Equality is fragile

We can never take equality for granted. Any progress towards equality is always at risk of being reversed. Prejudice will always find new forms. 

I sometimes wonder if I deserve to live in the same world as Sue Perkins.

I pondered this once again the other day, listening to Perkins’s podcast with Russell T Davies.* This is a lovely, wide-ranging conversation, taking in topics as diverse as Doctor Who, the superiority of Asterix over Tintin and the joy that guinea pigs can occasionally find in human culture.** Sue Perkins’s good humour and eloquent expression of pure, beautiful values shine through, just as they do in all she does.

The two have much to say about equality and prejudice, focusing on how attitudes to sexuality have changed over their respective lifetimes. Davies speaks of the remarkable progress that has been made towards overcoming some of the prejudice he recalls from his childhood. Yet he is clear-eyed about the precarious nature of equality. He cautions that prejudice has not disappeared from this world. Davies says:

“Every step we take, the prejudice takes a new shape. It’s like water flooding into a footprint. It just fills the spaces and it never goes away.”

I think that this is a perfect description of the way that prejudice will always find news forms. Davies sees a current manifestation of prejudice – and for him the most pressing current threat to equality – as coming from how the political right has co-opted language:

“The right wing have seized the language and they’ve seized the imagination. They know what they’re doing. All the language of PR and showbiz and manipulation is theirs. The left wing is scrabbling.”

The new front

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This episode of Sue Perkins’s An hour or so with… podcast was released in August 2020. I came to it a little late, listening to her chat with Davies on my early morning walk last Saturday (20 February 2021). Yet Davies’s words about the co-opting of language seemed absolutely of the moment.

Later that same morning, I read Otto English’s Byline Times piece on the “war on woke” in which the UK Government currently appears to be engaged. English says of this new front in the so-called “culture war”:

“‘Woke’ in its original sense means to be ‘alert to injustice’, which is a noble ambition. But […] the word has been deliberately and pejoratively repurposed by the right to mean ‘anything we don’t like which we deem to be progressive’. In a sense, branding someone ‘woke’ is the new ‘Project Fear’ – a blunt but effective weapon deployed by Twitter and Government trolls to shut down debate and nuance.”

I try to keep an eye on news sources from all points on the political compass. Directly after reading English’s words, I came across a Daily Telegraph article that would appear to mesh perfectly with the idea of a confected culture war. It concerns a Telegraph investigation into charities giving unconscious bias training to their staff, conducted “amid questions on why donations are being spent on ‘virtue signalling'”.

Before we get to the Telegraph article, here’s the BBC’s definition of unconscious bias training from its December 2020 report on the Government’s decision to scrap such training for civil servants in England:

“Unconscious bias training is an attempt to challenge prejudiced ways of thinking that could unfairly influence decisions – such as who might get a job or a promotion. It can be prejudiced behaviour, based on assumptions about others, that people are not aware of themselves.”

The findings of the Telegraph‘s investigation into charities’ unconscious bias training include the following:

“Barnardo’s said it is ‘delivering an anti-racism learning programme’ for managers and leaders but it ‘does not include any ‘tests’ to measure unconscious bias’. […] Courses in unconscious bias have included lessons on woke-friendly language and history, the use of a giant blue puppet called UB and actors role-playing situations employees might encounter.”

This is just one article from one newspaper. But it raises so many questions. Does anyone feel harmed or threatened by a charity delivering anti-racism learning programmes or seeking to challenge prejudiced ways of thinking? Why was this article written? What is it trying to achieve?

We’re all fellow sufferers

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The path towards equality never proceeds in a single direction. We can never take equality for granted. Any progress towards equality is always at risk. As I wrote in Equal in all directions:

“Our commitment to equality, to diversity and inclusion, should and must be endlessly reaffirmed. If we believe in equality for one, we must believe in equality for all. Remembering and acting on the belief that humans are equal in all directions should be a core part of all our actions, always.”

Prejudice doesn’t disappear. Rather, it assumes new shapes, just as water floods a footprint. We must always do what we can to counter and to disprove prejudice. I want to close this post with some lovely words from Sue Perkins on how we might go about doing this.

Towards the end of their podcast conversation, Davies returns to the topic of how the progress made on equality should never be taken for granted. “The world seems to be swinging back against that”, he says. “Do we just preach to the converted? That’s the dread of my life.” Perkins replies:

“No. I think you just carry on telling stories that are warm and funny and you make people feel good and you make people slowly realise that we’re all in it together and that it doesn’t really matter who you take to bed of an evening or where you come from or what your bank balance is. We’re all fellow sufferers.”

Amen.

May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.

FOOTNOTES

* Russell T Davies is, of course, the writer of It’s A Sin, Doctor Who, and a wealth of other projects. I particularly recommend the book Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale (co-written by Davies and Benjamin Cook) for a wealth of warm and witty insights into how RTD goes about the work of writing.

** Sue Perkins tells a truly delightful tale of looking after a guinea pig named Nigel Tufnell for her long-term comedy partner Mel Giedroyc. I was overjoyed to hear that Nigel Tufnell’s reaction to Gérard Depardieu films was the same as that of our guinea pig Sundae to Elaine Paige’s showtunes show on BBC Radio Two. I tweeted Sue Perkins to tell her as much, and was pleased that she replied using the best possible word to describe Sundae.

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