Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Equality Is More Than Equal Treatment

A surface with coloured stripes, upon which there are many face-down Scrabble tiles. On top of these are face-up Scrabble tiles spelling out the word "equality".
Equality is one of the most consistent values across the world family of Friends, and has a long and proud history as a Quaker value. Early Friend recognised the essential spiritual equality of men and women, and of rich and poor. Of course, there were hiccups on the way; Quakers were slower than we like to admit to recognise the evil of slavery, and meetings for church affairs (aka business meetings) were long segregated by gender. Still, the essential idea of equality, while it might not always have been as strongly held as it is today, is an important Quaker tradition, and is recognised as a core Quaker testimony by all groups of Friends that make lists of such (at least as far as I am aware).
What do we mean by equality? Equality before God was certainly always an important idea for Quakers, with no ordained clergy. There were those known as ministers, but this was a description of what they did more than who they were. They travelled in the ministry, held public meetings aiming to convince those outside of the Quaker fold, and developed reputations for inspired and powerful ministry in worship. For this, they were known as ministers, but this was essentially a recognition of certain gifts and activities, rather than giving them any authority. The source of authority remained the Spirit itself, and that dwelt equally in all.
Indeed, one of the areas that caused some controversy, both within the early Religious Society of Friends and between it and the wider world, was the matter of women ministering. Women's voices were held to be equal to men's in matters of the spirit, and men and women (usually) worshipped together, either rising to give spirit-led ministry to all, as they were called. Meetings for Church Affairs (or as they are often called today, Business Meetings) were segregated for over one hundred years, a detail than many neglect when discussing the history of gender relations in the Religious Society of Friends. However, it should also be noted that giving women any role in the running of such an organisation would have been considered innovative (or rather more unpleasant terms) in the 17th century.
Of course, there are religious traditions that hold that all are equal before God, but that this does not mean people should be treated equally in practice. For example, it would be foolish to say that the idea of equality means that all are equally suited to some task, such as taking on roles like clerk or treasurer in a Meeting. We might readily say that a persons sex, ethnicity, age and so on are not directly relevant, and yet still differentiate those with certain gifts from others. Some faith traditions would, however, say that while all people are fundamentally spiritually equal, God created some for one sort of task, and some for another – and that for some tasks, that difference is part of the differences between the sexes. On a similar note, there are those even among British Quakers who think that age is a prima facie requirement for many roles. Not, of course, that all middle-aged and older Friends are suitable to serve as clerks or elders, but that those Friends who have not yet attained such an age (which is, statistically speaking, quite a young age for British Quakers) are, by virtue of such relatively extreme youth, not suited for such roles. It would, they reason (and have expressed to me) be beyond plausibility that necessary experience and mature judgement could have yet developed in such an individual. There might be more semblance of logic to this than the idea that no woman is suited to preaching, or that men aren't ever suitable to work with children and young people, but it does not stand up to the evidence of experience across the liberal tradition of the Religious Society of Friends; indeed, it does not stand up to the evidence of experience across various parts of Britain Yearly Meeting.
Still, at least speaking idealistically, the Quaker ideal of equality does not usually fall into such traps systematically (though we are, in practice, as much slaves to prejudice as anyone else). All are equal, though not identical, and any particular gift is as likely to occur regardless of gender, ethnicity, and so on. I am quite sure most would also say this regardless of class background or education – gifts being distinct from training and experience, after all – though I am not sure that all Friends believe that in their hearts.
Quakers also stand against prejudice and discrimination in wider society, even if our own house is perhaps not entirely in order in that regard. Quakers have opposed discriminatory policies from governments, systemic racism in public institutions such as the police, and various forms of workplace discrimination against women. Economic inequality is also a common target of individual Friends, though it has received less organised attention that I have seen. My own Local Meeting leads a campaign for the living wage, and many Quakers rail against the imbalance of wealth both within our own countries, and between countries, opposing the exploitation of countries considered economically “less developed”.
But what do we mean by equality? We mean something more than a purely spiritual “equal before God”, but it is not common for Quakers to believe in total communism, assured equality of outcome for all. Perhaps we mean the mythical “equality of opportunity”, the idea that all should have the same chance to succeed, but then have outcomes dependent on effort, ability and (we must in honesty admit) on luck. That there be differences in outcome related to factors we can control, and factors we can't control, but not due to the factor of chance in the accident of birth. This may be the best we can hope for, if we wish to see effort rewarded; I do not see any plausible way to reward effort without also rewarding both luck and whatever inherent differences in ability and temperament possessed by each of us.
Of course, as long as people raise their own children, there cannot be true equality of opportunity without already having equality of outcomes, as the circumstances of one's upbringing have a huge effect, regardless of whether all children attend the same schools and have the same education opportunities. Do we really think there is some sort of genetic factor at work, that children of middle-class households are more likely to grow up to enjoy reading? It seems far more likely that it is a matter of the home environment.
It is for this reason, and many related ones, that attempting to promote equality of opportunity by simply treating all individuals equally will inevitably fail, because it presupposes an initial state of equality that simply does not subsist in our society. If you were to send everyone to identical schools, treat them all the same while they are there, present them with the same opportunities, you would see that the inequality of the previous generation is replicated. If things have been done particularly well, there may be a noticeable reduction, but the inequality will continue – and diminish slowly as we move down the generations. Perhaps it will reduce to a negligible level, or perhaps it will reach some asymptotic limit, a minimum level of inequality that cannot be removed by this approach.
That is the logic for economic inequality, but a similar issue applies to, for instance, ethnic and gender inequality. For example, whatever the school environment is like, the wider social environment also has an impact on children, their expectations for themselves and their future, the behaviour they feel is expected from them. As long as wider society evinces particular expectations of women and girls, or of people of particular ethnicities, that will shape the behaviour and ambitions of children. Done well, properly equal schooling might diminish this generation to generation, but it cannot remove it quickly.
Then of course there is the simple matter that some people obviously require unequal treatment to be given an equal opportunity. I do not mean the subtle point that specific encouragements be applied to counter stereotypes, but that those with a specific learning difficulty require specific support in education. Those with developmental disorders need appropriate treatment. Children who are deaf or blind, or even have those senses impaired to a lesser extent, will require either assistance or different modes of teaching, different resources provided. Those who come from a home where the majority language of their country is not generally spoken will need extra support, at least in early years, to engage with and in that language.
The same principle applies outside of education, of course. Where there are people in a country entirely legitimately who do not speak the principal language of that country, treating all equally by providing resources and information in that language is not promoting equality. Where some cannot read, providing information in writing might be treating all the same, but reinforces difference and inequality rather than alleviating it. Where some are physically incapable of getting on and off a train without assistance, perhaps a ramp, treating all the same way becomes either burdensome (putting down ramps at every door at every stop) or excludes those who need such assistance (never putting down ramps or offering assistance); once again, equal treatment promotes inequality.
In promoting equality, even if we merely mean equality of opportunity, is is necessary to treat people differently, because we are not all the same and we do not all come from the same circumstances. We should not refuse to appoint someone as clerk because their standard of reading and writing is not up to the standards we have come to expect among Quakers, who in Britain tend to be rather more extensively educated – at least in terms of formal education – than the population at large. Rather, we should adjust our expectations, give people assistance as appropriate (but without being patronising), and realise that minutes do not need to be poetic. It is very nice when they are, I will admit, but Quaker minutes are about recording our discernment and decisions, and so long as they do that they are adequate. Similarly, the other duties of a clerk, mainly around organisation and communication, do not require advanced education.
So it is that equality demands programmes like those encouraging women into STEM, encouraging those from worse-off economic backgrounds into further and higher education, and obligations such as those enshrined in the UK's Equality Act and the US's Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring providers of goods and services to make their offerings accessible to those living with all sorts of impairment. Indeed, I see Quaker equality fundamentally leads to support for the social model of disability, but that is a subject for another day.
To be perfectly fair, it also demands – a demand that is not satisfied – programmes to encourage those from better-off economic and middle-class cultural backgrounds into trades and manual labour, though it's not hard to see why that's a hard sell. Not only would it be a hard sell towards people of such backgrounds, but it would be a hard sell politically to promote the setting up of such a programme. This is a natural result of the categorisation of some jobs – generally those requiring less education, and associated with the “working classes” – as lower status, and other jobs as higher status. Yet those “low status” jobs are just as necessary as higher status jobs, and the fact that fewer people have the ability – or more often simply the education – to do them changes that fact not at all. It makes those who do the jobs disposable in the eyes of employers, but the jobs are not disposable. Indeed, many are jobs that we would be very upset were they to cease, as we find when those working in those jobs go on strike. We need our trains, or buses, our domestic waste collection. Yet we, the people in our societies, react with anger when that labour is withdrawn, often more readily than we treat the people in those jobs with true respect. Oh, we don't despise them, we don't think of them as less than us – but a great many of us refuse to think of them particularly at all.
I recall the times I have been fortunate enough to be travelling first class on the West Coast Main Line. There is at-seat service with drinks, various sorts of food depending on the time of day, and so on. My observation is generally that most people travelling, especially on commuter trains, take this service in their stride. They act as though they see it as their due, as I suppose they might by virtue of paying for it. It is very much a minority of people who relate to the staff as human beings. For the most part, the passengers simply respond to questions about what they want, and take it when given. They may say thank you, but they rarely look up if there is no particular reason to do so, and they rarely exchange a few friendly words. The staff mostly seem pleased when they do take that time, make that effort to make contact. Of course, the nature of first class is such that those travelling in it tend to be in higher status jobs, and those serving are in a job that would generally be considered lower status.
I would like to think that Quakers, when they choose to travel in such a manner, would be among those who would be friendly with those who serve them. It certainly seems to me that Quaker values would drive one to do so, but it is hard to know what other people would do in practice. That is not to say that we should all be super friendly with everyone we meet; we are all different, we have different tendencies to be sociable, and that is fine. What it does mean is that you should be no less friendly and personable with your doctor's receptionist than your doctor, no less pleasant and sociable with the people working the counter in your local bakery than your children's teachers.
In any case, the key point is this: it is not sufficient to treat all people the same. There are material differences between people that must be accounted for if one is to promote equality. There are more reasons for this than those I have given, of course. There is the matter of cultural sensitivity, that a given style of treatment will seem to some to be fine and friendly, and to others rude and unpleasant – and that defeats equality, too. If one sits and thinks for a time, it is not hard to come up with many such examples.
The real food for thought, for Friends, is something else, however. The flip-side of equality is diversity. A lack of diversity might be a result of inequality, or it might simply make it impossible to tell. If we wish our communities to be diverse, one essential is to be ready to practice true equality. To not simply accept others if they can be like us, or at least be quiet; rather to accept them as they are, in all their glorious difference. As recently as my own childhood, I have been aware of people who would make racist generalisations in front of a black friend, and then say something like “not you of course, you don't act black”.
There are elements of behaviour common to Quakers that are related to being a Quaker. There are others that are common to Quakers because of our relatively homogeneous cultural backgrounds, our generally higher-than-average levels of formal education. We must not muddle the two, and we must not act in such a way that makes it clear that we expect people to behave in certain ways. We must not act in such a way that makes those with different backgrounds feel “other”. There are countless little ways we do this, and it makes it more difficult for those who do not fit that mould, who know they do not fit that mould, to become part of our Meetings and our community.
I don't have a recipe to fix this. What I urge is this: think. Learn. Experience. Where there are Meetings that have succeeded at this, learn from them. Don't look at the most obvious differences and assume it is down to that. I have heard that our theological non-specificity is more likely to put off those of working class cultural background, because it is not easy to think about, or that it is more likely to put off non-white people because, well, I never quite understood a clear reason for that one. Now, it's possible that either or both of these are correct, but it's equally possible that they are not. It's perfectly possible that it's the way we talk about our theological liberalism that is off-putting for those with less formal education, because we communicate in ways that are strange to them (and goodness knows I'm guilty of that one). There are lots of possibilities, so let's try to learn, let's experiment, and let's for goodness sake actually do outreach that tries to broader our horizons and our diversity. Let's really understand what it means to include disabled people, and understand that we can communicate the subtleties of Quaker experience without alienating anyone without a masters degree.
It's only by confronting inequality in our midst that we can truly claim to promote equality as anything other than a Quakerly social/political concern. All the Living Wage campaigns in the world, all the rides to present petitions, are forms without substance when we do not practice equality within our own community, and we struggle to practice that equality when we are, compared to the wider world, so terribly homogeneous.
Making this testimony a reality requires more than good intentions and political determination. It requires making real changes and putting ourselves through discomfort.
But surely, with the guidance and assurance of the Spirit, that's something that is within our capability. If not, we may as well pack up and go home.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Did you enjoy this post, or find it interesting, informative or stimulating? Do you want to keep seeing more of these posts? Please consider contributing to my Patreon. More information is available in the post announcing my use of Patreon.
If you enjoy this blog, or otherwise find it worthwhile, please consider contributing to my Patreon. More information about this, and the chance to comment, can be found in the post announcing the launch of my Patreon.