Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 81
4th December 2002
A Record of a Debate Held by the Local Government Association
on Wednesday the 4th December 2002
on the Motion: “This House Believes Promoting Diversity Causes Discrimination”
About a month ago, David Conway telephoned me to ask if I might be interested in making a speech to the Local Government Association, which, as its name suggests, is an organisation set up to represent the interests of local government in England and Wales. I said yes, and forgot about the matter. Only yesterday did I bother looking at the papers that had been sent to me and pay attention to what the debate was to be over. I am normally a very lazy speaker. I never write my speeches, and usually give no thought to their content until I open my mouth. On this occasion, however, I was to be proposing a somewhat controversial motion to an audience of Guardian readers. Looking at the list of those invited to sit in the audience, I noticed representatives from the Commission for Racial Equality, the Runnymede Trust, the National Housing Association, the Home Office, and various other bodies with the same predictable views. And so I decided to give up on trying to be spontaneous, and wrote my speech in full.
Speaking for the motion with me was Tiffany Jenkins, who is Director of the Arts and Society Programme at the Institute of Ideas. Speaking against was Simon Woolley, who is National Co-ordinator of Operation Black Vote, and who wrote a most interesting article in The Guardian a few months ago about Winston Churchill and Black History Month. With him was Dr Richard Reiser, Director of Disability Equality in Education. Together with Councillor Laura Willoughby, who is Chairman of the Local Government Association Equalities Executive, and who was to keep order in the proceedings, we sat together at a raised table facing the invited audience. The debate was recorded, and transcripts will be published by the Local Government Association.
Ms Jenkins spoke first. She began by praising certain kinds of diversity—the sort that brought vibrancy and cosmopolitanism to a country. But followed by saying that diversity as a public ideology was a force for great evil. First, it tended to stereotype people, putting them into categories that were permanent and irreconconcilable. Second, it was reactionary, so far as it upheld the present order of things. Third, that it tended to undermine the sense of shared experience that all societies needed to survive. In its place, it put the thought police.
I spoke next, but as I will simply give the full speech that I made, I will leave this to last, in order not to unbalance the brief account that I am giving of the other speakers. I am, I must emphasise, giving bald and probably inaccurate accounts. I hope that the other speakers will publish their own accounts and circulate them at least as widely as I am circulating mine. If not, there will be the official transcript on the Local Government Association website.
Mr Woolley spoke third. He began by describing his thoughts when first invited to speak. At the beginning of this century, he said, he thought it was a waste of time to debate on whether diversity was a good thing: the real debate for him was over how it was best to be promoted. However, he had decided to come along and argue that it was a good thing and should be promoted for two main reasons. First, it was the right thing to do—an inclusive society was obviously better than one that was not. Second, it was in the direct self-interest even of people like Sean Gabb to have the promotion of diversity. People who are not included in the making of decisions drift to the margins, where they turn either to crime or to dangerous ideologies like radical Islam. Look at Bradford, he said—a place torn apart not because of its diversity but by the lack of any real diversity. Look, on the other hand, at London—a city universally admired and indeed envied for its great wealth of diversity.
Finally, Dr Reiser spoke. For him, diversity was the same as equality and therefore the same as a fairer world. Discrimination was always the fault of those in power—politicians and big business. Racism was a product of their imperialism. So were racial attacks and murder. What the world needed, he said, was the use of power to correct its past misuses. He accused the proposers of the motion of “extreme right wing prejudice” camoflaged in “neo-liberal arguments” about freedom of speech and association. He objected to Sean Gabb’s use of the word “handicapped”, arguing that the correct word was “disabled”, and that to use any other was patronising and offensive. Of course, the Government must challenge discrimination wherever it could be shown to exist—I counted 15 uses of the word “challenge” in this sense. Therefore, we needed a new Race Relations Act, and much more vigorous promotion of diversity. In particular, we need much more promotion of diversity in schools. We needed to abolish independent education, so that all children could study together in state schools, where they could be taught to love one another. Ultimately, he concluded, it was necessary not just to change this country, but the whole world, dominated as it is by American imperialists and rapacious multi-national corporations.
Now, here is my speech. I read it slowly and exactly in my loudest and flattest voice.
I will begin by questioning the notion of diversity. What does it mean? If it means that we are all individuals with different tastes and opinions and understandings of the world, it is of course something with which no libertarian would take issue. As commonly used, however, it means that we should work for the sort of society in which every organisation, public and private, is filled with representative numbers of women, black people, homosexuals, and the handicapped. Anything with less than representative numbers of these and other groups is to be investigated on the grounds that it is probably discriminating. In describing the ideal society according to this view of diversity, the old sneer about jobs for black, one-legged lesbians is cruel but not that unfair.
Now, this is a diversity of sorts. But it is not the diversity that really exists when not as carefully managed and constrained as a bonsai tree. This is the diversity that concentrates on superficial differences between individuals. When it comes to matters of opinion, there is no diversity. Everyone is expected—in public, at least—to endorse the kind of opinions that would not be out of place in a Guardian editorial. Let there be diversity of belief—let someone say the number of black people in this country has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished; or that America is the Great Satan, and got a jolly good hiding in New York last year, and should mind its ps and qs over the Middle East in future if it wants to avoid more of the same; or that homosexuals are the spawn of Satan, and aids is only the beginning of God’s punishment for their abominations—let anyone deviate from the Guardian line on any issue dear to the promoters of diversity, and there is an end of talk about diversity. The cry will go up for sackings from employment, for police and security service harassment, and of course for censorship laws with criminal sanctions attached. Promoters of diversity as the word is commonly used are inclined to tolerate only the diversity of which they approve. Where they do not approve, they will happily manufacture excuses for hate crime laws as arbitrary and soon perhaps as draconian as the religious laws of Elizabeth I.
That, I suspect, is the diversity promoted by the Local Government Association and the organisations that employ most of the rest of you. Looking around this room, I see people of every superficial difference. But anyone of you who deviates too far from the bonsai intellectual status required will pretty soon find out what the inside of a job centre looks like nowadays.
The problem is that diversity as it exists outside the bonsai grove is not some multicultural love feast. It is an extraordinarily unstable thing, always liable to collapse into violence born of ungovernable hatred. If you want to see diversity in action, look away from this room—look at Yugoslavia; look at Rwanda; look at Ulster; look at parts of India; look at the old Ottoman Empire and virtually the whole of the present Middle East. Those born into such societies know that they are unfortunate, and lament their inability to make their world different from how it is. Yet that is exactly what we, in the name of diversity or anti-discrimination or multiculturalism, are busily—if usually uncomprehendingly – manufacturing for ourselves.
Diversity does not need to collapse into naked violence to produce a nasty, uncivil society. There are many circles of hell before the lowest is reached. But how can the historic, fairly liberal institutions of this country survive, when increasing numbers of people are actively encouraged not to define themselves as individual members of one nation, but as members of groups with interests different from and often opposed to those of other groups?
Democracy requires at least belief in a fluid public opinion to which rival candidates can address themselves and hope to win over enough votes to form a government—a government that will exist so long as their majority exists, and that will in the meantime be regarded by the present minority as legitimate if regrettable. In a society Balakanised along racial, religious, sexual, or any other lines, democracy is no more than a headcount superfluous so long as the census reports are up to date—a headcount after which the majority will forever more or less tyrannise over the minority.
And if that is the case with national democracy, how much more it is with local government, with the delivery of public services like healthcare and education, with policing, and with criminal justice. How can there be trial by jury when verdicts are routinely brought in on grounds separate from the evidence presented in court?
To say that diversity as commonly promoted causes discrimination is the very mildest condemnation.
Nations are fictitious entities. Except where the smallest or most primitive are concerned, they are not composed of individuals very closely related by blood. They have normally grown over centuries by amalgamation with successive waves of migrants and invaders. What holds a nation together, then, is not shared blood, but a shared identity. Attack that identity, and the nation is attacked. Destroy that identity, and the nation is destroyed. But, as said, do not suppose the resulting diversity will be one of mutual love or even respect. It will be a diversity in which individuals are judged according not to character or ability, but to membership of a distinct and possibly hostile group.
The challenge facing this country in the next few generations is to find some minimal shared identity with which to connect the often visibly diverse individuals who live here. The facts of demography mean that this must be very largely a matter of assimilation – though with much compensating tolerance by the majority of remaining differences. How we shall manage this I do not know. But I do know we shall not manage it by promoting diversity.
The speeches over, questioning from the floor began. About half of it was directed at me, but I had run out of paper and the will to keep notes; and so anyone interested to know exactly what was said must wait for the official transcript. However, I had the chance for several long replies, the last of which went something as follows:
I repeat that I am not arguing for a monolithic society, in which all people must conform to one standard of thought and behaviour. Indeed, I am arguing against exactly that. I believe that we should do our best to get along with each other, and that we should always try to look behind superficial things like nipple rings and green hair and religion and colour of skin, and judge each other on character and ability. But I do not believe in the enforcement of niceness. As a libertarian, I believe in the right of people to do as they please with themselves. This means that people have the right to discriminate in their selection of employees and tenants on the basis of race, religion, sexuality, age, physical incapacity, or any other criterion that takes their fancy. To say otherwise is to advocate forced association. People also have the right to say anything they like about the above issues, no matter how unloving it might be. To say otherwise is to advocate censorship.
I oppose all state promotion of diversity. I therefore believe in repealing all the race relations and other anti-discrimination laws. I also believe in shutting down the Commission for Racial Equality and bodies like the Local Government Association. Please accept that there is nothing personal in this. I have no doubt that you would all do much better for yourselves if you were required to sell your services in the private sector. You would also do less harm to the wealth and happiness of all the people in this country.
I saw several mouths fall open in the audience when I said this. Of course, the motion was lost. In the vote at the beginning of the meeting, it was lost by about 30 to four, with five abstentions. In the final vote, those in favour were down to two, with five abstentions—though these were a different five. But no one shouted back at me or walked out. Indeed, I was surprised how nice most Guardian readers can be. We were all very friendly in the buffet afterwards. I was button-holed by a young woman who I think was Mr Woolley’s daughter, though I neglected to ask. She began with flattery. She was a reader, she said, of Free Life Commentary on my web page and found it very interesting. the surest way to an intellectual’s heart is though his ego. This young lady will doubtless go far in life. She then asked why I was spending so much of my time on the mixed bag of losers and cretins who are the modern Conservative Party? Why not turn my attentions to the Liberal Democrats? These at least were already social liberals, and they might with a fraction of the effort I had wasted on the Tories come to some agreement on economic liberalism. Good question, and I had no ready answer. Perhaps I should think of one.
Her third point, and we argued over this at some length, was that I had made no effort to win the debate. She thought the motion might have been carried had I taken the same approach as Ms Jenkins and tried to argue my case in terms more familiar to the audience.
My reply was to repeat the argument long ago agreed within the Libertarian Alliance. The purpose of taking part in such debates was not to try to win them. That might be possible by softening arguments and trying to find common ground. But it was worthless in the long term, bearing in mind the very small number of libertarian activists. The real purpose was to use every opportunity to state one’s opinions as clearly and with as little compromise as possible – thereby contributing to a long term shift in the terms of debate.
Had I been less tired after a day of hard teaching—taking my students to a coffee warehouse that no longer existed, and so forth – and had my mind been less ruled as I spoke by the railway timetable, I should have used the example of Mr Woolley. His reaction to what I said was interesting. I do not doubt his honesty or good faith, but I will say that he replied to me in the debate by arguing against positions I had not taken. This was not, I think, my fault. My speech is a pretty clear statement of belief; and I can have no doubt that he caught every word: sitting next to me, he might even have benefitted from ear plugs. The problem is that he had probably never come across opinions like mine. The natural human reaction to the unfamiliar is to try and make sense of it by squeezing it into a known category, however inappropriate that may be. But this is a short term reaction. The next time Mr Woolley hears the libertarian case against diversity promotion, it will be more familiar to him. His disagreement then will not be over what it is not, but over what it is. Eventually, I hope, he will realise that disagreement is not possible. The day he resigns from Operation Black Vote, and becomes a British Thomas Sowell will be the day his daughter has my full answer to her objection.
Yes, it was a successful and enjoyable evening. Many thanks in conclusion to Councillor Willoughby for chairing the meeting so tightly and yet so fairly. Perhaps I should be more careful in future about stereotyping all Guardian readers as embittered fascists spraying staccato hatred from behind a clenched and shaking cigarette.
© 2002 – 2018, seangabb.
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