Wednesday, 8 November 2017

We Are Not Above Prejudice & Discrimination

9 hands of various skin tones, clasped one atop the other, viewed from above, with some forearm visible for each.
Over the years of my time at Young Friends General Meeting (YFGM), I had the benefit of learning, by explanations and by example, from a lot of smart and experienced Quakers. One of those, in the first several years, was Maud Grainger, now Faith in Action tutor at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. I am still in touch with Maud, at least in the way that most people seem to be in touch with half of the people they've ever met nowadays (yay for Facebook), and so I saw her excellent blog post, on the face of it about a particular t-shirt – but really about the reasons why someone, especially a “professional Quaker”, should wear it. Do take the time to read the post, it's excellent, and not long.
It is a point that I've touched upon in the past, such as my written ministry on disability, or my recent post on how Quakers should respond to the #MeToo phenomenon and the widespread sexual misconduct behind it. I gladly stand behind Maud when she says,
“So why did I wear a Feminist tee? We are going backwards, sexism is not behind closed doors it is in emails I receive, comments I hear and in meetings I attend. It is widespread and I am angry about it. I am angry feeling like I have to defend myself against comments that are not made to men in my position. I am angry fighting a battle that ought not to need fighting. I am angry to be fighting for equal treatment based on age, class, race, sex and disability and I am especially angry about fighting for it within communities who feel they are above such issues and yet experience would say otherwise” (emphasis added)
These are all subjects that I have had conversations with Friends about. I have focussed more on areas that relate to my own direct experience, to be sure – age, class and disability being the ones that have come up most in conversation, and age in at least one case where I was addressing Friends formally. But all of those mentioned by Maud are areas I have expressed concern over. Oh, we're very good at sexuality, at least the more commonly encountered, or more well known, manifestations of diversity in that area. We are, I am told by trans* Friends, a bit mixed when it comes to trans issues (and individuals), though we are making clear efforts in that area, there is a clear desire to do better. But while we have narrative minutes from Yearly Meeting in session calling for inclusivity, the areas that we feel led to call for particular action on are age and ethnicity.
Do we think we are so much worse at these areas than we are on class, gender and disability? Advocating for inclusion of disabled people among Quakers is the work of a Quaker Recognised Body (what used to be Listed Informal Groups), the Quaker Disability Equality Group – of which I am a member of the committee running the group. I've come across very little in the way of organised work going on considering class diversity, how we can better include those who are not culturally middle class. And gender seems to be widely assumed to be a non-issue among British Quakers, quite against the experience of many women. As I mentioned in another post, I'm not aware of any work having been done to analyse it, but my experience – and it matches that of other Friends I've spoken to – suggests that, for whatever reason, there is a gender correlation about what sorts of roles find women appointed to them, as opposed to men. One Friend (a woman) even hypothesised that the roles given to men are generally ones considered higher status, though another thought that men ended up in the roles that people are generally less willing to do – though they were referring to the same roles, at least in part. Of course, there is an open question, even if we assume this is the case, as to whether this is discrimination on the part of nominations committees, whether conscious or not, or a difference in being in a position to take on the roles – such as due to caring responsibilities, or even as a consequence of other gender-correlated trends, such as fields of study at university.
Perhaps it is that age and ethnicity are the areas where we are more ready to admit our failings, because they are more understandable; British Quakers have never been terribly ethnically diverse, and the age demographic problem we experience now, that of an ageing population, is found in common with many other faith groups in this country. By comparison, it is a bigger failure to admit that we are frankly quite bad at including disabled people, in many cases – and a truly massive shock to our collective self-image to admit we have any problem with sexism. Recognition of our lack of class diversity in most Meetings would require the shocking degree of self-knowledge to recognise how thoroughly culturally middle-class we now are, collectively; to see how far from the experience of a great many people we have become.
Maud speaks of the “need for necessary uncomfortableness”, and she's right. Ours is a challenging faith, not one that is carefully structured to reassure us and comfort us, and we should carry that principle beyond abstract spiritual matters, or challenging ourselves about our green credentials, and challenge ourselves individually and collectively to recognise the reasons for our lacks of diversity, and to recognise the prejudice and discrimination that we perpetrate. I do not say this as a call for sackcloth and ashes, but because ignorance, wilful or otherwise, does us a disservice, as well as causing us to do a disservice to other people. It is not that there is a massive problem, or widespread serious problems, in all of these areas, but that there are failings that can be remedied, however much we like to think we are better than that. It is only by recognising our failings that we can ever hope to even begin to remedy them.
We will never be perfect, no more in this regard than any other. But we can always do better, and we cannot do better without recognising our shortcomings. Indeed, by denying them, we slide further and further from that unattainable perfection, when we should instead be seeking to come ever closer. International human rights treaties often work on the basis of “progressive realisation” - the recognition that it is unreasonable to expect immediate and perfect satisfaction of all of the terms of a convention, but that every party is expected to work towards it. A key failure to abide by such conventions is that referred to as “retrogression” - not only failing to get closer to fully realising the rights and protections of the treaty, but actually making them less fully realised, further from being realised. If we consider our principles of equality in the same way as these conventions are treated, we should admit that we have not only failed in progressive realisation in many – but not all – cases, we should realise that we have retrogressed in some, and in others we have failed to keep pace with wider society.
We cannot continue to think that our spiritual and religious experiences have somehow made us impervious to these failings. We cannot think we are better than other people. We are human, we are flawed, and it is only by owning those flaws, recognising them, understanding them and resolving to address them that we will become better.
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