Thursday, 12 December 2013

Also, Actually...

Whilst I was headed into work Radio 4 had a segment on the Universities UK brouhaha mentioned earlier in the week, featuring Jack Straw and Nicola Daniels from UUK.

No-one seemed to be getting this argument exactly right, but it was Daniels who had the toughest time of it - though of course, I would say that, since hers is the position I have the least sympathy for.

Still, the flaws in Daniel's case strike me as pretty objective. Her argument seemed to stem from the idea that audience self-segregation should not be opposed. If segregation is banned, then we end up in the unfortunate position of telling an entire audience, every member of which wants to do something one way, that they must do it a different way.  Daniels went so far as to accuse the host (who, in fairness, was a bit too keen to sneak in low-blows about apartheid to actually bother with a rational dialogue) of being the one who was really telling women where to sit, because he was telling them they couldn't sit as a single bloc on one side of a lecture hall.

The flaws in this position are self-evident: it only works if literally every woman in the audience is in favour of segregation. Daniels is proposing that there are circumstances in which a speaker and the entirety of his audience want a certain arrangement to the seating, but that they somehow can't arrange this unofficially (like it'd be too hard for the first person to get there to sit wherever they want and everyone else filter accordingly), and that if such a thing does happen, some university busybody will arrive to set them straight.

In other words, it's an obvious fiction. Daniels doesn't want to get into the far more likely scenario where some women wish segregation [1] and others do not, so she treats an audience as a monolithic structure which can be known will agree with one position or another. I mean, I suppose one could colour an argument that says some of these religious speakers will be so horribly unpalatable to any woman who doesn't subscribe to gender segregation, but a) no-one should be in the business of deciding who women do or don't want to listen to and b) it rather undercuts Daniels "we are the ones empowering women" angle if you go down that road.

On the other hand, all this gives me an opportunity to revisit the more general point here, since Fliss pulled me up on my post from Monday to point out I was perhaps defining "outside speaker" too narrowly. I'm not sure who UUK are including in their definition, but Fliss is right that it might include, say, departmental seminars with speakers who may be at no higher than postgrad level.  I can't really shoe-horn them into my tirade on powerful religious figures dictating their terms for engagement. It's not just possible, but established (anecdotally) that postgraduates who feel they cannot talk to an unsegregated room face a genuine obstacle to career development, and while I'm obviously leery about the degree to which such requirements are acceptable, this part of the problem is more complex than the part I chose to shout about. I'd like to think that seminars of that type are something you can discuss arrangements for at the local level rather than UUK sticking their oar in, but that could well generate its own problems.

[1] Speaking of which, my biggest problem with the show's host was his refusal to even consider the possibility that some religious women might genuinely believe in gender segregation. As with the discussion on banning the burqa, it's much easier to believe the idea is invariably forced upon women, because then you can pretend legislating against religious preference is somehow a blow for equality.

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