Equality, rights and the hierarchy of oppression

During a session about skills for equality, a discussion began about the ‘hierarchy of oppression’.

I learned that this idea was current in the 1970s, and it held that of any list of persons who may be oppressed in society, they were not all equal in terms of the degree of oppression they experienced, and the moral status of their disadvantage (gay people, for example, could be perceived as having ‘brought it on themselves’, or could choose whether or not to reveal their identity, unlike a person of colour).  Thus, one group’s needs or rights could be seen as ‘trumping’ those of another.

Although it was felt that the concept of the hierarchy of oppression is now out of date, there have been cases reported recently in the press in which a person with a religious belief has refused service or otherwise discriminated against a gay person (here is one example as reported in The Guardian).

Examples from the world of libraries included a library employee who refused to be involved in activities and displays helping to promote the services of a family planning centre because she was a Roman Catholic, and another library employee who would not direct library users to information resources for lesbian, gay and bisexual people because they were Muslim.

I would like to point out, as did many people in the room, that having a religious faith does not necessary mean that you subscribe to a particular set of beliefs about contraception, abortion or sexual orientation, but that was the case in the examples given.

Two ways of approaching such situations were presented: changing the employee’s duties to focus their work elsewhere (a bit of a cop out?), or possible disciplinary action if the employee did not follow customer service guidelines and instruction from their manager about how they should do their job (a bit fierce and unlikely to change the person’s mind?).

It makes me sad to think that some people think their individual beliefs can be used as an excuse to infringe the rights of others, and provide them with poor service.  This discussion carried on long after the end of the official session, and I was cheered up by a woman who described herself as a Christian and did not see any justification for such prejudices in her chosen religion.



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  2. Having done my degree in the US, we did discuss this in part of our course (several times). There was material on it in the introductory module (a requirement) as well as a lot about it in our policy module. But reading this post reminded me that the ALA has a Code of Ethics – kind of like a librarian’s hippocratic oath – http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics.cfm
    We weren’t sworn into librarianship, but I wondered if there was similar here in the UK. The ALA also provides a Bill of Rights http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/index.cfm amongst others.

    • Hi Shannon,
      That’s really interesting – thanks for sharing the link. I like the idea of an oath for librarians!
      A few years ago, I attended a lecture about the difference between laws based on ‘freedom from’ (e.g. unfair treatment) versus ‘freedom to’ (e.g. right to bear arms).
      It seems to me that the US is more of a ‘freedom to’ model compared with the British ‘freedom from’-style laws. If this is true, perhaps that’s why ALA have a statement setting these out to make it clear that the freedom-to rights of others have limits, whereas the British freedom-from model already has at its centre the right of an individual not to be impinged upon by the behaviour of others?

      • That’s really interesting – I never thought about those perspectives of freedom-to vs freedom-from. Maybe that’s even why, purely based on the tweets about this, this wasn’t something covered in any/many of the courses in the UK because it’s already implied. But maybe it needs reinforcing with something like a librarian’s oath/code of ethics.

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