Thursday, January 25, 2007


Why Should I Want a Bigot to Smile Politely?

Splitting yesterday roughly equally between typing blog pieces and doing arm exercises to enable me to keep typing, I reflected that during the months when I’ve barely been able to type at all many of the blog articles going no further than my head were to do with religion. I remember thinking it was probably for the best, as once I got started I’d never shut up: ah well, too late now. Before my next substantive piece on religion, then, I thought I’d detour to wonder why we have anti-discrimination legislation in general, whether the Catholic Church objects or not.

You’ll have noticed, of course, that the Catholic Church doesn’t object to banning discrimination on grounds of religion, yet, despite the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster claiming his Church “utterly condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, violence, harassment or abuse directed against people who are homosexual” (when it’s famous for having directly practised every single one of those things), not only does he still want to hang on to all the remaining bits of legal discrimination, but his Church has opposed every single one of them being peeled back over the years: adoption, partnership rights, Section 28, gay sex, gay association… I wonder which of those many, many forms of discrimination, violence, harassment and abuse are now, like Galileo, issues on which the Church grudgingly lets slip it may have been mildly in error, and which they still agree with but no longer think they can enforce? When the language of “utterly condemning” discrimination leaves so many opt-outs to support full-blooded discrimination, who can tell what they mean?

Whoops, religion again. It’s just that if anyone else is a bigot in public nowadays they get shouted down, but if a religious leader’s a bigot in public people say it’s a point of high moral principle, even if they have the power to hurt an awful lot more people along the way. It also gives people the handy opt-out that, so long as they remember to dress up their bigotry in religious clothing, they step from ‘BNP bigot’ to ‘modern martyr’ – without having modified their discriminatory behaviour! Bless.

It’s ironic that the Catholic Church is trying so hard to undermine anti-discrimination legislation, as one of the most striking cases where it was needed was in banning discrimination on grounds of religion – rightly inspired in large part by the ill-treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland. It was a huge step forward when the ‘No Catholics!’ signs were taken down, and it’s just a shame when the Catholic hierarchy (as opposed to their less bigoted flock) remain, as ever, cheerleaders for the ‘No Queers!’ signs thirty years later.

I was recently asked by a friend (who happens to be gay, though I don’t know his religious persuasion) about the whole issue of anti-discrimination legislation, with so many protests from bigots ‘of conscience’ about their sincere and angry wish to discriminate against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and anyone they think looks a bit fey in the provision of goods and services. Unlike all the religious protesters, however, who want to sue the cassocks off anyone who doesn’t like them but want to deny their own hate objects any legal protection, my friend’s crisis of conscience was about the fairness of such legislation on principle, rather than being conveniently happy with the self-serving bits.

His problem was that he couldn’t quite convince himself that “it should be illegal for private individuals to discriminate against other private individuals on the grounds of their sexuality”. Now, he passionately believes people shouldn’t discriminate, and could see the logic in extending equal treatment for all different sorts of minority groups, but he just doesn’t like banning things. I have sympathy with that. “Anti-discrimination law in employment is fair enough and in public services,” he told me, “but I have this awful, nagging voice in the back of my head complaining that homophobes running guest houses should be free to turn down gay visitors if they want. I wouldn't want to stay at their guest house anyway, and I'd rather market mechanisms punished them for it than they were forced to serve me but secretly spat in my breakfast...”

So, here we have an example of a genuine moral dilemma, someone dreadfully conflicted between different principles and – perhaps the litmus test of a real moral question rather than puffed-up Pharisaic posturing to conceal bigotry – trying to work out if he should oppose something that would be in his own interest, rather than conveniently protecting his own interests but slamming the door on others’.

I have no sympathy with those complaining they’ve been ‘discriminated against’ because they’ve been deprived of their rights to bully, beat or burn people they don’t like the look of. I have no sympathy with those who claim ‘their consciences are offended’ because they can’t force people they hate to sit at the back of the bus, or lynch them if they get uppity. But those are very squarely actions in the public sphere. Should the state force you to, say, invite someone you dislike into your private home?

There may always be times when someone you dislike will intrude into your private affairs with the state’s permission rather than your own – but you can’t veto a gay police officer, a black social worker, a woman benefits official or a Protestant bailiff. There is a reason why anti-discrimination remains on the ‘public’ side of the debate, too. It’s not about private individuals discriminating against other private individuals in an entirely private sphere, but about how a free market operates in society. There’s a clear dividing line here. No-one’s saying you should invite people you dislike into your circle of friends or have them round for tea, and no-one should – but advertise that you are inviting people into your property for money to provide a service, and the situation is quite different (unless you’re in the habit of charging your friends). Imagine, for a moment, a world back to ‘No Coloureds’ signs in the windows, where anyone can refuse to serve anyone anything because they don’t like someone’s skin, sexuality or faith. Trade is a social act, and it has to follow certain rules: you don’t cheat your customers, you provide the service you claim to offer, you pay taxes, you don’t destroy the environment, and in return the state gives you a level playing field and your own public services to facilitate your trade… In what way is ‘offering a service to the public means offering a service to the public’ different in kind?

Requiring you to treat everyone equally has an element of social instruction, true, but the alternative is requiring every bigot to advertise their bigotry loudly, or run the risk of people turning up and being turned away if they’ve not made explicit enquiries. Let’s face it, with the modern telephonogram you can’t pretend that people just turn up on spec to see a place and can see a sign in the window right then. Assuming a phone enquiry rather than just clicking buttons on the Internet – ‘Do you feel there is something about you that may aggravate my bigotry? Click I AM SCUM Yes / No’ – then why should a consumer have to run through everything about themselves just so the owner can abuse them? ‘Oh, my partner’s male. Is that OK? Fine. And black. Is that going to be a problem? Oh, good. But you don't like Catholics, you say? Well, that’s me out…’ How would that work, in every hotel, in every pub, in every shop? Wouldn’t it mean nasty rows on a daily basis that made society a whole lot more fractured and wasted a lot of police time; would it be breach of the peace for someone being discriminated against to loudly call the proprietor a ‘****’, for example, or only if the owner hadn’t got a sign up to advertise their ‘conscientious objection’ (something tasteful like ‘No Pakis’)? If they didn’t have a sign, could they be sued for posing as a non-bigot? Doesn’t society just work better if the state straightforwardly says, for a free market to work, you have to treat everyone the same? It seems to me that that’s a lot easier in terms of regulation, a simple ‘one size fits all’, than the minefield of having to police every row.

If you don’t like banning things, isn’t it better to have one order from the state un-banning everyone than a million tiny bans?

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