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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Segregated Seating

Occasionally I'm glad that I don't get round to doing something or other that I intended to do. When I first heard about Universities UK's advice on the gender segregation of seating  I was ready to get on my liberal high horse and blog my (negative) views. What I actually heard was a brief report on the Today programme which, though not inaccurate, turned out to tell only part of the story. The bit that was omitted, I subsequently found out, was that segregated seating was permissible as long as non-segregated seating was also available. This little piece of information changed my view.

What will now happen is that this issue will  become a nice little earner for lawyers who will test the interpretation of equality legislation. Though obviously of  great practical importance this is less interesting to me than the issue of what I should think. Not being a great abstract thinker I find it helps to focus on a realistic example.

Let's imagine that the  Islamic Cultural Society at the University of Poppleton wishes to host a lecture about matters of interest to them. The guest speaker requests that gender segregated seating be provided. The university refuses to accept the room booking unless non-segregated seating of no worse quality is also provided. The guest speaker and the organizers accept this condition and the event goes ahead. The university's equality officer is involved in drawing up the seating plan. There are three blocks of seating, ladies on the left, gentlemen on the right and mixed seating in the middle.

This arrangement seems to me to cater for all preferences and I find it very difficult to understand the grounds on which I should object to it. OK, so let me try a little harder. 

There are two arguments that have received some airplay, but neither of these seem particularly convincing. The first  is that ladies who sit in the segregated seating area are not making an autonomous choice.  There probably is something to this. A certain proportion may make their choice because they fear the repercussions of doing otherwise. However, it seems to me a big stretch, and in fact utterly presumptuous, to assume that this is universally the case, or even true in the vast majority of cases. In a liberal society we normally assume that adults in possession of their faculties can, within the law, make their own choices and we  respect those choices no matter what our private theories are about the aetiology of the choice process. On occasion we might feel it is sensible to ask, are you sure?, but if the answer is still in the affirmative, generally speaking we leave it at that. 

Personally I find it odd that a woman should choose to wear a burqa, but this is a matter of  my cultural conditioning and as a social scientist I really should understand that people are quite capable of genuinely choosing to do this without it being a matter of "false consciousness". People live their lives in all sorts of ways that I don't approve of, find bizarre, and wouldn't choose for myself. But if they choose it and it does no harm to anyone else then I don't see that it is either my or the State's business to restrict their freedom.

The second argument directly attacks the "does no harm" assumption. It does this though in a way which is, I think, quite unserviceable. The idea  is that even if ladies genuinely and autonomously prefer and choose segregated seating, the very existence of such an arrangement does in fact cause harm to others. For example, it may give rise to feelings of hurt amongst the LGTB "community" because of an implicit categorization of the world that excludes them. Alternatively, the existence of seating, segregated along gender lines, even when non-segregated seating is also available, might be taken as an endorsement (and reinforcement) of a particular gender sterotypical view of the world which has negative consequences for (some) women and (some) men. 

I can see the point of these arguments, but even if there is something in them, I'm not convinced they give good grounds for practical action. They seem too close to  the sorts of "nosy preferences" that generally we give little weight to. Normally we require quite stringent and overwhelming evidence that the harm is other than psychic or hypothetical. No matter how disgusted I feel by the sight of a grossly obese or hideously ugly person, my personal feelings are (rightly) given no weight in the matter of whether they should be allowed to walk down my street or serve me a cappuchino. Neither is the hurt I feel that others don't share my views about the non existence of God  and Santa Claus given any weight in deciding whether the fundamentalist Christians next door can require their children to say prayers before going to bed and leave a carrot out for Rudolph.

In the real world we need to make compromises in order to  live peacably together and it seems likely that making a political issue out of the availability of gender specific seating is likely to do more harm (does anyone really believe that Cameron is motivated by deeply help liberal beliefs?) than good. The ethical principles are not clear cut and as long as nobody attending the Poppleton event is forced to do anything they don't ostensibly prefer I don't think Universities UK's advice is particularly bad.

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