Michael Wardlow: ‘We can each decide that we will treat everyone in our society with respect and decency’

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By Michael Wardlow, Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “If life were predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavour.” It seems clear that life is just as unpredictable today as it was when those words were spoken. Global uncertainty continues to be the backdrop against which we live our lives, now in increasingly diverse communities – places where we are consistently presented with a plurality of views on many subjects which can influence how we live alongside those who are different from us.

In such uncertain times opinions – particularly when strongly held and passionately expressed – are too often substituted for and, more worryingly, accepted as fact. Passion can be valuable and important in any debate, but it is not in itself an indicator that the opinion put forward has been well researched or that is well founded. We need to be sure we can recognise and distinguish between opinion and fact when we consider how we might move ahead together over the coming months.

In any discussion about our shared future here, in this small place we choose to call home, the words we use, particularly when we engage with our perceived “other”, are important. Humpty Dumpty once said a word ‘means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’, and in keenly contested discussions words are rarely received as neutral by that “other”.

Words spoken cannot be unspoken and words heard cannot be unheard. We may regret saying something but, even when we admit our failings to one another, such encounters can leave a legacy and influence how we relate to one another in the future. All this is part of the complexity of human nature and reflects the diversity of our backgrounds and life experiences.

Such experiences can lead people to fear difference and be suspicious of the increasing diversity of our neighbours, particularly when they reflect another culture, religion or orientation. People often describe prejudice as inherited, but we are not born with prejudice – it has to be learned. And, if it is learned, it can be unlearned. We can learn better.

Of course, it is more difficult to recognise and challenge our own personal prejudices than to identify and draw attention to the same prejudices in others. When pressed, we can often justify them from our community narrative, our own past experiences recalling how “we” were treated by “them”. How “others” treated us, however, is never an acceptable reason to justify applying a similar treatment to “them”.

There is a considerable body of evidence to confirm that diversity – whether on boards, in employment, within our social circles or amongst our friends – benefits all that come within that group. In purely business terms it is clear that increasing diversity often brings rewards – financially, socially, in product reach, in company experience and in developing new ideas and markets. In a social context, research also indicates that being alongside someone from a different background in a safe and supportive environment tests and can modify our received stereotypes about that person. In short, diversity is not something to fear, but something of value to promote.

In attempting to sustain such a positive view of diversity, it is vital that we recognise the significance of promoting equality of opportunity, particularly amongst those most on the margins. This is not done simply by acknowledging and meeting the legal requirements under anti-discrimination law but by recognising that promoting and facilitating diversity is a good thing to do. So this is a task for all of society, not just for the Equality Commission.

Over the past forty years our society has developed laws which protect people from discriminatory treatment. That was the result of hard work and perseverance by many campaigners and an important signal from the legislature of what sort of society we want. Changing discriminatory attitudes, though, poses an even greater challenge – and needs a continuing focus by people throughout our community.

Prejudices persist but we do not have to let our engagement with others be defined by them. We can each take a decision not to be part of an old, out-of-date dynamic which views difference with suspicion and hostility. We can each decide that we will treat everyone in our society with respect and decency – and make our own personal contribution to the development of a truly shared society .

• To read our Equality issue – supported by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland – go to http://eepurl.com/cDo47P

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