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Falling into the Mike Dickin trap

I have just done a spot on Talk Radio, being interviewed by Mike Dickin, as is my occasional wont. From time to time, it is arranged that he and I will take it in turns to mouth off about some issue of the day.

Today what Mike Dickin was complaining about, and inviting me to complain about along with him, was this:

Business leaders have criticised new rules that require companies to provide prayer rooms and give religious holidays to non-Christians as “unacceptable and ridiculous”.

In a 99-page document published last week, the Commission for Racial Equality set out draft guidance on how companies should prevent discrimination against religious and racial minorities.

The most controversial proposal is that employers should have to provide prayer rooms and give time off for non-Christians to mark their own religious holidays.

Obviously commenters may want to say their thing about that, but I want to discuss something somewhat different. I found myself in partial but severe disagreement with Mike Dickin on this matter.

In particular, I think I observed an extremely common syndrome which does much to explain why proposals for intrusive laws have such an annoying habit of becoming intrusive laws. An intrusive law is proposed, concerning, e.g. (as in this case) religion.

The Mike Dickin tendency then opposes this proposed law, but does it incompetently, indeed counter-productively. The Mike Dickin tendency opposes this proposed law not by saying that these are matters that people should be left to decide amongst themselves, but by insulting religion. The idea of compulsory prayer rooms is stupid, because religion itself – the phrase Dickin used was “getting religion” – is stupid. Personally, if you force me to answer such questions, I also think that religion is stupid, but this is not the basis of my objection to this proposed law about prayer rooms. I will only insult religion in a public debate if the debate is about the truth or wisdom of religion, and if others are allowed to insult my atheist beliefs. Meanwhile, I don’t think that any religion, or atheism, should be either compulsory or illegal.

Nor do I think it at all silly for a company to have a special prayer room for a few, some, most, or all of their workers, if they think that this is a good idea. After all, religious people must in many circumstances have considerable attractions as employees. What if the religion in question makes it far less likely that the employees who believe in it will show up for work drunk, and then mishandle dangerous machinery or insult important customers or colleagues, perhaps in other countries over the telephone? No, daft as I think religious beliefs to be, it makes a lot of sense to me that a company might want to make it extremely easy for their workers to be religious. But my point here is: this is a decision that individual firms should be allowed to make for themselves. And while we are about it, individual firms should be allowed to be as prejudiced as they like either in favour of or against a particular religion, or religions generally.

In short, my reaction to proposals like these ones from the CRE is to frame this as an argument about freedom versus compulsion. Yes, it might well make sense for a business to have a prayer room, but no, it should most definitely not be compulsory for all businesses to have prayer rooms if they do not see any need for one, or simply do not want one, think that they cannot afford on, … whatever.

The trouble with the Mike Dickin line of argument is that it turns this into an argument which at least sounds like one about which kind of compulsion to have. It also turns the argument into a political beauty contest which the Mike Dickin tendency is going to lose. After all, Mike Dickin is the one who is now insulting other people’s beliefs, and the Commission for Racial Equality is, approximately speaking, sticking up for their version of religious freedom.

So it is that the Mike Dickin argument is all too liable to snatch defeat from the jaws of what could and should have been a victory. It is bad enough that the opponents of freedom try relentlessly to paint the freedom argument as an argument in favour of different (and unappealing) compulsions, and to say that those who favour freedom have insulting opinions about whoever or whatever (Europe is a classic example of this syndrome) is supposedly being helped by the compulsions being proposed. It is especially depressing when the opponents of the compulsions being proposed collude with the compulsion tendency, and fall right into the trap that is being set for them by themselves proposing (or at the very least implying) compulsions of their own, and launching insults at third, fourth, tenth and twentieth parties who have yet to make up their minds.

13 comments to Falling into the Mike Dickin trap

  • You get this all the time on the Today programme. Some half-baked government proposal – like the minimum wage, bigger doors for the disabled, more women, whatever – gets discussed. The pro-lobby go for the moral high ground, and the opponent ( who always seems to have been dragged in from the Institute of Directors ) instead of arguing on moral grounds, first starts by complimenting the good intentions of the interferer, and then pleads that industry just can’t afford it.
    Which makes the opponent sounds like a miserable tightwad who hates disabled people.

  • I think there’s also an argument here that immigrants [should] have implicitly accepted the mores of their new country of residence by freely choosing to move there and shouldn’t expect or demand special treatment.

    As a self-employed person living in Bavaria, I lose revenue by observing holidays for the bizarre catholic superstitions of the majority of the locals. I accept this because I chose to come here, there are other things about living here that I prefer to living in Britain, and if I ever didn’t like it any more I could go home any time I wanted to. Similarly, if I had deeply held religious beliefs and freely chose to move somewhere where the majority of the locals didn’t share those beliefs, I wouldn’t feel I had any particular right to expect them to put themselves out to accommodate me by e.g. providing me with prayer rooms at work.

  • Johnathan

    Great posting Brian. As usual, you get to the core of the issue — namely, who should set the terms of an employment contract: the parties to that contract, or the State?

  • Matt

    Now that Jedi is a recognized religion in the UK, does this mean that light sabre practice every afternoon would have to be allowed?

  • Verity

    What the hell is the CRE doing writing a 99-page document providing “guidance” (translation: one of the laws we’re going to hammer into the British constitution if we get in next time) to industry? When did Trevor Phillips work for anything that wasn’t funded by pulling the teeth of the kicking and screaming taxpayer? He and his cohorts know nothing of capitalism, other than that they hate it.

  • toolkien

    Seems to be another case of the State trying the make everything ‘fair’ for everyone, invading private associations to do so, and the result is so oblique so as to be meaningless. Associations arise from common value judgements of the members, rational or not (to an outsiders opinion) and is the essence of what separates that association from everything else. Once Force is used to breakdown those values, and desires to systematically breakdown value systems across the board, nothingness is the result.

  • Uncle Bill

    The German government seems to have fallen into this kind of trap.

    What happened is that they passed a law requiring that firms provide an apprentice position for every so many (5?) employees.

    The point here is that their labor laws are so restrictive that employers will not (or at least very rarely) hire a new employee unless another retires dies or goes to prison.

    The point of the law is to force employees to hire new workers despite the fact that it is a very risky and expensive business.

    Problem is that the German courts have decided that the law also applies to bordellos.


  • RAB

    Whilst we’re on the subject of special rooms for special people, any chance of one for smokers being made compulsory?You know it must be against their “Human Rights” to have them stand out on the pavement in the rain , humiliated by the smirking grins of passers by as they mentally note “Ha you’re a smoker ! this is just some of your penance, you’ gonna die and I’m going to live forever!!” The shmucks would have to pay a lot more taxes if it wasn’t for good ol die before I get old smokers.So compulsory smokers rooms in every business please govt.If we all give up, who will pay for your ludicrous dreams.

  • Guy Herbert

    Verity: What the hell is the CRE doing writing a 99-page document providing “guidance”?

    It is actually an oblique form of legislation: call it quaternary legislation. (Primary=Act of Parliament; Secondary = Statutory Instrument; Tertiary = guideline, order or code officially issued under other legislation.) It isn’t directly compulsory, but if you fail to comply that will be used in evidence against you, at, say, an Industrial Tribunal. (The latter have beefed-up powers and remit of late.)

  • Verity

    Guy – Yes, I knew it was an oblique form of legislation by a band of unelected people, but I didn’t know it had a name! The collateral damage is, is Islamic immigrants become more powerful, with more special concessions, than the indigenes.

    I don’t know what other Samizdata commentators think, but I have a hincky feeling that we are coming to the end of this cycle. There are enough people standing up now and saying they don’t give a stuff what these people’s religion requires; they’re going to have to tamp it down or face the consequences.

    Or is that just wishful thinking?

    Michael Howard needs to make one of his first priorities abolishing the CRE. It is a very nasty, harmful organisation.

  • S. Weasel

    I think it was Theodore Dalrymple who told the story of…I forget which medical school. The muslim students went to the Dean and demanded he provide a prayer room. He said, “certainly, I’d be happy to.”

    “But, of course, to be fair, the jewish and christian students must be allowed to pray in it, too.”

    They dropped the demand. Fighting multiculturalism with multiculturalism. Not the best solution, but strangely satisfying.

  • How about those of us whose religion requires its devotees to avoid work and subsist on the productivity of others? How can you deny us the rights to life, housing, cheese, wine and high-speed Internet connections?

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