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Aug 06

At what point does inclusivity become preferential treatment?

In the 21st Century, most people are on-board with the idea that regardless of race, gender, politics, sexual orientation, body type, etc.; people within a society should be treated equally and/or given equal opportunity. I’m writing this to discuss the very subtle difference between these, and asking when the provision of equality becomes preferential treatment. I hope to touch upon how this might come to be. To do so, I’ll be using some very rudimentary examples that I hope identify the societal thought processes behind it.

Creating a Level Playing Field

I think we can all agree that most efforts towards equality revolve around creating a level playing field; making things accessible/attainable to as many people as possible, relative to an unwritten middle ground that society seems to have developed of its own volition. This is the main theme of this article.

A crude example, were there no standardized format and someone wanted to build a doorway: “how high should we make the door? Most people who use the door are 6’6” or shorter, so by making it that height we’ll afford the majority of people the best access to it.” The average ceiling is about 8’ high, meaning there’s enough room to make the doorway higher (taking structural integrity out of the equation) and everyone knows there are people out there who’re taller. My point is, somewhere along the line, someone proclaimed a limit on how high they’re prepared to make the doorway despite knowing there were people who would have to duck to use it. To my knowledge, no-one is out there campaigning for doorways to be made higher, so as a society we’re in agreement that this is fair treatment despite a group of people being disadvantaged.

In reference to the ‘middle ground’ I mentioned: the example shows that the average or usual height of a person has been calculated, and then an indefinable degree of dispensation has been granted for those who require more than the average. This is giving equal opportunity for people who are both ‘normal’ and those who in some way differ from the norm, in this case those who are tall, to use the doorway. Very important to note here is that a limit was placed on how accommodating of extra-normal people this opportunity would be.

Disabled Access

Many buildings take measures to allow people who can’t easily use traditional access, such as wheelchair users, to enter the premises as easily as able-bodied people. The most commonly recognized example of this is the access ramp; replacing a flight of steps with a ramp on a smooth incline.

If you were constructing a building, it wouldn’t have any difference in construction costs to install a ramp rather than some steps, and would allow everyone who visited an equal opportunity to enter the building easily. Everybody’s happy!

However, it’s more often the case that a building has long since been constructed, and the owners must make a decision whether to install a ramp or replace their steps. This is an additional expense, and one which would only benefit (in most cases) a minority of the building’s visitors. Should they do it, then? Those with a pronounced sense of decency would agree that the building’s owner should, out of common courtesy and in the spirit of inclusivity, provide all their visitors the same opportunity to enter the building; but is it really an objectively good decision?

In an objective, black-and-white situation; on a to-do list that includes incurring XYZ expense to benefit less than 5% of users, most people would place that at a lower priority over things that would affect a much higher percentage of users.

In the case of being given equal opportunity, then; it sometimes transpires that those who are unaffected by an issue must bear some burden or negative effect in order to assist those who are affected, thus ‘levelling the playing field’. We as a society have made an unspoken, unwritten agreement that this is an acceptable bargain to make.

Dedicated Parking Spaces

Installing a ramp to access your building allows all people an equal opportunity to enter easily. Having a car park adjacent to the building allows all drivers an equal opportunity to park their car nearby.

Allocating certain parking spaces, usually located nearer to the building’s entrance, for various groups of people creates a division between the visitors, allowing some of them to get a ‘better’ spot than others. Whether the dedicated parking space be for building managers, disabled visitors, parents with children, or whomever; they’ve been deemed to require extra-normal treatment:

– The building manager’s spot has been allocated as a privilege; a sort of reward for owning the building. The manager is making the decision that due to their ownership/seniority of the property, they are entitled to place themselves above the ranks of their visitors, and can take their pick of whichever parking spots they wish. Society accepts this, and we acknowledge an owner/manager’s right to preferential treatment.

– Disabled parking bays are normally located immediately next to a building’s entrance/exit, are sometimes double-wide to allow for optimal manoeuvrability and ease of getting out of vehicles, and in some places, it’s a criminal offense to park your car in such a bay without displaying an appropriate badge to denote your entitlement; such is the fervor with which society feels these people require deserve the exclusive use of the facility.

I can’t speak for other nations, but in Britain we have the unspoken rule that if you see someone park in a handicapped bay without displaying a ‘blue badge’, it is a person’s civic duty to make passive-aggressive remarks to the transgressor, or even openly confront them for their disregard of people who society deems require the space more.

Disabled parking spaces do not afford equal opportunity, and they certainly don’t constitute people being treated equally; in fact quite the opposite. Equality is being permitted access to a car park and being given the same chance to find a space and park along with everyone else. Society, then, has decided that due to difficulties many disabled people have once they enter the car park along with all their equals; additional measures should be taken to make their use of the facilities, if not easy, then as difficult as everyone else’s (or as near an approximation as can be managed).

So, what’s happening here is: a group of people who, through no control of their own, find an activity more difficult than the majority of users, are being given preferential treatment at the (albeit not tremendous) detriment of others. Society accepts and agrees with this decision because as a collective we have decided that, while unfair, giving those who may be at a disadvantage the means to do something with greater ease is beneficial to us as a group.

– The ‘parents with children’ spot is usually wider to allow strollers to be easily wheeled around cars to load/unload children, and is typically located nearer to an entrance/exit to give the parent a shorter trip (making the assumption that they’ll be juggling purchases and children to and from their car).

Is this acceptable? Certainly, we can (I think) agree that this is a positive gesture aimed at helping people whom the vast majority can identify with; but it’s very clearly not in the spirit of equal opportunity. Rather, it’s giving preferential treatment to people who have a) made the decision to breed, and b) made the decision to travel with their progeny and all the accompanying paraphernalia to this building in their car.

Different to disabled bays, the parents’ bay is not being given to someone who is perhaps at a physical disadvantage or who may, outside of their control, struggle with using the parking facilities within the same parameters as the average user; it is being given to an average user who may encounter difficulty because of their choices and lifestyle.

The point…

Somewhere along the line, we’ve stopped just ensuring there’s a level playing field; and instead have begun creating levels within levels, moving that unspoken, unwritten middle ground back and forth until we’re not quite sure where it is anymore.

Who should change for whom?

The world is becoming a much smaller place with a much bigger population. People from all over the world, from all different walks of life and with an endless variety of lifestyles are now living and working together in the many different societal structures modern humans have devised for ourselves.

I write from the perspective of someone in a prescriptively inclusive society that tries (sometimes excruciatingly) to accommodate everyone. That being so, I’ve observed that the increase in groups of people identified as somehow ‘different’ is parallel to the number of measures taken to ensure that these ‘different’ people are treated equally. The invariable result of such measures is the change in behaviour or circumstance of everyone but the group in question; either bringing the group ‘up’ or the majority ‘down’ to whatever level is perceived to be ‘equal’. While admittedly hyperbolic, I feel it bears mentioning that in these instances, it is normally the ‘affected’ group that decides whether the measures adequately result in equality, not the society as a whole.

I posit that, over decades of making minor, sometimes imperceptible changes in society to suit the needs of minority groups; people have almost been conditioned to believe that changes must be made, and now only concern themselves with the degree to which things change, and whom should be doing the changing.

By and large, the changes to which I’m referring don’t initially have any negative effects, but given time and a nurtured sense of entitlement; those who are unaffected by the issues in question, but who subsequently find themselves confronted with those who are, begin to resent having to make any changes to their lives.

These range from dietary needs, to cultural or ideological differences, to religious doctrines. As multiculturalism increases, there comes a time when the unspoken middle ground of any given place moves to a degree that those who valued it dislike, but that those who cause it to move don’t recognize (what with it being unspoken!). This begins to form a very ‘us vs. them’ mentality in the minds of those who are unwilling to accommodate, and further resentment when it’s decided that their adversarial attitude is antisocial.

One very passive example of this is vegetarianism. The idea of choosing to only eat vegetables (whether for ethical reasons or otherwise) found its way to Europe (and subsequently the New World) from the east, with its roots tracing back to Asia and then to Greece. Some famous figures from European history were considered ‘unusual’ for choosing this diet, and it was largely considered merely an interesting oddity that affected one or two people. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it became a popular choice for many people, and it was around this time that the first vegetarian restaurants opened in London.

Since that time, ‘veggie’ options have become a tacit feature of any restaurant’s menu, despite the fact that the vast majority of diners are not vegetarian. Why? Well one could argue that restaurateurs simply want to garner the business of vegetarian patrons, but I think that glosses over the remarkable change in what counts as ‘normal’ in a restaurant. Vegetarians as a minority group made it clear that in order for them to have an equal opportunity to dine in restaurants, those restaurants needed to serve food that accommodated their lifestyle. Having done so, this is now ‘normal’. If a restaurant doesn’t have a vegetarian option, (the more outspoken) vegetarians feel they’re justified in complaining to the owners based on the new unspoken understanding that there should be one. If the owner purposefully didn’t have this option for whatever reason; they’re now in a conflict situation with someone from a different social group which wouldn’t have occurred had the the patron not felt the sense of entitlement.

To reference my earlier example of a doorway to determine our middle ground: this very subtle change has caused the middle ground to move, accommodating a minority group within society. Objectively, does the vegetarian have the right to complain about the lack of veggie option, or are they ‘taller than the doorway’?

Gender and Sexuality

Among the major driving forces for changes in the modern day are a person’s gender and/or sexual identity. As a preamble, I should state that I find this subject incredibly tedious, and thanks to websites such as Tumblr and the coverage it receives in global media, I’m so sick of talking about it from my unemotional (and therefore dismissible, it would appear) viewpoint that it pains me to bring it up now. However, as it has such a recognizable impact on the subject at hand, I’ll soldier on but keep it brief.

Marriage

For any reason other than legal or financial gain, it is this author’s humble opinion that marriage is ridiculous. A pair of people crave undivided attention for a day while they talk to themselves and exchange material wealth, then carry on the lives they had before. That’s just my cynical view on the whole thing; but as ridiculous as I think it is, I and any sensible person feel that everyone should have the equal opportunity to undertake that crazy attention-seeking ritual if they so choose.

Same-sex couples around the world are denied this opportunity because of various Bronze Age fairytales told by illiterate peasants and embellished by power-hungry men of authority who were terrified of women. The crux of the issue is a change to what’s ‘normal’. Not to belittle the strife of these people, but as per my example above, this is the equivalent of someone’s invisible friend decreeing that the vegetarian option on the menu is punishable by death.

Is permitting same-sex couples to marry equality? Yes. In fact, so much so, that the change would be almost imperceptible. No concessions need to be made. It’s really that simple.

My point here, in reference to my previous examples, is that the ‘doorway’ size doesn’t need to be altered to accommodate another group of people, and that not all societal change is based on trivial differences but instead on a systemic problem.

Employment

“A person should be employed based on their gender” is a statement which I hope my readers disagree with. However, a cognitive dissonance exists when it comes to hiring female employees in many workplaces.

There seems, in some places, to be a conflict of the “level playing field: there are X jobs, and we’ll fill them with the first X people who qualify” mentality when it’s identified that far more men are in X-level jobs than women in any given place. The thinking becomes “how can we get more women into these jobs?” rather than “does this matter?” or “what factors are leading to this statistic? If women are trying to GET these jobs but are somehow being unfairly prevented, how can we fix the problem?”

In the UK, it’s been noted that there aren’t ‘enough’ (who the hell decides how many’s ‘enough’?) women in high-level scientific positions. So, here’s the solution: the government is going to incentivise female school students to study sciences in the hope they’ll pursue scientific careers.

This, to me, is not equal opportunity or being treated equally. This is reactionist change and preferential treatment based on a self-diagnosed need for more people of a particular gender in an occupational role.

The ‘middle ground’ I mentioned earlier, in this case, seems to suggest that we need a 50/50 split of people based on gender despite the fact that this supports the statement we all disagree with, “a person should be employed based on their gender”.

I’m aware there are inequalities between genders when it comes to employment, such as negotiable salaries etc. that are made on individual bases, however the point I’m trying to make here, and what this article is about, is the extent to which measures are taken before they cease to create equality and instead creating preferential treatment. To reference an earlier example: is this invented notion of a requirement for employees of a specific gender, or the facilitation to make more of them akin to the ‘parents with children’ parking spaces: taking a group of people that fall within the norm and giving them preferential treatment with the uncontested support of others.

(Edit: two hours after posting this, I read an article about LEGO making female scientist models. That seems to suggest that this isn’t a thought that’s just isolated to the UK)

Race and Nationality

One of the touchiest subjects, stemming from both historical and political events, is the inclusion of people from multiple nationalities and races within a society. Equality is achieved when anyone, regardless of place of origin, colour, accent, etc., can live in exactly the same manner as any other person in that society, and encounters the exact same difficulties.

Affirmative Action has a presence in one guise or another in many countries around the world, notably in the United States. It is a system put in place to ensure that certain groups of people have preferential access to job opportunities based on race or in some places religion. It sounds absurd to say that such a system exists in the 21st Century, but there you have it.

In almost all instances internationally, the system was born from a state in which certain racial or ethnic groups were less able to attain employment due to persecution or subjugation, and were therefore afforded an opportunity to obtain a job more easily. President John F Kennedy coined the phrase, saying employers should “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin” Stupidly, however, this ends up meaning that if two applicants of equal qualification and different race apply for a job, it is often mandated to go to the applicant whose race determines suitability.

It goes without saying that this is not equality as there is a system put in place to select groups of people over other groups of people regardless of qualification.

To reference my examples; this is equivalent to classifying people from certain races as needing disabled parking spaces, and giving them spaces near the entrance because they must find it difficult to use the same facilities as everyone else due to a physical deficiency outside of their control.

Questions

  • How much can be taken from those seen to be in privilege and given to those who aren’t before it transcends equality and becomes preferential treatment?
  • How do we determine which groups of people warrant the moving of our ‘middle ground’ to justify inclusivity in the name of equality at the expense of others, and how do we determine the limit of our action?
  • How does society collectively acknowledge the ‘difference’ of one group or other, and how do we determine the lengths we must go to accommodate them?

About the author

Mr Llamatastic

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