Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The (comm)unionisation of feelings

Reader, you are a useless piece of crap so lacking in decency, intellect and humour that you’re not fit to rub ointment onto the genital warts of a rabid cockroach.

Have I offended you? Have I hurt your feelings? Well, hopefully not. But if I have, then that illustrates my point: your feelings are not entitled to legal protection.

Except…

Three straws in an increasingly pungent wind:

(1) Last month, Bushra Noah was awarded £4,000 damages for “injury to feelings”. She had been turned down for a hairdresser’s job that she had applied for on the grounds that she wore a headscarf covering her own hair. She claimed this was religious discrimination, and took it to an industrial tribunal.

Sarah Desrosiers, owner of the salon and cougher-upper of the four grand, said: “I never in a million years dreamt that somebody would be completely against the display of hair and be in this industry.”

(2) Last week, Lillian Ladele, a marriage registrar working for Islington council, got a tribunal to rule that she need not conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies, on the grounds that her Christian faith holds that marriage (and apparently also secular civil partnerships) should only be between a man and a woman. Requiring her to do that part of her job would be discriminatory.

She said: “Gay rights should not be used as an excuse to bully and harass people over their religious beliefs.” But religious beliefs most certainly should be used as an excuse to bully and harass people over their sexuality.

(3) And now, Constable Graham Cogman is taking legal action against Norfolk Police (via Brett):

His complaint stems from a circular email sent to officers in early 2005 encouraging staff to wear a pink ribbon on their uniforms during Gay History Month. After receiving the email, PC Cogman sent a reply to his fellow officers featuring biblical quotations about homosexuality being a sin. He objected again the following year when a similar email was again sent to officers. He was subjected to a disciplinary tribunal and fined 13 days' pay.

Pc Cogman says: “The blatant support for homosexual rights in Norfolk Police makes being a Christian officer extremely difficult.” (That’s “blatant support” for the law. From the police.)

Norfolk Police says: “The force will not tolerate any form of homophobic behaviour.”

So there you go. If you have membership of a ‘faith group’, then your feelings – if they are related to how your religious beliefs are treated – can get legal recognition. Hurt feelings, especially in the workplace, are increasingly becoming theologically unionised. But these rights can only be claimed by people declaring themselves part of one of these unions (or rather, communions). If your feelings as a believer have been offended, then you’ve been discriminated against. And where there’s blame, there’s a claim!

It’s a curious blend of individualist self-assessment and communalist badge-wearing: you get to decide for yourself when your religious feelings have been hurt, but in order to do so you have to be a member of the right kind of group. Interestingly, the other members of your group don’t have to endorse your pain nor even share the belief that you claim has been attacked. But the group and the supernatural dogmas do have to exist – you can’t just say you don’t like poofs cos they’re dirty.

Brett argues:

It seems it is increasingly impossible for the government to manage comprehensive non-discrimination policies and make space for personal conscience and freedom of association. The only compromise I can think of is this separation of public and private spheres [the public sector must have zero tolerance of discrimination for any reason whatsoever; the private sector can discriminate however they like]. Anyone have a better idea?

There is a better idea: don’t compromise. People, religious or not, shouldn’t apply for jobs that they have freely decided that they ‘cannot’ perform properly because of their prejudices.

That religious people feel that their beliefs need special protection is pitiful; that many of these beliefs veer into bigotry means we have a social menace on our hands.

(And sorry about the cockroach thing. I didn’t mean it.)

3 comments:

Cassilis said...

Here's a scenario (in the interests of mischief really rather than anything else because I broadly agree but...):

It's summer 2003 and British troops are fighting in Iraq. Your employer 'encourages you' (a la Norfolk Police) to wear a small union lack on your lapel in support of British military action (note, supporting a legal deployment of troops as sanctioned by parliament). Do you comply....?

Like I say Tom I'm in broad agreement here but I think the secular left need to be careful they don't end up creating the very situation they're trying to avoid.

The sort of outright rejection of religion in the public sphere you're pressing for is enshrined in the US constitution but look at the malign influence religion has on their public life. By contrast we have an established church and an official state religion but in reality it's still a largely private thing with nothing like the political purchase it has in the US.

The constable in that story is clearly a prat but his sanction is because he fired nasty biblical quotes round a wider audience than even the original request, printed out 5-page docs to the same effect and apparently made offensive remarks to a gay colleague. In that context I completely agree he should be sanctioned but if he's just politely declined the request to wear the ribbon would you have supported his right to do so?

I'm minded to say yes because the law outlaws discrimination - it doesn't mandate support.

Anthony Z said...

I was faintly offended yesterday when PM on Radio 4 described people who think that climate change is happening as 'believers' (set against 'sceptics', who don't).

I fired off an email, now doubtless in the recycle bin, saying that 'believer' was an odd description for someone who relies on contestable research based on overwhelming observable evidence; and 'sceptic' was an odd term for someone who cherry picks evidence to support their immutable opinions.

Tom Freeman said...

Certainly if he'd politely declined to wear it, that'd be fine.