Discriminating evidence

Aidan Rankin on the strange logic of equal opportunities
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The Independent Online
For much of my life, I have been the archetypal, comic-strip Western Liberal With A Conscience, and to a large extent I remain so today. I have felt privileged to be part of a society enriched by new cultural influences, tolerant of difference and diverse in a way that my parents' generation had never known, in which my female contemporaries took it for granted that they had the right to shape for themselves exciting careers. I believed that equal opportunity for all was an indispensable ingredient of social justice and let this principle inform my personal relationships, and my working life.

Earlier this year, Todd Gitlin, a stalwart of the American New Left and a civil rights veteran, argued in his book The Twilight of Common Dreams that while the right has been busy capturing and transforming the centres of political and economic power, the politically correct left has been "marching on the English department".

Gitlin does not mention Britain in his polemic, which has yet to be published in this country. Were he to visit, he would find that the Long March of PC has passed from the university to the world of Human Resources - a modern term for personnel that is itself redolent of Mao's Great Leap Forward.

In my current interlude as an out-of-work press officer, I find that equal opportunities have become Equal Opportunities. In the name of this secular Inquisition, Kafkaesque bureaucrats act as amateur social engineers and ask prying, long-winded questions about the ethnic background, religious or spiritual beliefs, gender and sexuality of the unfortunate jobseeker.

For liberals, and anyone of even faintly progressive disposition, a "Commitment to Equal Opportunities" has become a test of social acceptability. Once, I naively assumed that equality of opportunity meant giving each individual citizen the right to make a distinctive contribution to the country's cultural, economic and political life. Equal Opportunities, by contrast, has created an industry of recrimination in which people compete to prove that they are more deserving victims than some other, arbitrarily defined category.

Well, I would say that, wouldn't I? As I scan, with mounting despair, the plethora of Equal Opportunities Monitoring Forms on the table before me, I struggle to find the category of victimhood that might make the difference between a rejection slip and a first interview. The problem is that I am male, "White European" (or "Caucasian", depending on the form), and educated enough to hold a PhD, in "Political Science" - which I have since come to believe is a contradiction in terms.

At 30, I am nowhere near old enough to plead "ageism". Disabilities? My feigned colour blindness, to avoid playing rugby, cuts no ice. Then I realise that for the past 10 years my hairline has been gripped by recession worthy of a Seventies banana republic. But to my outraged astonishment, I discover that "follicular status" is the only rung in the hierarchy of oppression steadfastly unrecognised by the Equal Opportunities Commissars.

On the surface, Equal Opportunities forms seem a harmless exercise to keep the prematurely redundant alert and amused on rainy afternoons. And besides, our prospective employers assure us, they are meaningless, for they "have no relation to selection procedure". Why, then, in this cost- cutting age, have these forms spread from the highest echelons of the Civil Service to the lowest reaches of local government, through education and the charity sector to large swathes of industry, trade unions and even voluntary work?

The answer, I fear, lies in the small print. American universities refer to themselves as "equal opportunity/affirmative action employers", and although such verbal plate-spinning is rare here, discreet phrases mask the same insidious intent. "Applications particularly welcome from ...", "currently under-represented in the organisation" suggest to the applicant that some Opportunities are more Equal than others.

Janet Anderson, Labour's aspirant minister for women, said in a recent interview that faced with a male and a female applicant of equal ability, she would automatically choose the woman, regardless of male unemployment statistics. Ms Anderson - whose words I digested on the way to a job interview - has single-mouthedly destroyed any possibility of my voting Labour. She also proves that reverse discrimination could be the only policy to which new Labour is enthusiastically committed. Barely a week passes without a frontbench "spokesperson" talking about "opportunities for women". Not even John Prescott utters the words "male" and "unemployment" in the same sentence.

In November, Californians will vote on whether to outlaw race- and gender- based reverse discrimination. Gitlin's research has shown that, far from promoting diversity and tolerance, the very words "affirmative action" inflame hostilities between ethnic communities and men and women.

For my part, I am left tearing what is left of my hair as I pore over yet another Equal Opportunities Statement. Finally, I enter my colour as green and describe my ethnic origins as Venusian. Perhaps someone in Human Resources will notice that "extraterrestrials are currently under- represented" and invite me for an interview.