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Although it was felt that the concept of the hierarchy of oppression is now out of date, there have been cases reported recently in the press in which a person with a religious belief has refused service or otherwise discriminated against a gay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