steps to stop people having grounds for a complaint of discrimination. This is because they believe, rightly or wrongly that most of us now do not like to see discrimination take place and, more pertinently, it will potentially cost them a lot of money in compensation.  But.   But in trying to right a wrong, we do seem to be going far too far. It seems that on the coat-tails of action to prevent discrimination as defined in the legislation, entire new moral codes have been created which govern peoples’ working hours. This is so in many organisations and, although it may not have the force of law, it can have a similar effect upon your life if you fall foul of it.  And it really is very close to being thought crime. Let me explain by reference to the Warwick University Dignity policy (which I came across by chance):

The University expects all members of the University to recognise their responsibilities and to:

  • behave in a way that respects the rights and dignity of others
  • treat others fairly
  • display courtesy and good manners in every interaction appreciating that individuals have different styles and expectations
  • value differences in others and the contribution they make
  • work and study within the University on a co-operative basis
  • demonstrate a commitment to upholding the University's policies on diversity and inclusion.”

On the surface the rules sound unexceptionable - let’s be nice to each other. Failure to abide by the code can however lead to serious consequences, because there are complaint procedures which can be followed. And if you examine the code more closely there seem to be some inherent contradictions.

Let us start with the superficially admirable requirement to “value difference in others and the contribution they make”. This is an unqualified requirement, but in what sense can it be said that difference is always to be valued?  I know people who are clearly racist.  I don’t mean people who aren’t always very careful in the way they speak about ‘others’, but who really do think that people of other races or skin colour are lesser beings.  As a young lawyer, I used to have clients who were violent and other who were thieves.  Later on, I had clients who were so devoted to money that you would count your fingers after having shaken hands with them.  Are those ‘differences’ to be valued or perhaps, instead, resisted?  Would we value the ‘contribution’ made by such a person? I don’t think so.

Perhaps though the policy means that we should value differences and appreciate the contributions made by people who are ‘not very different to us’, who hold what one may regard as ‘main-stream views’. But none of that is stated or indeed capable of definition. And I doubt that that is the intention. I imagine that the policy is actually aimed at people who are, for example, Moslem in a Christian country, or people who are members of other minorities such as being homosexual or feel that they are of the wrong gender.  So what happens to that other minority who believe that homosexuality is a sin or that Muslims are going to hell – because they are Muslims? Does everyone get equal air-time?  It seems not from the no-platforming which has become fashionable in the academic world. Previously respected, but controversial public figures, such as Germaine Greer, have been no-platformed as they don’t hold the ‘right’ views even though they have been in the forefront of bringing about what many would regard as beneficial change in our society.  But no, naïve students want to put their fingers in their ears. And do those who no-platform run foul of the Dignity policy – and if not, why not?

Then there is the question of playing sport. If a student receives a yellow or red card during a game of football, what then?  Will students who play rugby be expelled from the University if they fail to display courtesy and good manners in the middle of a ruck or a scrum?  They’ll probably all go for a drink together afterwards, but it is surely asking quite a lot to expect them to behave in accordance with such a code in the middle of such a physical game.

And if others have ‘different styles and expectations’, how is this to be managed? To see people with different styles is interesting, but having ‘different expectations’ implies that we may expect different outcomes from our encounters, depending on our backgrounds.   Should we adopt the expectations of the minority or the majority?  If I go to France, I try to adapt myself to the customs of the people who live there and I certainly don’t expect them to adapt themselves and their way of living to me.  It would be naïve to think that they would.  

Then it seems that all in the University should “work and study on a cooperative basis”. Why? Why should I always share my insights with my fellow students or fellow academics?   Am I not entitled to plough a lone furrow in order ultimately to gain recognition from the wider world for my brilliance?

So if I were a part of academic life at Warwick University or any of the many others which adopt a similar set of policies, would I be entitled to bring such nonsense to the attention of the authorities with a view to asking for change? Well no, actually. Why? Because I would not then be demonstrating “a commitment to upholding the University's policies on diversity and inclusion”, and so could ultimately be thrown out if I failed to recant. I suppose that I could console myself by thinking that I was following in the footsteps of Galileo Galilei, but it seems sad that such Institutions, formerly places where robust debate could take place, are now places of group-think where no debate may take place on certain topics. We seem to be becoming too anxious to protect people from what until recently had been regarded as only minor upsets or annoyances in the way others behave. We have somehow adopted a highly exaggerated view of the ‘harm’ which can be caused to others. But where change is necessary in society, this most usually comes about by debate and a degree of discomfort, not by keeping silent and conforming.  I worry for the future of such a supine generation.

Paul Buckingham

March 2017

* "protected characteristics" are defined as:

Disability, Gender Reassignment, Marriage and Civil Partnership, Maternity, Paternity and Adoption, Race, Religion or Belief, Sex (Gender Equality) and Sexual Orientation.

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