Religious and cultural sensitivity

This phrase, innocuous to some and the highest possible virtue to others, often achieves precisely the opposite result.

A few months ago I happily volunteered to take part in a scheme organised by a charity working closely with law firms up and down the country.

The charity arranges for lawyers to visit local schools to take part in discussion sessions with pupils on legal issues, in the widest sense of the term: democracy, rule of law, human rights, civic responsibility. This is done as part of the GCSE Citizenship course and I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that this is a compulsory GCSE taken by all pupils.

As well as providing valuable education and engagement to the pupils on these crucial themes, the programme has the admirable and wider objective of raising aspiration levels because many of these pupils might not ordinarily get the chance to meet lawyers or other professionals. It does them the world of good to see that lawyers are normal people (don’t laugh), and that there’s no reason in principle why they shouldn’t be capable of a legal career (I’m talking about the pupils, not the lawyers).

A training facilitator from the charity came to our office a couple of weeks ago to outline what we would be doing and what we needed to be aware of.

I won’t name the charity or the training facilitator, or the school that my firm will be attached to.

My initial conclusion based on what I have learnt so far is that this is a wonderful charity performing a vital role. It seems to be a first class organisation in terms of structure and set-up, and I was very impressed by the overall quality of the training session as well as the knowledge of the training facilitator.

We did a couple of exercises amongst ourselves to give us a flavour of what the pupils would eventually be doing under our supervision. Our main exercise was a discussion about the extent of different rights, and it was great to chew this over with my colleagues (Lesson Number 1 of 5: lawyers rarely discuss legal issues, or legal issues of any real significance). I’m really looking forward to going “back to school” and listening to the pupils do a similar exercise.

We also had some brief but important training on child protection matters: don’t accept social media invites from the pupils; don’t make any contact with them outside of the sessions; if they tell you something out of the ordinary, tell the teacher, etc. All eminently sensible stuff.

We were also told not to express our personal opinions to the pupils on the basis that the scheme puts us in a responsible and influential position. I agree with this because we are there to facilitate discussions, promote critical thinking and raise aspiration levels. The purpose is not to say what we think is right or wrong. If/when put on the spot by the pupils, we are to throw the question back at them (“That’s an excellent question. What do you think?”), to sit on the fence, to be vague. (Lesson Number 2 of 5: these are tools of the trade for a lawyer.)

One of the training slides had the following:

“It is important to be sensitive regarding religious and cultural differences.”

Cue The Re-Enlightenment’s ears pricking up.

I queried this, which is what I generally do when I don’t understand something. I made the point that whatever the intention of the wording (which was unclear), it should not prevent us from having a full and frank discussion about any issues that are triggered by whatever exercise we might do with the pupils.

There wasn’t really a clear answer to my question. And nor did it lead to a wider debate in the group. In the context of a roomful of lawyers (or an expense of lawyers, to use the collective noun) discussing human rights, where each lawyer had enough of a social conscience to voluntarily participate in a scheme like this one, this was slightly disappointing. (Lesson Number 3 of 5: all lawyers are incredibly busy.)

So I’m setting out here why the above wording gives me the creeps:

1. A requirement to discuss something with “religious and cultural sensitivity” is often code for not discussing it at all, or for not discussing it frankly. This lack of scrutiny benefits such rich religious and cultural traditions as arranged marriages, marriage amongst close relatives, infant genital mutilation and so-called honour killings. (“Children’s rights, not parents’ rites”, etc.)

2. I believe that human rights are for everyone (shit, maybe that’s why they’re called human rights?). Someone’s religion or culture should not prevent or restrict their participation in a debate, or the expression by others of their opinions during that debate. Especially when the topic of the debate is human rights.

3. It is fundamentally and extraordinarily racist to suggest that children of a certain ethnic background or backgrounds (which effectively is what “religion” and “culture” alludes to in this context, see numbered point 5. below) are entitled to something less than a full quality debate on human rights. Depriving them of the discussion is disturbing enough, but the inference is worse still: that they are entitled to less than full quality human rights.

4. Bearing in mind we might well discuss arranged marriages and the like, we would potentially be denying a full and frank debate to the very children who are statistically far more likely to be affected by these issues. These are the children who have the greatest need for the discussion sessions! The school environment might be one of the few chances they get to have a proper discussion – they might be literally crying out for something like this – yet the term “sensitivity” potentially robs them of that precious opportunity. I don’t see that as sensitive and, more to the point, I doubt those children would.

5. Sadly, we weren’t given any specific training on how to establish a child’s religious or cultural background. Perhaps we’re just meant to know (Lesson Number 4 of 5: all lawyers are incredibly intelligent). Maybe I’m the exception here, because after an intensive two-hour session with the training facilitator, I have no fucking idea what his religious or cultural background is, and I doubt he knows mine. Moreover, I couldn’t even tell you the religious or cultural backgrounds of some colleagues I have known for years.  So how exactly am I meant to establish the religious and cultural backgrounds of six or seven pupils? In the space of fifty minutes? And then re-calibrate the discussion for each of them?  As we weren’t given training on this crucial point, I am forced to guess, so I have come up with two ways in which it might be assumed I am to do this. Firstly, clothes: if a boy or girl is wearing certain items of clothing, I think I’m meant to assume they belong to a certain religion. Secondly, skin colour: I think I’m meant to assume that dark-skinned boys and girls generally belong to a certain religion. So, assuming my guesswork/reasoning is more or less accurate, I am potentially being asked to throttle back the quality of the debate depending on what clothes a child is wearing and what their skin colour is. Aspiration, anyone? Human rights, anyone?

6. It reinforces the concept of group rights over individual rights. To the untrained ear group rights might enjoy an air of superiority over their lonely, solitary cousins: the very terminology implies a certain safety in numbers. Sadly, no. Group rights are those rights as determined and articulated (often shouted) by the loudest, most reactionary members of that group on behalf of everyone else in the group, including the quiet, silent and vulnerable members who at best simply don’t want to belong to that group and who at worst certainly don’t want their fundamental human rights to play second fiddle to the purported and enforced rules of group membership, thank you very much. Group rights are determined by self-appointed “leaders” of the group and usually have as their primary function the maintenance of the leaders’ personal interests. Individual rights, on the other hand, are the cornerstone of western liberal democracy.  Humans are not entitled to more or fewer rights through membership or non-membership of a particular group. It is the fact they are humans which determines their rights. Those rights are identical to the rights of other humans.

Of course, this can all be expressed mathematically (Lesson Number 5 of 5: it is not normal – either in the sense of commonplace, or mental stability – for a lawyer to make legal arguments through the medium of algebra).

Look:

Sn(r,c,e): l(Hr) = √FA

Where:

Sn is significance
r,c,e is religious, cultural, ethnic or other grouping
l is level
Hr is human rights
FA is fuck all

I fully take on board the direction from the training facilitator not to express my personal opinions during these sessions. But I refuse to be sensitive to the supposed religion or culture of children who may not have been lucky enough actually to choose their religion or culture, and who are just as entitled as any other children to take part in a discussion on human rights – a discussion on their individual human rights.

Oh, and if pupils are mature enough (and lucky enough) to choose their religion and their culture of their own free will, then that’s fantastic, but it means they’re also mature enough and lucky enough to have a frank discussion about them if they come up during the course of the discussions.  We’re meant to be exposing them to the principles of democracy and rule of law, two high-grade and irreplaceable components of which are freedom of speech and the rights of the individual.  An individual has the right not to be harmed but the taking of offence, and the challenging of their views, is not a harm.  It will do the pupils no harm to be exposed to that.  Quite the contrary, in fact.

Note: there is a follow-up to this post here.

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