Equality Act needs to go much much further (a five-minute think piece)
In this week’s five-minute think piece, I look at the equality legislation as a whole and debate the philosophical underpinnings of equality and diversity work. I argue that it has to go much further to not only improve but to completely change the status quo. Let’s get started…
John Rawls was brilliant, sure some people criticised him – but I’d argue that most of those criticisms were just to preserve the privileges of the criticisers… if we really care about building a fair, ethical and just society then why not build it based on the “veil of ignorance” and the principles of justice, especially the difference principle? If you don’t know what these are, you can find explanations here and for your convenience I’ll also briefly describe them below.
To re-imagine how the world should function in the most just way, Rawls said that people designing it should be placed under the “veil of ignorance”- that way they wouldn’t know their social position in the world (gender, race, age, class, etc.) and if they designed a sh*ty world and they happened to be at the bottom of the social pile then they’d be in trouble… The idea then is that people redesigning this world (under the veil of ignorance) would do it so that the inequalities are not detrimental to anyone’s health and well-being. Imagine not knowing that you’re a disabled Black trans Muslim lesbian in a Global South country and you’re designing the world (under the veil of ignorance) to be exactly as it is today on an off chance that you might be a white cis- straight Christian dude in Europe… boy would you be in for a surprise when the veil of ignorance is removed!
The difference principle then says that social and economic inequalities are allowed as long as they benefit the most disadvantaged. For example, it’s OK to pay more to doctors and researchers if they improve the quality of life of the poorest. Makes sense, right? He also said that access to those privileged positions (like doctors or researchers) should be on a basis of equality of opportunities… yeah, right, easier said than done… Enter, Equality Act 2010…
Equality Act 2010 is the main legislation in the UK to fight discrimination, i.e. to make this country a bit less sh*ty for those most disadvantaged… However, to make this world a better place for everyone, we need to go much further than what the law currently allows for… The way I see it is that in its current form the law tries to equalise opportunities for diverse people to be able to do what the already privileged are doing. However, it does not allow for the re-imagining of the world, where the currently privileged are no longer the norm. Let me give you a few examples… So, thanks to the Equality Act 2010 if you’re Black you should be able to do what White people do without barriers… what it means, though, is that recognition, success and prestige are still determined by the privileged (White) population. For example, the Act should allow you to be a successful and celebrated academic of Shakespearean literature. However, the provisions of the Act do nothing to allow for other (non-White) knowledges (e.g. stemming from Africa) and forms of knowledge production (such as oral histories) to be recognised as equally valid as those created within the university system – which is ultimately a White institution. For the disabled, the Equality Act says that all buildings should have adjustments – such as ramps or lifts for wheelchair users to access them, but it doesn’t say that buildings should be re-imagined, say, flat or built without stairs (i.e. only have ramps and lifts). If you’re gay, you can have the same marriage (protections) as straight couples, but you cannot have a union that is more compatible with your world view and lifestyle.
Some would argue that this is not what law is for, that the function of law is to be a floor (to give the minimum protections) rather than the ceiling (the height of aspirations). However, we also know that changing the society is extremely difficult, and law often forces these changes. So why not make the ceiling our new floor by building higher, better, stronger? The Equality Act, as well as wider law (other acts) and society need to do much more to make this world a better place for all. Over the next few weeks I’ll be reviewing some of the ways this could happen.