Dear PPMA friends

This week, Karen takes a look at the latest sound and fury about the Woke movement and the impact on HR & OD.

“A human Labrador?

Last weekend a young friend of mine called me a Human Labrador because I was so pleased for people on another table who kept winning prizes at our Community Bingo. I know – what a wild life I lead. But it is for our community oldies group and last year we raised a lot of money for them. Now just to stem the tide of letters to the editor, ‘oldies’ in my part of the world by the way don’t mind being called oldies. They don’t find it remotely offensive or discriminatory – many find it a badge of honour.

Given that #kindness is the best new thing in HR & OD since the last best new thing I was really thrilled. And it is of course very appropriate as a Mum to 2 Chocolate Labradors. Leatham tells me often that I am too kind (I think he is being over generous) but that kindness is being sorely tested by the latest sturn-und-drang (sound and stress) about virtue-signalling, white privilege, racism/not racism, elitism and so on.

Every generation blames the one before…..

Those of us of a certain age will recognise that sentence at the start of the wonderful “The Living Years” by Mike and the Mechanics. If you don’t know the song, take a listen. It’s beautiful and I fancy pertinent for the times we are living in.

The first verse is as follows:

Every generation

Blames the one before

And all of their frustrations

Come beating on your door.

I wonder if generational difference explains some of the increasing fanaticism that in what qualifies for debate these days. Fanaticism is a strong word, but if you’ve taken even the most cursory look at print media and social media you will have seen an increasing hysteria, rise in death threats and so on. Fanaticism seems a mild term at times.

So just what is going on?

 First, do no harm ……

I would hope that we all know where this phrase comes from. In case we don’t, it’s most commonly associated with the Hippocratic oath. And whilst the exact words may not have been spoken by Hippocrates the principle is key. Do no harm is what we should be applying to the inclusion and diversity field too.

I said in my Weirdos and Misfit blog that I felt that the big issues of the decade would be:

  • Inequality – of resources and opportunity
  • Countering the isolationism of ideology
  • Democratic deficits and the scourge of ideological purity
  • Reconciling facts and fake news.

Although in retrospect I probably would have said ‘countering the isolationism and intolerance of ideology’, these first few weeks have only reinforced that.

Here is why I say that. The New York Times published an article by Afua Hirsch claiming that the British Press being racist in forcing out the Duchess of Sussex. I have read that article many many times and I am left with the feeling that her argument is highly selective. And I regret that. I don’t discount her beautiful and award-winning work on the experience of racism – but I am very troubled by the lack of any meaningful discussion of other perspectives. Reading Trevor Philips, who has been at the vanguard of campaigning across the world and you do see an alternative perspective.

Disclosure – I have come to deeply deeply admire Trevor Philips and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to meet him. I don’t always agree with him but in my experience, he is a man of extraordinary wisdom and grace. And should always be listened to.

If you are stuck for something considered to read on equalities, he should be your go to person for a range of reasons. The important reason for me, is that his previous experience gives him the authority to really challenge the muddle and lunacy that some policy makers and politicians appear to indulge in. Here is just one example. Put Trevor in whatever your search engine is and read away. Agree or not, it will be an education.

 We hold these truths to be self evident……

In the United States declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who was heavily influenced by the concept of the ‘Human Rights’ movement that emerged in the French Revolution of 1789, included the following words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Now there are hectares of words that are written on Jefferson, racism and so on in America and I’m not going to get into that here. BUT, I have included it because naïvely or not, I actually believe that. My parents brought me up to believe that we are all equal and that has never changed for me.

In an employment context, I don’t give a flying shite whether you are Black, White, Brown, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Gay, Straight, Old, Young, Abled, Disabled, Male, Female or trans. I really don’t. I care about your skills, your experience, your hopes and aspirations and how that will contribute to delivering our organisations objectives. (If you like to harm animals and children btw, then I’ll take you to the police myself).

I do though give an almighty damn about ensuring that ALL OF US have equality of opportunity irrespective of whether we are White, Brown, Black, A single parent, Jew, Muslim, Gay, Straight, Disabled and so on. And I care that we have the balls to use the Equality Act provision to support positive discrimination in the interests of our organisation – provided we don’t breach anothers right. And I do give an almighty damn when people, whether through ignorance, grievance or desire to fracture the bonds that binds us, undermine our commitment to an inclusive society. Being ‘offended’ just in case you didn’t know isn’t a protected characteristic under the Equality Act.

By not challenging the rubbish in the debate around white privilege, racism, sexism, homophobia, whether mispronouncing a name is racist etc, we are in fact further chipping away at this notion of human rights for all. History shows us man always does this, but social media makes it a much starker and more consequential problem.

The utter crap is getting in the way of the real discrimination, the real devastation, the real injustice. And that is absolutely indulgent and it is unforgiveable.

What I want for our profession is a legislative framework and a level of political and civil debate that enables this to be delivered. We all bleed the same colour blood irrespective of where we are from and whatever our political beliefs.

(BTW I feel pretty confident in that last statement because I’m sure the green blooded Aliens have taken one look at us and decided on Universes elsewhere).

 “Conversations contain universes”. But whose Universes are we really listening too…….?

The wonderful Paul Taylor-Pitt often says things that cause my breath to catch. He wrote that ‘conversations contain universes’ in a response to an L&D question.

It stopped me in my tracks and has had me thinking since. I’ve written before that I find the current definition of characteristics deeply unsatisfying. We don’t fit into a single characteristic and it causes confusion, anxiety and fear. And it’s a problem in terms of how we as professionals understand the legislation and the most effective ways to apply it to ensure that we do provide equality of opportunity. If we aren’t equipped chances are there no way in hell our organisations are in the way they need to be.

I’m increasingly hearing from you about the problems we’re now having with our various equality networks. The most recent ‘what the f**k’ conversation was with someone who shared their concerns that their LGBTQ network is fracturing because one part of the community rejects the trans movement. I’m also increasingly hearing that we’re at the point where different networks are talking about the same issues but don’t want to talk to other network colleagues.

I’ve also had the very honest and very confidential conversations with those of you dealing with employee relations cases. I have had to ask people working for me why they are dealing with a case that should blindingly obviously be chucked out according to policy (that was decent) and I’ve been told that it’s discrimination case. When I have asked “what would you do if the person was white?” – the answer was really clear – dismiss the case and consider a warning for vexatious claims.

I’ll hold my hands up now. I’m a very unsophisticated scouser, but I cannot see how any of that is good for our organisations, how it promotes inclusion and most importantly how it delivers a positive impact on the people we serve.

But we can’t say these things in the quiet, dark places where we only feel safe to talk to a trusted person. When we do not feel safe to speak and disagree, when we worry that we will be called racist, sexist, a privileged white, or an elitist, we drive debate underground and we feed myths that becomes monsters.

I read tweets this week that exhorted us to acknowledge and own our white privilege. And almost immediately I read the inevitable counter from a married man with children on a zero hours contract who was on a minibus not knowing whether at the end of his journey he would even get work to put food on the family table. Exhortation to own white privilege, elitism, our inner bias is not inclusive, it is certainly not woke, it is in my view increasingly bordering on the dangerously intolerant.

“We must learn that freedom is for everyone…….”

Ian Forsyth MBE used that term during the Holocaust Broadcast on BBC last night. Ian was one of the first to arrive at Bergen-Belsen and he is still deeply affected by what he saw then today. It was shattering to listen to him. Every generation carries its burdens and you would have to be utterly intolerant not to acknowledge the sacrifices made by the WW2 veterans.

We will pick up work on inclusion again over the next year or so. We have a professional obligation to the Equality Act. But we are also taxpayers and we need always to reconcile law and the policies that our public services are hopefully putting in place to make sure our services are inclusive and representative in their design and implementation.

But it seems to me that there is something that we will all have to tackle, at the very least as a profession. It isn’t easy, but we absolutely need to make sure that we remember and we develop and promote policy that ensure we understand that freedom is for everyone. If you are dismissing the rights of a sexually abused child because it’s problematic that the perpetrators are British Asian then you don’t really believe that freedom is for everyone or that everyone is made equal. Whatever you might try to tell yourself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Ian said but also the words of Bill Glied, a holocaust survivor’ who lived in Canada until his death. Bill said that “people need to know, to understand what happens when hate, discrimination, the absolute disregard of humanity comes. We should not be bystanders if we see something wrong. We have a duty and obligation to respond to it”

We do. We always do. But we are failing in parts because of fear and ignorance of what in equality of opportunity really means in the context of the Equality Act. Public service organisations have such a critical role to play in building cohesive societies. We must learn from the past but I think our learning will only be meaningful and sustainable if we avoid the switch and bait of so much of today’s debate climate. Some of our young and not so young activists would be well to remember that we can walk and chew gum and hold multiple different positions at the same time without being the spawn of Satan.

Some things are really very simple. Intolerance on the political left is just as hypocritical, divisive, immoral and dishonest as intolerance on the right. Building a climate for debate that is civil, that allows people to express their views urgently, that enables disagreement without questioning the other persons values, that promotes fact and evidence, that respects the views of the outlier, the weirdo and the misfit is essential. We need that for our profession if we are going to be at the heart of delivering inclusive, vibrant, strong organisations.”