by Michael Angerer
Political efforts to improve equality or diversity have a tendency to meet with fierce opposition from those who fear sudden changes; it is such fears of seeing the world spin out of control that have fuelled the rise of Donald Trump, Brexiters and European right-wing parties. Their policies have one thing in common: a promise to return to the better days of the past, to escape an ever-changing present; they aim to make America great again or to take back control. But such movements also provide an important lesson for those who would try and change the future for the better. Where attempts at revolution will only cause a counter-revolution, facilitating evolution may allow society to be gradually transformed, without large parts of it feeling left behind; it is fragment by fragment that a new and lasting future is built.
One of these little changes occurred in January 2018, when Canada’s senate finally passed a bill to amend the line ‘True patriot love in all thy sons command’ in the Canadian national anthem to ‘True patriot love in all of us command’; Canada is following in the footsteps of Austria, which changed its anthem in 2012, in making its anthem gender-neutral. The rewording has been heavily criticised for being disrespectful to the original author, to Canada’s soldiers in the First World War – whom the line was designed to honour – or simply for being ‘clunky’; but as the outrage is dying down, the change is slowly becoming the norm. It is a mostly symbolic move, with no cost to the taxpayer: as older printed materials are phased out, they are gradually replaced with materials showing the new version. And yet it is a symbolic move that prepares the ground for further changes; one little victory against adversity showing how little such victories have to be feared.
Another little change was approved by the Hertfordshire Constabulary at the beginning of May 2018: the force’s female police officers may now opt to wear a gender-neutral flat cap instead of the traditional bowler hat. The revision of uniform regulations was suggested by the constabulary’s LGBT+ Network and readily taken up by the force’s senior officers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail jumped at the occasion to rail against a police force that ‘bans his-and-hers hats’ and breaks ‘with a tradition lasting 37 years’. The beauty of the new regulation, however, is that there is no such ban: simply an additional option to choose. Officers wearing bowler hats and flat caps will continue to serve side by side, and soon both will be a familiar sight. Equality in diversity, like so much else, starts with the little things; and it is by introducing it piece by piece that it can be made to last.
Democracy is the pillar of such gradual change; it is also the guarantee that drastic changes cannot happen without considerable popular support. As a matter of fact, they did not happen in the 2018 local elections: Labour’s hopes were disappointed when the party failed to take traditionally Conservative councils such as Wandsworth or Westminster, although they did achieve a net gain in voters. But even when disappointed at the slow pace of political change, the most important thing in political discourse is never to dismiss those with opposing opinions outright, paying no heed to the interests of ‘Remoaners’ or a ‘basket of deplorables’, as Hillary Clinton has it. Equality cannot be imposed by force; every step along the way must be accepted or at least tolerated by most of those involved. No person is an island, entire of itself; and at the same time the bigger whole be recognised to consist of a multitude of equally important voices.
This is not to say that we can only ever think in small steps. Of course, a view of the wider context and the ultimate goal is necessary in order to succeed; this is as true for symbolic gestures or elections as it is for schemes like the Athena SWAN award (promoting gender equality at university). When such initiatives become ‘exercises in tick-box equality’, as Rebecca Harrison puts it in the Times Higher Education, there is a danger that they might lose all impact; instead of fitting into a larger whole, they might simply drift around as useless fragments of failed educational policy. This is why equality starts with awareness: every individual action, every little decision, every short discussion: they are all pieces that must be aligned towards a common goal. Everything you do has an impact – ideally, enough to promote gradual change without provoking too negative a reaction. Know thyself, know thy peers and know thy goals; and then, fragment by fragment, start to shift the world.
You are all invited to come along to the Oriel Equalities Fest on the afternoon of Saturday 3rd Week (12 May 2018), between 1pm and 4pm in Third Quad. Watch an interesting film or two in the JCR, do some arts and crafts, or just enjoy some international food. This will be an opportunity to think about equalities issues in everyday life, brought to you by your outgoing equalities officers in cooperation with their successors; but it will also simply be an opportunity to have a good time!