Monthly Archives: December 2009

Prejudice and equalities

Yesterday’s UK papers have been covering a spat between Philip Davies, a Tory MP, and Trevor Philips, the head of the UK ‘equalities’ body (see the Guardian, the Times). I do support the work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but Trevor Philips doesn’t do the cause any favours in some of his answers to the MP’s letters.

The Tory MP is a mischief maker with too much time on his hands. He’s written lots of letters about ‘political correctness gone mad’ that fit into a Daily Mail view of the world. In this view, anything and everything is done for the benefit of ‘minorities’ and that would include ‘wimmin’, gay people, ethnic minorities, and anyone different to the norm. This argument takes in the myths about banning golliwogs and Christmas in schools.

Part of the problem comes in the name of the body. The word ‘equality’ means different things to different people, and political philosophers have used up much paper and ink working out what equality, justice, and the ‘good society’ should be. Particularly in the literature on multiculturalism, there’s the big question of group and cultural differentiation and rights. In essence, should people be treated differently just because of their (assumed) membership of a group, and the further (assumed) differences in needs and capabilities. This raises questions of the form ‘should women have separate sports sessions, as they may be put off by the presence of men?’ or ‘how far should employers adapt their working hours for those who need time off for religious reasons?’. Treating everyone the same isn’t equality, as people have different needs and capabilities (see Amartya Sen on capabilities), but treating people differently merely on the basis of group membership can create new injustices (see Sen again in Identity and Violence).

Of course, the work of the EHRC is informed by the historical injustices of the UK. So our history of colonialism and inability to welcome or assimilate newcomers leads to problems with regards to race. Moving from a patriarchal society means that gender issues are important, and so on. However, the EHRC also suffers from its own history. It was formed by the bringing together of a number of bodies that did similar work (the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission) but only on one inequality each. There was hope for ‘joined up thinking’ whereby the way that individuals’ multiple identities combine to form injustice could be addressed. Furthermore, other injustices could be addressed.

I was actually a researcher on a small study that informed the creation of the body, Melanie Howard and Sue Tibballs’  Talking Equality (2003). I remember that the interviews and focus groups added a further source of inequality that got lost from the agenda: class. Indeed, if we added class to the mix it would help with some of the other injustices. It is surely more just (in terms of numbers), and so a higher priority and more likely to be supported by the public, to argue for equal pay for female cleaners than to examine the numbers of women in boardrooms. Similarly, addressing literacy problems across the board, and especially in white and Asian working class families, should be more important than BME business initiatives.

To go back to Trevor, and what I think he’s missing in his replies to the MP, just addressing the five or six ‘inequalities’ identified so far doesn’t bring justice. I know he was probably bored of the correspondence by this point but this exchange is particularly problematic:

Should anti-discrimination laws ought to be extended “to cover bald people (and perhaps fat people and short people)”?

“The answer to your question is no.”

Now I haven’t read anything about bald or short people, but there’s plenty of literature on discrimination or prejudice against fat people. Trevor Philips should have said that the body works to eradicate prejudice wherever it is found, and that if a group or type of people is found to be unjustly discriminated against then measures could be needed, perhaps laws, perhaps not. He’s fallen into a trap: he didn’t want to play into the anti-PC brigade (imagine the Daily Mail headlines re. short people), but instead he’s telling us that only some groups deserve protection, so we can have Daily Mail headlines saying that the body only protects ‘minorities’, so can be cut by a Tory government. A broader support for human rights and tackling discrimination is more likely to be achieved if it isn’t about sectional interests, or the different, but is for everyone and is promoted as being for everyone.

P.S. If you think that other, less talked about, prejudices are never as serious as racism, remember that one young woman was recently murdered for being a goth.

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Press releases as news

This is a second post about one article in the Guardian. One of the reasons why claims such as this get repeated without question is the news sources’ reliance on press releases. Nick Davies, in the excellent Flat Earth News shows how rushed journalists don’t get chance to check all the facts, and have to rely on what government, companies and others tell them. Here’s a good example. Below I compare a Guardian article with the Metropolitan Police Service press release. The Guardian version has only two sentences that aren’t in the press release, one of which was an excuse to use a picture of Vivienne Westwood to illustrate the article:

One online security source said the operation was ground-breaking in its scale and in the way it attempted to protect the UK system. The source said this was thought to be the biggest mass “deregistration” of scam counterfeit goods websites anywhere in the world.

It is understood other designer brands targeted by the criminals include jewellery firm Links of London and clothing labels Vivienne Westwood and Ed Hardy.

Now that’s criminal.

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Say something often enough…

and people will believe it. Today I was annoyed with the repeated claim that a lesser crime such as fraud or avoiding tax on cigarettes funds a greater crime such as terrorism, drug dealing or people trafficking (National Fraud Authority).

This has been around for a while. I remember ads in London advising people not to buy counterfeit DVD’s in the pub as it would fund drug dealing, and this time it’s scam websites (see the Guardian).

The websites are thought to have generated millions of pounds for organised criminal gangs, which could then be used to fund other illicit activities, the Metropolitan Police’s Central e-crime unit (PCeU) said.

Now excuse me if I’m wrong, but those other illicit activities such as drug dealing and people trafficking (but not terrorism) tend to be quite profitable themselves. Given the risks involved I don’t see why an organised crime gang would take the money from credit card scams and invest it in loss-making drug and trafficking ventures. They don’t really need to be cross-subsidising unprofitable parts of the business. Drug dealers tend to make money and can use their previous profits to buy more product (see the Wire). People traffickers take the money up front, so they’d never be in a position to risk their own money.

Of course, a start-up drug dealing operation might need some capital, but setting up a fraud operation probably needs just as much. And perhaps credit card fraud can help with laundering, although I don’t see how. It’s more likely that the kind of gangs that are breaking the law and risking punishment are willing to diversify into other risky – in terms of punishment – businesses.

It would make sense to concentrate on the terrorism angle. After all, terrorists need money, and will use illegal means to get it. This part of the argument makes sense and should appeal to almost everybody.

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