To What Extent Can The Law Educate?

I read and commented on an article about Transgender Equality a while ago.  I’m making a conscious decision not to link to the article.  It is, I think, a fairly solid article explaining some anti-discrimination law in the UK and the author, who is transgender, is obviously very passionate about the subject.  The reason I’ve decided not to link is that I believe some of the discussion in the comments section probably hit a nerve and it all started to get a little too far removed from fact or reasoned opinion and that’s also why I decided not to follow up my initial (albeit complimentary) comment.

The gist was that anti-discrimination law in the UK had done a great job in protecting the civil liberties of people who do not define their gender as that which was “assigned to them at birth”.  However, the article was advertised as a post about how the author had lost her best friend due to their views on transgender people.  There was no mention of this in the post, only what a good job the Law had done.  People, myself included, commented that the law can do a good job in stopping discrimination happening but that this won’t change the opinions that people have of others.

The author’s responses to those comments seem to get confused because she says, paraphrasing, that discrimination doesn’t happen anymore, except when it does from a “small number of obsessives [hiding] away in an internet hugbox telling each other how awful trans women are.”  She goes on to say that those obsessives can’t “do any real harm” because what I called an “instinctive” response to difference (which will make sense below) “just aren’t there”.

This was the reply:


All this against the backdrop of her losing a friend due to a difference of opinion…

The reply to my comment included references to statutes, starting with the Sexual Offences Act 1967, running through “the regulations on employment discrimination in 2004” (I’m going to assume the Gender Recognition Act of that year) and the overreaching Equality Act 2010.

As a quasi-lawyer myself, I found it interesting that the author of the article saw statutes as having a profound educational effect on society.  It was an angle I’d never previously thought of explicitly.  Education is normally considered as a rationale for punishment after the offence has been committed in the sense of “This jail time sucks, I won’t do that again.”

Using anti-discrimation law as the example, those laws are more readily used as a way of providing recourse for those discriminated against to appeal an employment decision, for example.  They can be wider reaching to other forms of discrimination, but the employment arena was their main area of application initially.

It’s worth recognising that discrimination happens.  It just does; there’s no point denying it.  We all see traits in others that affect our opinions about them.  If it didn’t feel slightly out of place using this reasoning in an article I initially thought about because of transgender issues, biologically we’re all on the planet simply to reproduce so we look, unconsciously sometimes, for certain characteristics in a potential mate.  If one potential suitor doesn’t have those characteristics, we move on to the next, actively discriminating.  (And some of us may even believe that to be unfair!)

Either way, here’s the crux of what I’m getting at.  An employer is interviewing a person for a job.  The interview takes place and goes pretty well – they are a great applicant.

However, in the back of the employer’s mind, there is this nagging doubt.  The applicant is 2 years from retirement age.  The employer recognises that this could adversely affect the staffing of their team in the long term should the applicant decide to retire at the “normal” age.

The employer knows that these thoughts are against anti-discrimination laws, but has them anyway.  They are subconscious.

The Law has told the employer one thing, but the thought is still there.  The practical impact the Law has had is that the employer has to tell the applicant that there was someone better, rather than tell them that they’re too old.  If the applicant feels that this reason is not good enough and that age was a discriminatory factor, they can use the Law to seek recourse.

What the employer has not done is gain a knowledge of the Law and fundamentally change their previously conservative opinions.  The Law has educated the employer about what they are allowed to say, but not changed how they think.

If I say “Don’t think of my arse a pink elephant” the first thing people will think about is at least an arse a pink elephant.  If a law was then passed saying it is illegal to think of my arse pink elephants and I repeat my suggestion, the people who hear me won’t have been conditioned to not think of my arse pink elephants and it would probably happen as a reflex, like it did before the law was enacted.  They will just say that they’re not thinking of my arse the pink elephant.

The Law can influence a physical action, but I’m not convinced it can influence instinctive thought.  I wondered whether the positive results the author of the article saw was rather as a result of the publicity or increased awareness around the issues that may receive better publicity in the modern world where many can publish their opinions.

It may have also reduced a stigma on both sides – both with those who no longer feel pressure to be honest with how they see themselves and those who didn’t have an issue with how people see themselves but towed the line they saw from the majority of society.

That would make sense to me, and if the Law has raised awareness and enabled, even coerced, people to research and begin to understand issues that they would previously not have considered, then great.  If this prompts a change to a more liberal opinion, then even better.

That, though, for me, is the limits to the education that the Law can provide.  It’s a starter or a prompt.  When it comes to instinctive thought, I simply don’t think it can achieve on its own what some people would believe.

To the sound of a heartbeat pounding away
To the rhythm of the awful rusted machines
We toss and turn but don’t sleep
Each breath we take makes us thieves
Like causes without rebels
Just talk but promise nothing else

Re-education (Through Labor) by Rise Against

Comments 1

  1. I agree with you Michael – the writer of the original article seems a bit naive, otherwise they just lost the point of their article part way through! I think it’s a bit of a leap to say that the law can educate, there’s definitely a step in between that the author has missed out, whether it’s changing social attitudes or actual education i.e. in schools, etc.

    Your reasoning is very sound!

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