This is the latest column in Humanitie. This time, Tim at the Friendly Humanist and I tackle positive discrimination and come to fairly different conclusions. Be sure to read this side by side with Tim’s column.
When I was at school, one of the things we did in Spanish class was to take a newspaper article on a subject, split the class and debate over its content. One day, the article was on Zapatero appointing equal numbers of men and women to his Cabinet, and I was supposed to argue against it. “Bloody brilliant,” I remember thinking, “how the hell am I supposed to argue against equal representation for women in government? That’s like arguing in favour of apartheid!”
I was about to bite the bullet and falsely take the machista line, all too familiar in an all-boys Catholic school, when I looked at the accompanying photograph and suddenly it hit me. (An idea, not the photograph.) Why are they making such a big deal out of this? Why does it matter how many women are on the Cabinet? If we’re going to insist that the government represents the demographic from which it gains its legitimacy, then are we also going to select people based on religious belief? Race? Disability? Age? Class? Left-handedness? I understand 1 in 18 people have a third nipple… The whole point of the equality movement is that race, sex, disability and all that shouldn’t matter, and yet this positive discrimination malarkey is shining a huge light on each feature and saying “Look! Women in government! Big deal! Big deal!”
Whatever happened to just hiring someone because they’re most suited to the job? Wouldn’t women (or any other disadvantaged person for that matter) rather get a job because they’re the best person for it, rather than because they fulfil a quota? I’d rather have a black, 50 year old blind woman who’s good at her job represent me in government than someone who shares some of my attributes but wouldn’t know a good law if it bit him on the arse. Now some affirmative action advocates are going to stop me here and explain that it’s not about passing over someone who is more suited, it’s only about discriminating when two candidates are equally suited. Equally suited? There’s no such thing! When you look at everything, attendance rates, references, qualifications, interview performance, experience, one candidate will always have the edge, and that’s who should get the job.
But the main reason I despise positive discrimination is that it’s the easy way out. Without it, we’d have a lot of work to do improving access to education, facilitating social mobility and changing hearts and minds so that earlier down the line negative discrimination won’t have had an effect, and there won’t be any need for positive discrimination to make things right at the end stage. As it is, positive discrimination just puts a blanket over all the background work that needs to be done, tweaking the numbers at the end to make it look like everything’s ok, because the alternative would take a lot of time and a bit of effort. I want equal opportunities, not just equal numbers.