Groucho Marx once said ‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies’. It may have been said in jest but there is, as with so much good comedy, a strong element of truth to it, which is why it came to mind after a recent speech setting out a supposed new direction for the UK’s Equalities Office. But before I look at this some background by way of a story…
During the summer of 2019 a friend and I visited Stowe, the magnificent house and gardens that had been the country home of the Dukes of Buckingham and which now housed Stowe school. Just past the Palladian Bridge we sat on the edge of the lake and discussed privilege, society and equality.
I had been at Stowe School in the 1970’s. Born into a white upper middle class home counties family my upbringing had been privileged; A house set in an acre of woodland, the best private schools, activities such as horse riding and classical music. My father, one of the first Concorde pilots, had minor celebrity status. Pushed to work hard by my aspirational parents, I attended a top university and established myself in the rapidly emerging world of IT. Marriage, family, my own successful IT business followed while I got involved in and became a pillar of the local community.
My friend on the other hand had been born into a two up two down terrace in a rough poverty stricken area of a devastated post-industrial Midland’s city. She had never known her mother, who left before she was two and had been brought up by her father, a labourer. She had had little and attended the local state schools where most of her classmates were neighbours from ethnic minorities. Despite this she too had worked hard, ending up at the top UK university for physics and space science where she achieved a first. A successful career in the space industry has followed and she can claim to have a satellite orbiting the earth, two items of equipment on the current mission to Mercury, her signature on Mars and of now being part of one of this country’s top space engineering and science projects.
As we sat there she understandably challenged the fairness of what she perceived to be my superior education: I responded that, while this was the image sold, the reality was somewhat different. Our teachers had been no different to those in other schools, while we had lived a cocooned life in which we were imbued with a sense of entitlement but little to no experience of the real world or of the diversity of people. We had entered adult society ill prepared and finding that our school and background actually counted for little, whereas our skills and abilities did. We found ourselves up against individuals, who may not have been to the same privileged schools, but who were more capable, more street wise and more adept at competing than we were. In short for all the cultural and material advantages we were perceived to have had we had nearly all just ended up in places that matched our skills and abilities.
I suggested that our own experiences and friendship demonstrated that ours is a society that is no longer dynastic but is, in the main, meritocratic and which offers social mobility based on merit and effort. Our successes in the fledgling and rapidly changing IT and space industries had rested entirely on our abilities not our social backgrounds, and our friendship which was founded on both being polymaths and having sharp senses of humour, had been possible because of social mobility and equality of opportunity. Added to this our society had enabled us to succeed as women…. well except….
… well except both of us had been born transgender. Assigned male at birth we had spent our childhoods and much of our adult lives as, supposedly, males. But the debilitating realities of our biology had led to us having, after many years of denial and struggle, to face up to the extremely challenging and painful process of transition to become, as we now were, integrated into society and accepted as women.
And it was in coming out and transitioning that we had encountered the realities of systemic and societal inequality. From being, as white males, part of societies accepted norm, ’trans’ became our primary label, and regardless of everything else we were, we were subjected to misunderstanding, prejudice, discrimination and abuse. As women we did, of course, also experience misogyny and sexism, but this was as nothing compared to the treatment we got simply for being labelled transgender.
We found ourselves the target of groups with extreme ideologies trying to deny our validity and right to exist, using a media that revelled in spreading lies and misinformation that falsely demonised us. We were subjected to public abuse and on-line trolling, bullying and implicit discrimination. And worse still we found the government complicit in this discrimination; NHS services so underfunded and overwhelmed that waiting times for first appointment at the specialist clinics were 3 years against a legal requirement of 3 months; anachronistic, overly-bureaucratic and flawed legislation that made getting relevant recognition, rights and protections almost impossible; A lack of legislation covering hate crime and the promotion of transphobia in the media, that allowed for this to be whipped up and perpetuated through well planned and executed campaigns.
We were no longer part of the cosy complicit silent majority who could opine from the comfort of our armchairs but a targeted minority, who had to stand up to and denounce the lies and propaganda being perpetuated about us and to battle for fairness in treatment and rights. And for that we had to approach and seek support from those in government and authority who were, supposedly, responsible for this.
It was therefore somewhat gobsmacking to hear, recently, the Equalities Minister, the person responsible for this, seemingly dismissing us as a woke minority who were putting protected characteristics ahead of individual character and claiming we were unfairly dominating the equalities debate, which should instead be centred on the ‘real concerns’ people face like ‘cutting commute times’.
Now hold on one darn minute please… Lets be clear here. We haven’t chosen to be defined by any characteristic and are only wanting to express our true individual characters. But we can only do this by accessing services and rights that, having been born transgender, require us to be assigned that characteristic by those in authority. We are only about individual character whereas it is the government that ‘believes in defining’ us by characteristics, because that is fundamentally how governments work. But in being labelled with that characteristic we became the target for those with extreme ideologies who want to deny us and eradicate us, through the propagation of lies, hate and so on.
Is it not fair, therefore, to ask the government to address that discrimination and for protections against these people, having had to accept the characteristic? Is it not fair to apply increasing pressure when this doesn’t happen or worse still, we find this discrimination and the hatemongers being supported by those in government? Is protecting our lives really less important than commute times simply because there are fewer of us than there are commuters? The Minister, it would seem, thinks the answers are ‘no, no and yes’ and that we should instead be looking to achieve some other capacious, but yet to be defined, vision of fairness and equality that ‘levels up’.
Now the idea of seeking fairness across society and levelling up is not, on the surface, unreasonable. As a commonly trumpeted trope it is always, for a time at least, a popular vote winner among the creppies (ultracrepidarians) of middle England. But it is, as history has shown, illusory. All animals are not equal: diversity and variance are not just inherent to but actually drive the evolution of nature and societies. Variation must and always will exist.
Of course, despite references to housing and commute times, material equality may not be what is being proposed here but fairness of opportunity and social mobility, presented as if putting these at the centre of the equality debate and government is a new idea. But this has, as far as I can see, been at the centre of government in this country for well over a century which is why we have egalitarian and universal education and health services, a welfare state that catches those in difficulty, along with additional government departments to look after transport, housing, communication, work, business, environment, food, utilities, fiscal policy, and so on under Ministers who are accountable, via parliament, to us all.
OK, as our world changes so this all needs on-going development, but our stories, which are far from unique, demonstrate that not only has equality been at the heart of government for our 50 plus years but that it’s been pretty successful in delivering a decent level of fairness of opportunity and social mobility for all, even if it has not been taken up by all.
Above that, though, our stories demonstrate that there remains an insidious threat to fairness and equality that needs addressing; that there continue to be groups who are, on purely ideological grounds, promoting animosity, hostility, and malice against others they identify as having characteristics that differ to theirs, groups that do not just actively deny equality of opportunity, social mobility and individual expression but actually seek to have these and those with those characteristics eradicated. And in recent years they have become successful in harnessing the power of not just the old media but the new media platforms, and the algorithms these employ, to disseminate propaganda, lies and misinformation that promote their ideologies and to recruit, grow and mobilise supporters, both visible and invisible, for their hate speech and activities. They have even been successful in turning the groups they target against each other and in creating what has been termed a culture war.
While not a purely UK issue this is still one that needs addressing here in the UK. Bullies and demonisers, lies and specious propaganda, hatred and evil must be identified and stood up against and the use of globally dispersed and connected technology that makes dissemination of propaganda, subversion and hate so easy must somehow be controlled. It is a hugely difficult challenge for many different reasons, made all the harder because those very same techniques and that very same propaganda machine have been and are being used by political leaders to secure their own following and power.
But if our society is to truly uphold the rights to life, liberty, freedom and fairness then we must prioritise truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference, and experts over ignoramuses and build these tenets into our society. It is a problem that we must face up to and address and vital to achieving and sustaining this is our education system, because you are not born racist, homophobic, transphobic, antisemitic, a denier and so on but are taught and choose to become these. Every ideology knows this, which is why they target children and schools, and why the transgender deniers have campaigned so vigorously recently against those helping and supporting transgender children. But despite this it was suggested our teaching about diversity and inclusiveness in schools is misguided and wrong, which is, as my own experience shows, rather absurd.
Despite having had the opportunity to send our children through private education, having both been through it ourselves, my ex and I chose to send our children to the local state schools and then encourage them to travel because we wanted them to understand and learn to be part of the real world and to embrace all its wonderful diversity. This didn’t impede their educational success or their careers but it made them recognise and respect people as unique individuals and to be inclusive, so that their friends now encompass all races, religions, sexualities, gender identities, learning abilities, social backgrounds. Fortunately, they were also taught to think critically, to seek out the truth and to challenge and to accept and learn from mistakes. They learnt that freedom of expression does not mean freedom to be heard, freedom to have what is expressed accepted, or freedom from any consequences of that expression. They learnt they had a personal responsibility to society, that they shouldn’t ask what their country could do for them but what they could do for their country.
All of this was so different and so much better than my own education with its narrow and divisive elitism and rote learning. Where we learnt when the holocaust happened, they learnt why the holocaust happened and how it could happen again. And their inclusive education is almost certainly the reason my children and their friends didn’t bat an eyelid when I transitioned whereas those of older generations, especially those who were ‘old school’, were the ones who were prejudiced and discriminatory towards me.
So given the above why should the Minister have said what she did? Well rather like a Yes Minister episode with Hacker seeking to promote himself by trying to put Administrative Affairs at the heart of government, maybe this is more about seeking greater power and influence within government and, in turn, personal gain than actual equality and fairness. Certainly, the very political nature of the speech might suggest this. Or maybe it was an attempt to avoid dealing with a set of issues that has been allowed to fester and become a highly toxic culture war and the issues with social media this has exposed, by hiding behind right wing ideology and propaganda with us cast as a divisive enemy. This would certainly be in line with the politics ours and other major democracies have been subjected to in recent years. And if not those, then maybe it was just a perfect example of Groucho Marx’s assertion; simply the wrong remedy for a misdiagnosed trouble, which would be supported by our stories!
Whatever, no Minister can claim to have a mission to create a fair and equitable society and then dismiss and ignore the inequalities that are faced by innate sets of individuals, especially when responsibility to address this rests with that Minister and a significant element of those inequalities are government originated. The hypocrisy can only be covered up, the responsibilities dodged for so long.
Joe Biden, in his recent inaugural speech, stated “It is now the policy of this administration that every person should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or whom they love” which he then demonstrated with a series of executive orders that overturned his predecessor’s discriminatory transgender legislation. This was met with howls of outrage from right-wingers, extreme ideologues and their minions who claimed the sky would fall. But not only has the sky not fallen, the polls have shown that dealing with discrimination and hatred through strong political leadership is very popular and unifying among the US people. It is a message that the UK's political parties and current government might do well to heed.
The US poet e e cummings once wrote ‘It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are’. It does, indeed, take courage to accept and deal with having been born transgender, and even greater courage to stand up against those who wish to deny and eradicate us. And it really is fair and reasonable to ask those in government to also show a little courage and to stand by us and take the action necessary to enable us to live our lives peacefully and true to ourselves. Maybe, therefore, the Minister might show some strong political leadership by setting her own house in order and dealing with the injustice and inequalities we face, before setting out on the crusade to 're-invent the equalities wheel’. Failure to do so would not only be a dereliction of duty but would severely diminish our ‘individual humanity and dignity’.