Better Discrimination 1 January 2015

Revd Andy Trenier argues that discrimination is not always a bad thing, and discusses why we could all do with some better discrimination.

Discrimination is a bad thing– or so the story goes. It appears to be an unassailable fact.   

In the normal sense discrimination is understood as behaviour that results in certain rights or freedoms being withheld from someone unjustly. And examples of this are all too easy to come by:  when my family first came to the UK, my father faced signs reading, ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ posted in the windows of hotels and estate agencies. What would now be illegal was then widespread and even when I was at school there was plenty of leftover prejudice that found its expression in racial bullying.  

And yet I want to suggest that not all discrimination is bad. I’d go further, in fact, to say that without better discrimination we are lost.  

Redefining Discrimination
Obviously I am not talking about making unjust prejudicial distinctions that exclude people. I am talking about the other meaning of the word that describes well-informed decision making. So that  inclusion may be safeguarded, it is paramount that we know how and why just distinctions are made.  

Being properly discriminating, in this sense, entails a decision that some activities should be discouraged and others encouraged. It happens in public discussion, in radio phone-ins, panel shows, and in the newspapers when the rights and wrongs of this and that are pored over. Moreover proper discrimination is implied explicitly in the existence of actual legal discrimination and the rule of law, over which parliament has presumably exercised a wise discrimination to decide what is in our best interest.

I want to suggest that we must learn to be explicit about all this. Too often we like to think that our common values are just somehow natural or intuitive. This is why we talk about ‘British Values’, as if they would be obvious to anyone who was a proper member of the club. The fact is, however, that those values are also discriminations. They are not obvious to everyone.  Whatever we think of them, they clearly embody virtues that are at least contestable and reach conclusions that do not just fall from the sky, despite how passionately we may believe in them.

If we are not explicit about the positive practice of discrimination things can go wrong and we can become prejudiced ourselves- blind to challenge or change. What lies behind these strange new prejudices is our tendency to forget why we think that the values we hold are superior in the first place, as well as how it is that they are learned, and what kinds of things safeguard them. As well as fighting unjust discrimination therefore, we need to get much better its positive corollary. If we really value these ideas we must be clearer about how they are arrived at in the first place.  

With regard to the religious extremism uncovered recently in Birmingham schools that so many find to be unacceptably discriminatory, it might seem on first glance that faith is the primary problem and that safeguarding secular institutions is the obvious long term solution. However, the uncomfortable truth is that the schools at the centre of those allegations were all secular schools, not faith schools.  

Alongside the presence of unjust discrimination in the Birmingham cases was the broader lack of good discrimination that exists across the board. The assumption that secular schools were safe from religious extremism simply because they are not explicitly religious seems to have been mistaken. Because of it, the Department for Education are facing questions over their duty to scrutinise what was actually going on the ground.  

The Need for Discrimination
With the move towards increasing independence from the centre, the primary risk to truly public education is not faith schools per se but poor discrimination by those in charge. Those assessing applicants for running schools, both trusts and governors, need to be better briefed so that they can discern and discriminate between those views that undermine public education, and those that underpin it.

Just as the best cure for bad education is good education, the best cure for bad religion is the input of good religion, not the application of uninformed bureaucracy. It is repeatedly the case that faith schools have a better track record in combatting religious extremism than their so-called secular counterparts and it comes as no surprise to me, at least, that these problems are arising within an educational culture in which religious education, citizenship and critical thinking in general are undervalued.

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About Andy Trenier

Andy Trenier is Curate and Minor Canon at Derby Cathedral, one of the UK’s modern Cathedrals. He holds a degree in Theology from Oxford, as well as degrees in Theology and Contemporary Politics, International Development, and an MSc in Management. Andy is interested in the role of faith in public life, as well as in the promotion chances of Woking FC.

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