Protection of free speech should not trump equality
A shocking decision by Universities UK on segregation smacks of fear and cowardice, writes Carol Hunt
Published 15/12/2013 | 22:10
'Coloured people cannot sit here." In a week when the world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela, we know that such a phrase would now not be tolerated in any democratic society.
Because of people like Mandela and Rosa Parks, we understand that forced segregation can never mean "equal but different" but instead implies "superior and inferior". So we no longer see signs such as "Coloured people cannot sit here" or "No Blacks, no dogs, no Irish" in civilised society. But amazingly, we still seem to tolerate, even fail to comprehend, discrimination on the basis of gender.
What if you went to a meeting or a debate, wandered into the hall, plonked yourself on to a free seat and was then made aware of a sign telling you that, because of the colour of your skin, you weren't allowed to sit there but instead had to move to a segregated place? You'd be rightfully appalled wouldn't you? You'd feel that your civil rights were being challenged. And you'd be right.
But seemingly women are different, because recently Universities UK (UUK), an advocacy organisation which represents pretty much every university in Britain, released a report advocating gender segregation to preserve the "freedom of speech of external speakers". What does that mean? It means, as the report shows in a hypothetical example, that if a speaker's religious (or cultural) beliefs include one which insists that men and women need to be segregated then his right to free speech trumps the woman's right to equal treatment.
The issue of gender segregation in UK universities came to a head when Professor Lawrence Krauss refused to take part in a debate (Islam versus Atheism) at University College London last March when he learned that there was forced gender segregation in the audience due to the beliefs of the other speaker.
"Quit the segregation or I'm out of here," he said after three men looked set to be thrown out for trying to sit beside women.
A furore then ensued about the rights of religious speakers to enforce gender segregation versus the rights of women to be treated equally.
Last month the UUK gave its response. Issuing new guidelines for institutes of higher education when there are visiting speakers who insist that their audiences be segregated side by side according to gender, it said: "There does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way."
Does that sound reasonable to you? Many people think it's fine -- it's not discrimination if both sexes are "treated equally". Separate but equal and all that.
Now, just for a minute let's replace gender with race in those sentences and see what that sounds like: "There does not appear to be any discrimination on racial grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both whites and blacks are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way." Not since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the bus has anyone -- bar perhaps the KKK -- believed that segregation between races is not discriminatory. Yet here we are in the 21st Century and suddenly we're being told that it's fine, as long as it's based on gender.
The decision of the UUK to allow segregation of genders is not so much in defence of "free speech" as they claim but an appeasement of gross bigotry.
Yes, it's dressed up to look like the protection of the liberal value of "free speech", but it's nothing of the sort. It's all about fear and cowardice and reluctance to offend certain powerful groups.
Some liberals suggested having both segregated and non-segregated areas so people could then choose where they would like to sit.
Here's the answer of the UUK, in its report: "Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious groups or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully. Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage in lawful protest against segregation . . . but their views do not require an institution to stifle a religious society's segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely held religious belief."
This is astonishing stuff. What if I have a "genuinely held religious belief" that homosexual people are "disordered" immoral human beings who should not be allowed mingle with heterosexuals? Does my right to "free speech" mean I can insist they are excluded from debates I take part in? If men and women can be justifiably separated because of "sincerely held religious beliefs", then surely separating straight people from gays comes next? What about Jews? (Poland started insisting Jewish students sit on the left of lecture halls in universities in the Thirties.) Or Baptists? Or Catholics? Or Muslims?
By the reasoning of the UUK, just about every conceivable disgusting irrational prejudice that people like Mandela and Parks fought against can be justified and indulged on the basis of "free speech" for "sincerely held religious beliefs".
Initially on reading the UUK report I was gobsmacked. But then I realised I shouldn't have been. Increasingly in liberal circles the rights of women and LGBT people are considered secondary to the "genuinely held religious beliefs" of anti-democratic groups. It's all about appeasement.
However, last Friday afternoon, following an intervention from David Cameron who said this "should not be allowed to happen", the body that represents the UUK has withdrawn the guidance on gender segregation while it "reviewed its stance" (however, it said the legal position was still unclear). This intervention by the British prime minister is to be welcomed.
But if we wish to support the tenets of our Enlightenment heritage; separation of Church and State, respect for all people, tolerance, freedom of conscience and the rule of law, we need to understand that not all cultures and beliefs are morally or socially equal. To say so is not to be a bigot. All groups and individuals are fully entitled to practise their own beliefs, but when they come into conflict with the bedrock values of our democratic society -- equal rights between race, gender and those of differing sexual orientation -- they must be resisted. Or it will all end in tears.