Getting liberal about diversity

Once again, the debate about diversity has come up.

Once again, the old chestnut of being ‘representative’ versus being ‘the best for the job’ is hauled out again.

Too many Lib Dems just don’t get why diversity is so important. Too many don’t see the benefits that diversity brings us. There is a lack of diversity at every level of the party and too often the only response is hand wringing.

Let’s be clear. Recognising diversity is not just about looking more representative of Britain. That, of course, would be tokenism.

Nor is it about making trying to make women and ethnic minorities (or anyone else) feel better.

Diversity is vital, because to have a different sex, colour or ethnicity to the majority of the establishment is to have a different experience of life than those who are from, or look like, the rest of the establishment.

That is especially relevant in the interpretation of the law and here I think Martin Gill is oversimplifying things when he talks of High court Judges merely applying the law.

Yes, I know the way you look shouldn’t matter. Like Martin Luther King, I’m looking forward to a time when it doesn’t matter what colour we are but we are very, very far from there now.

So, let’s be honest. Right now, society treats people differently depending on the way that they look, their sex, the colour of their skin, hair, eyes, bust, whether they are tall or short, overweight or slim. I can do something about most of those things, I can change my hair colour, even wear high heels to look taller but I don’t want to change my sex and I can’t change the colour of my skin.

Society treats women differently from men; it also treats people differently depending on the colour of their skin and therefore women and ethnic minorities will have a fundamentally different experience of life. Not necessarily worse or better but different. This leads to different approaches to life, different perceptions of opportunities and different understandings of how the world works, what is best and what is desirable.

It is that understanding that is missing from our elected representatives, the judiciary and, indeed, the Liberal Democrats.

However much a person tries to understand and empathise, there will be some areas where they are not even conscious of difference; they are not conscious that other people may have completely different perceptions or understandings of how the world works.

It works all ways; I am constantly amazed, surprised and brought up short at the assumptions and approach to life of the average man, let along the average white, upper class, privately educated man. I can’t believe, given that the dominant mores in society are those of that upper class, male establishment that they would find it any easier to put themselves in my boots than I do to put myself in theirs.

We need diversity in our public life because we are currently having our laws created, interpreted and applied by a very narrow band of society who have a very narrow, privileged experience of the world.

As long as we let it go on we are shutting out women and ethnic minorities and ignoring their legitimate needs as members of our polity and our society. To put it plainly, if we don’t have diversity then ours laws and their implementation will not be as good as they could be; they will not be the best laws for the job.

So, tell me: what is “liberal” about that?

We attempt to be blind to a person’s diversity, either because we are worried that unconscious prejudices will lead to it being ‘held against them’ or because we are trying to get the ‘best person’ for the job. If everyone that does the job is the same, if they are only from one part of society, then the last few to be recruited are not adding anything to that group’s understanding of the world: how can they be the best person for the job?

We should be celebrating and searching out candidates who add to the diversity of the group into which they are being recruited not because of the colour of their skin or their sex but because of their diverse experience of life!

That richer, more diverse experience will lead to legislation and judgements that take account of the myriad of different experiences of what it is to be a human being. All of us, whether we are part of the establishment or not will benefit from this in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

Perhaps one day, how we look will make no difference to the way society treats us; perhaps all that will matter is the content of our character. In order for us to get closer to that dream we will need to make changes at the top. We will need to ensure that our leaders are diverse because without that the change so desperately need will barely progress as long as those with the power to create, interpret and apply our laws come from just that one group.


OneHourAhead said...
4 Feb 2008, 21:54:00

Not sure I share you reasoning here Jo (although as I am a white male, not upper class nor privately educated mind, then may be I am blinkered).

For the judiciary, surely anything but a meritocratic system is fraught with danger. If you factor other selection criteria into the process then you leave the system open to attack. If you have to go to court surely the only way to deem the process fair is when you know the person presiding has earned their place there. I don't expect them to share my views - that is what the jury is for, they are there to ensure I am assessed by a representative portion of my peers. The judge could be a crazed fascist with a hatred of East Anglians, but all I need from them is knowledge of the law and the ability to stick to it. Therefore shouldn't he/she be assessed by those parameters? or put it this way - If you could change the judiciary tomorrow to purely reflect the make up of the UK would you do it? Do you then think that people would have faith in their judges knowing that there had been interference? Or think this - if there was an massive increase in the number of latin americans suddenly emigrating here, should the bench immediately change to accomodate them?

With elected representatives you have more of a case. Communities should be represented by people who understand them the best and therefore a number of factors can come into play. WIth regards to women in politics, I think a number of things can be done to entice women into politics without the need to discriminate against men. But with the idiocy of westminster I can almost see the benefits of forcing women on them to make the place more respectable.

The Liberal approach is to give everyone a fair chance. That means a fair chance throughout life so that everyone has the chance to reach their maximum ability, everyone has the same opportunities. This is a massive task, but the only true liberal solution. That is what is holding people back.

I think you are right that the world is tilted in favour of me, and would be titled even more in my favour if I had more money and less of a country accent. But I constantly fail to understand how discrimination is the best solution. The best solution is to work out what is holding people back and then tackle that head on.

Linda Jack said...
4 Feb 2008, 22:35:00

Jo, thanks for continuing to fly the flag! "Onehourahead", you make a sound suggestion "The best solution is to work out what is holding people back and then tackle that head on." This is exactly what Jo is advocating. What holds people back is that they don't look, sound, think like those who occupy the status quo. The truth is that there are two barriers. One is that I don't see myself there so I can't imagine myself there, secondly those that are there know what those in that position should look them. Sometimes it is overt, sometimes subliminal. I do go on and on about this, but the debate in the States at the moment should give us a clue. The fact that there is a debate about whether or not America could elect a woman or a black man, says it all. Pretending it is not an issue, even in our splendidly liberal party,leaves us looking like the proverbial ostrich!


Jo Christie-Smith said...
5 Feb 2008, 10:22:00

One Hour Ahead, thanks for your comment; I do have a response but it will have to wait until I get home this evening and I can access my blog through something other than my iPhone!

OneHourAhead said...
5 Feb 2008, 11:08:00

No probs. Have a good day!

Jo Christie-Smith said...
5 Feb 2008, 19:00:00

Hi One Hour Ahead,

I think the thing to remember is that I’m not suggesting that diversity is all about being representative; it has a far greater inherent value than that. It is about getting a diversity of approaches to life, which comes about as a result of different experiences in life.

I disagree with the notion that the judiciary are just objective appliers of statute. The whole point is that they are the last arbiters of how the law is interpreted. If ‘knowledge’ of the law is all that is required, then surely a very clever 21 year old who had a very good memory legal statute could be considered for a high court judge? But that doesn’t happen, does it because we want our High Court Judges to have experience? Just look at the US and how important the stance of Supreme Court judges is and their impact on the roles of law and the courts in the US! Whether a Supreme Court judge is conservative or (using the US meaning) ‘liberal’ has implications for years to come.

We then have to ask: well what experience is required, what is the best experience? And we also have to look at who is deciding what the optimum criteria are? What should be included in that assessment of who is the best? Who decides the what has merit in a meritocracy?

Gosh – what a surprise, it’s previous high court judges…and what are they like? How did they get to where they are today?

The idea that high court judges are simple, appliers of law, who add nothing of their own experience and were only picked because they were the ‘best men for the job’ in a meritocracy, where which qualities are of merit is decided by a group of men who come from exactly the same background as them can be seen to serve nothing else but the status quo.

Diversity transcends any idea about fairness, political correctness or being representative. It is not about vested interests, it’s about groups of people in power making more rounded, balanced decisions based on experience of the whole of humanity not just a narrow group.

I mean, what value do you see in diversity?

OneHourAhead said...
6 Feb 2008, 15:30:00

Hi Jo,

Sorry I didn't reply last night - I was out enjoying some crepes (not allowed to call them pancakes here!) and nutella (a yummy combination if you want to try).

Firstly, I would say quickly that I see the value of diverse experience and opinions. Judges, politicians, whoever shouldn't only come from one walk of life. That kind of idea reminds me of Mervyn Griffith-Jones asking whether Lady Chatterley's Lover was the kind of book "you would wish your wife or servant to read". Secondly, as Linda says, I think it is also an issue that the party should address (hence I engaged in this debate rather than just going "*yawn* yeah, whatever").

Having said that I am going to play Devil's advocate. If you did have a 21-year old law genius who understood all precedent then what would be the problem with that? Why does a judge have to have experience? They have to have common sense, true. I would prefer a judge who thought logically to one who thought like judge John Deed.

If experience does matter then still there is the problem of how to apply it. If I as the defendent were to get an asian female judge, how would her experience inform her judgement on my case? Should defendents be able to choose their judge to best represent them as they can choose a lawyer?* I don't neccessarily see how that experience helps me, or you? Do you know of any recent instances that you would consider miscarriages or mistakes of justice that were due to a judge having different life experience than a defendent?**

Flipping out of DA mode I can begin to see your point now though. Bad law has been made in the past by idiots and this impacts current society and we need people with different perspectives to inform good law. I just don't see how discrimination is a good answer. I suppose it comes down to whether you see change on the way or not. In your original post you said you don't whereas I do. Maybe I am just being idealistic. I don't see the difference between me and my girlfriend, or me and my sister, or me and the other post-doc (female) in my lab or me and my grad student (pashtun). Therefore isn't the change being made, albeit it hasn't had time to reach the upper echelons yet?

* I am not being facetious here - this is a genuine question. I really want to think about how it could work.

** Again, not facetious, just interested.


Andrew (in these serious discussions "OneHourAhead" seems a bit silly!)

Jo Christie-Smith said...
7 Feb 2008, 19:15:00

Experience allows you to see patterns more quickly than just reading it all in a book. I’m an experienced Project Manager and this is valuable because I am able to see very quickly what will be the outcome of applying not enough process in one situation and too much in another. I can only do this because I’ve run a number of projects and have been able to learn from the interaction of activity and outcomes. That’s the difference between me and the person who has just read the Prince2 manual from cover to cover.

Our argument is whether judges have any discretion in how they interpret and apply the law; I say they do and that they use their life experience to inform the decisions they make.

As liberals we like to focus our analysis at the level of the individual, but diversity is one area that we have to widen our analysis out to look at the group.

One person cannot be diverse, but groups can. So, no I don’t think defendants should get to choose their judges. I suspect the only reason why background of judges is not so important here than in the US, is because they all have the same one!! The benefit of diversity is the fact that judges do talk to each other, take notice of how others behave and therefore like with any group when you make it diverse you get a change of norms and a greater consciousness that people are different and what that difference means on a practical basis.

Up until a few weeks ago one of the young men who work with me would say things like ‘the football team I play for are all a bunch of women’. The first time I hauled him up on it he apologised. The second time, I caught his eye and he started talking about how good the English women’s football team were. It hasn’t happened since. Because they had a feminist in their midst, who had a different assumptions and feelings to them they had to amend their behaviour. It seemed it was the first time they’d ever thought of how offensive using the word woman, as an insult, would be to a woman!!

I suspect our current crop of high court judges don’t get that same opportunity because there’s no one there to challenge their assumptions and behaviour. Because they all come from the same group in society the reinforcement of their view on life will become all the stronger.

What is the difference that you don’t see between you and the women in your life? I’m sure you believe them to be equal, of course but equal is not the same as being the same. I would bet you that they’ve had a different experience of life than you, as well. I did some work for the MRC last year and there are some big issues with women dropping out of science and very few making it to the top. If you are all the same, with the same experiences of life, why is that then?

Is it getting better? Female MPs and business leaders are down on 2 years ago. There’s so few, you see that when you lose one or two it has a big effect on the stats. Is it getting better in Iran, Iraq or Saudi? Are women working more or less hard in Africa because IMF and World Bank development requirements ignore the fact and economic benefit of women’s unpaid labour?

If it is getting better, it’s at glacial speed and too slow for me.

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