Friday, 13 December 2013

UUK and that segregation guideline...

...bit of a storm, wasn't it? Whether it was in a teacup or not is still to be seen.

However I've been trying to discuss the issues on Twitter, and naturally it's the worst kind of forum to do it in (though people are being very respectful about it, so cheers!). While I understand that the UUK guidance itself given in the now removed "Case Study 2" may have been too woolly, that it inferred things that weren't based in legal fact, I'm not sure those celebrating have won the victory they think that they have.

(I preface the rest of this with the fact I'm not a legal expert, and that I've not been able to read the Case Study 2 section)

There are four human rights that this discussion revolves around, Article 9, 10, 11 and 14. Respectively (and roughly) they are a freedom to religious beliefs, a freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom to not be discriminated against in the relation of the formerly mentioned rights.

The Campaign against Gender Segregation at UK Universities are claiming a victory here, they seem to believe they're stopping gender actually rather vague reference by the EHRC that in public meetings gender segregation is not "permissable" is what is bouying those who support the campaign...a campaign that used cringeworthy terminology like "Gender Apartheid", as if a considerate policy of sitting people in gender groups side by side is somehow comparable to forcing people of a different race to use substandard facilities, and to disallow that group the right to vote.

But I digress.

I don't wish to second guess the EHRC, but the term "segregation" is a historically emotionally loaded term. I agree that true, discriminatory, segregation cannot be permissible in a public and open meeting of people, but what of non-discriminatory "segregation"?

Let's talk about rights. From what I can make out the Case Study was essentially trying to step what is a seemingly uncertain legal minefield on whose rights are more important. The scenario seems to be, roughly*, that a religious society of a students union or institution has set up a public debate and is inviting an orthodox religious speaker to debate from one side. The scenario goes that the speaker (and presumably the group inviting them) wishes for the room to be segregated into groups of men and women.

The controversy seems to be around that the UUK is suggesting that, while the first course should be to make such segregation voluntary with a non-segregated section of the audience for those that don't wish to follow the speaker's wishes, if the "choice" is only to impose and enforce segregation along gender lines then Universities should be mindful of human rights law when considering the outcome. The implication, those speaking to me who have seen the case study, is that universities should feel legally obliged to carry out that enforcement so long as it isn't done in a discriminatory manner.

The argument against this goes that it is against people's human right to freedom of association to be forced to be segregated, that the act of segregation is inherently discriminatory, and that people shouldn't feel they can't attend the talk because they don't feel comfortable with segregation.

I'll say it upfront now: This stance is discriminatory and hypocritical...and it's pretty disappointing.

Let's just walk through the scenario again. A group want a speaker to attend a public debate, anyone can come to watch. That group and or the speaker have religious views that wish to see men and women seated apart, and they won't take part unless this happens. The University have an option to split people equally, side by side, in a way which is materially and physically not discriminating against one gender or the other.

In terms of rights that are being infringed here...I count zero. The right to associate freely isn't being infringed upon, no-one has a right to sit next to specific people, or to be geographically located in such a way they desire. Associations, formal associations, have various rules, requirements or conditions upon which people can exercise their rights. While you can't exclude someone on discriminatory grounds, there is no active discrimination here taking place. The right to freedom of expression isn't altered by where people sit, and unless there is a religion taking part in the debate that would be unable to take part because their beliefs explicitly forbid taking part in such events where people are segregated formally, the religious manifestation right isn't being infringed. Since no rights are being infringed, and nothing is being done in a discriminatory way, article 14 doesn't even come in to it.

So, I ask this: Is this why a university may feel that it should cater to the speakers' wishes? I believe so.

Given that nothing is directly infringing on anyones rights, no-one is directly being discriminated against, the protests and outcry is taking part because people believe that the speaker (and by proxy the religious society) *intend* for the act of segregation to be discriminatory. The only way you can argue that it is "wrong" to segregate in a side-by-side manner is if you believe you are being discriminated against tacitly by the speaker.

This is textbook prejudice, and discrimination. By prejudging the intentions, the ethics and the gender-political beliefs of the speaker you are making a claim that the individual, simply through the exercise of their religious beliefs, is trying to discriminate against women. Therefore, those individuals are saying that the religious belief itself is discriminatory against women and as such those who wish to adhere to it should be forced to choose between breaking their religious beliefs or not taking part. While it may not contravene their Article 9 (religious) rights, my feeling is that it does contravene their Article 14 (Non-discrimination) rights, on the basis that they are being excluded solely on the opinion of other people of their religion.

It's a sad irony that those complaining that they would feel like they can't take part because of their feelings, are basically saying that other people shouldn't take part because of their religion...especially since there is no human right against your feelings being hurt.

It's important for UUK and the various Universities to be balanced and considerate on complicated scenarios such as this. The very mention of a request for segregation should, as UUK advises, cause a process of review and discovery to decide if the speaker is suitable or not. Part of this can and should include getting more information on the speaker, involving students and interest groups to ensure that true discrimination hidden behind religious belief is not allowed to detriment an otherwise civilised and fair public debate for all those involved and watching.

This ongoing campaign against "gender discrimination" is essentially aiming to take this nuance out of the process, to say that it is simply impossible to find a middle ground that both doesn't discriminate against anyone, and doesn't infringe on any rights. In doing so it is, in itself a discriminatory and anti-human rights protest...but because it is carried out by the moral majority, on a subject that any normal person in the street would naturally support (I'm sure I would if someone collared me with a good soundbite and a clipboard!)...we have a lot of people cheering the outcome.

It's a symptom of the wider disease taking over this country, that majority and popular views are the ones that matter, not the actual adherence to the principles of human rights. What we're celebrating as UUK removes it's guidance on this particular case study is the legitimisation of levels of how much people's human rights matter when faced with a wall of opposing views, regardless of those views being grounded in any real human rights of their own.

Hip hip hooray.

*For the purposes of what I'm trying to say here, the exact specifics of what UUK set out isn't important when we're discussing this situation within the sphere of a "victory" for anti-gender segregation campaigners.