I think one of the most maligned words in the English language is “discriminate”. These days that word is mostly used negatively. It is primarily used to mean making harsh, even oppressive judgements against people based on their sex, or their sexuality, or their ethnic origins.
The more positive — and in some senses truer — meaning of the word discriminate is getting lost. And that truer meaning is the cultured ability to perceive or note the differences between things. The use of discrimination in a quite honourable and even clever way, as a means of making judgements about the different values attached to different things, is being buried beneath the more common use of the D-word to describe every slight against individuals or groups.
That is a shame, I think, because we really need to recover the ability to discriminate. More accurately, we need to recover the important role of making judgements and recognising the differences that exist in our society and in people’s life experiences. And the reason we need to do that is because we live in an era of what we might call phony equality. An era in which what is presented to us as “equality” is in fact homogenisation; the imposition of sameness; a tyranny of relativism; ultimately, the denial of people’s right to exercise even that clever, cultured form of discrimination and to make judgements about the different ways in which people live. In such a stifling climate of top-down sameness, it is really important that people take a stand and be discriminating.
The gay marriage issue captures brilliantly how degraded the notion of equality has become. If you listen to government ministers and gay-rights campaigners, you will believe that gay marriage is all about equality, all about equal rights. It is referred to as “equal marriage”, to drum the point home. And of course, this means that anyone who criticises gay marriage can be written off as a friend of inequality, and no one wants to be thought of in that way.
But when ministers and activists talk about marriage’s current exclusion of same-sex couples as an issue of inequality, what do they mean? For example, would it be a crime against equality if I were denied access to the Royal College of Music? Yes, it is true I cannot play a musical instrument or read music, but what about my right to be treated equally to those who can do those things? I may lack the credentials and talents to do the things that the Royal College of Music was set up to do, but should that stand in the way of my equal right to attend the college and use its facilities?
The truth is, institutions discriminate all the time. They have to, for if they did not they would lose their identity, their purpose, their very meaning. If the Royal College of Music was forced to accept even the musically inept, it would cease to exist within a decade; it would collapse under the weight of the pressure to not be discriminating, to never make judgements based on a person’s appropriateness or fitness for attendance.
The good, cultured form of discrimination lies at the heart of every institution and organisation. Discrimination is the thing that allows such groups to define themselves, to define what membership means, to judge who may be a member and who may not, to exist at all. Colleges, political parties, churches, the Women’s Institute, sporting clubs, gay men’s groups… none of these institutions could continue to exist if they were not permitted to exercise discrimination, if they were not permitted to say what is required of members and to reject those who fail to live up to those requirements.
In our era of phony equality, that fundamental right of organisations and institutions to be discriminating is being seriously undermined. Consider the example of the British National Party. I’m sure we can all agree that the BNP is a foul and rotten political outfit. But even so, should it not have the right, like every other political party, to decide and define who may and may not join it?
A few years ago, following the introduction of new equalities legislation, the Equality and Human Rights Commission tried to force the BNP to rewrite its constitution on the basis that it was discriminatory. The BNP’s constitution stipulates that only “indigenous Caucasians” may join the party. The Equality Commission said this potentially broke equality laws and thus would have to be overhauled.
Now of course, all of us will balk at the idea of a political party that forbids membership to blacks and Asians. But what you should balk at even more than that is the idea that the state or its offshoots should have the authority to force a political party to rewrite its constitution – because that, right there, is the end of the freedom of association; the end of the right of political organisation; the end of the freedom of people to organise themselves as they see fit and to propagate whatever ideas they hold true.
The attempt to impose a new constitution on the BNP reveals how phony today’s phony equality is. Because of course, black and Asian people are not queuing up to join the BNP. The fact that the BNP is only open to “indigenous Caucasians” is not a practical problem for Britain’s black and Asian communities, because they have no interest in joining a political party that is ideologically racist. Instead, what was really taking place was that, under the cover of equality, the state was attacking a political group it does not like, and was attempting to force that group to accept the state’s own way of thinking. This wasn’t about equality for blacks and Asians but rather was an attempt to dictate and enforce political sameness, to impose conformism of thought. The concept of “equality” is today used to quite totalitarian ends.
Writing in the 1950s, the great liberal thinker Hannah Arendt said: “[The] right to free association, and therefore to discrimination, has greater validity than the principle of equality.” What she meant is that if freedom and equality were put to battle, we should cheer freedom rather than equality. We should be on the side of the freedom of private groups or political parties or certain institutions that play a specific social role to discriminate as a means of defining who they are, what their purpose is, and who may join them.
Of course, in the public sphere – in law, in employment, in public social interaction – everyone must be treated equally. But in the private sphere, and also, very importantly, in institutions which have for years played a very specific social role for specific groups of people, being discriminatory is essential. This was recognised by the earliest Enlightenment thinkers. John Locke, author of the great Letter Concerning Toleration, published in 1689, said religious and certain other institutions are effectively “spontaneous societies”. And therefore, he said, “It necessarily follows that the right of making its laws can belong to none other but the society itself… to those whom the society by common consent has authorised thereunto.”
“Spontaneous societies”, religious groups, political groups, certain institutions with particular roles… they must be at least relatively free to write their own laws and rules, which will govern those who have “commonly consented” to be part of those societies. Yet today, in our era of phoney equality, the ability of institutions to govern themselves, to discriminate on the basis of belief or ideology or fitness for the task, is being demolished. This calls into question the very possibility of having organisations and institutions, since the pressure of embracing equality can mean having to do away with one’s organising principles and specific shared beliefs.
Some gay-marriage campaigners will say that marriage is all about love, and therefore for the institution of marriage to deny access to individuals who happen to love someone of the same sex is unquestionably oppressive, a clear example of practising inequality. They say that gay people do have what it requires to enter into marriage – that is, they’re in love – and therefore it is wrong to refuse them entry.
But actually, love is not enough to enter into the institution of marriage. Marriage already discriminates, even against people who are in love. For example, a man might be genuinely and passionately in love with his sister, and she with him, but they are absolutely forbidden from getting married. A woman might be hopelessly in love with two different men, but there is no way she can marry them both. Some of us will remember being 14 years old and head over heels in love with another 14-year-old, but we could not have married. Marriage is a discriminating institution, even against people who are in love. Clearly, something more than being in love is required in order to get married. Clearly marriage plays another, specific social role, which is not just about allowing people to express their love for each other.
In pushing the idea of “equal marriage”, the idea that it is quite wrong for this institution to be discriminating, will this specific social role get lost? Will the role marriage plays as the union of two people with the potential to procreate, and with the potential responsibility to socialise the next generation, be undermined? Will society’s longstanding promotion of marriage as the main means through which adults and communities take responsibility for future generations become meaningless? I think it will. Just as surely as the social role of the Royal College of Music would be undermined if it allowed people like me to enter it. The process of homogenisation dressed up as “equality”, the failure to discriminate between different kinds of relationships, will empty marriage of meaning. Because if everything is a marriage, then nothing is. If the institution of marriage may not discriminate, then it has no organic meaning or purpose.
It is undoubtedly the case that for a great many years, gay people were treated unequally. They suffered oppression. For hundreds of years, homosexual activity was punishable by death. Even in the more modern period, homosexuals were sentenced to prison sentences with hard labour simply for having sexual relations. These severe restrictions on the rights of gay people impacted on how they were treated in society, too. They were considered inferior, even diseased.
Thankfully, that has changed. Thankfully, gay sex has been decriminalised, laws oppressing homosexuals have been repealed, and there has been a corresponding shift in social attitudes. Homosexuals are now accepted as ordinary members of society and are treated equally. Courtesy of civil partnerships, they now also have all the technical rights afforded by marriage. So why the demand for so-called “marriage equality”? What is the need for “equal marriage”?
This is really interesting, because if you look at the key arguments put forward for “equal marriage” you’ll see that they often have a strong therapeutic component. The argument is that in being denied the right to marry, gay people feel worthless, unvalued by society, rankled. Activists will often say things like “the inability to say ‘I’m married’ rankles and makes me feel like a second-class citizen”. They might not be second-class citizens, but they sometimes feel like one, so apparently institutionalising gay marriage will boost self-esteem and make people feel better.
But it is not and should never be the role of government to provide therapy or make people feel better about their life choices and experiences. In relation to equality, the government should do only one thing: provide equality of opportunity. That is, remove any legal impediments to individuals or groups taking part in the daily public sphere. But it cannot provide equality of outcome, ensuring everyone makes it in life; or equality of experience, ensuring everyone has happy and fulfilling existences; or equality of emotional contentment, ensuring everyone feels valued by society. Those are things that we must achieve for ourselves, through exercising our autonomy and choosing the path in life we feel best suited for.
Inviting the government to give us equality of outcome, equality of experience and equality of emotion, all phony equalities, is to invite greater state intervention into our lives – into the moral make-up of institutions judged to be “unequal” and even into our emotional lives, too. In this way, we can see how today’s phony equality doesn’t liberate people but rather makes them more reliant on state favour, and doesn’t improve the social fabric but rather makes it more difficult for the inhabitants and institutions of a society to have any internal moral life of their own.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked, a British online magazine. He describes himself as a “Marxist Libertarian”. He gave this speech at the House of Lords on May 15.