On tolerance

Why SEEN exists and has a place within the Civil Service

Reflecting society

The Civil Service has always been a microcosm of British society. At first it was largely white and male, along with the other public and private institutions of the day. But with each new generation the bureaucracy adapted to changing societal norms and became gradually more diverse and representative, with some of the most significant changes happening within our lifetimes.

It hasn't been a smooth journey. Progress often mirrors the build-up and release of pressures in tectonic shifts. Legislative and political developments like the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, sexual offences law changes of 1967, 2000 and 2003 (decriminalising homosexuality), the Data Protection Acts of 1984 and 1998, the Stephen Lawrence report in 1999, and the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and others all played important roles in bringing about much needed changes. By the turn of the millennium, all government departments were striving to attain Investors in People accreditation - the then-gold standard for inclusive working practices. Pluralism and tolerance were becoming dominant Civil Service values. Departmental staff networks sprang up everywhere, and could be found representing their organisations at Glastonbury and Pride. There were many issues that needed to be addressed, but the zeitgeist felt new and positive.

In recent years something has changed. In 2019 a British woman lost her job for expressing her belief in the importance and nature of biological sex1, a view never recorded in our history as controversial. Last year a university professor resigned following sustained abuse and harassment by her colleagues and students for having written a book that explored the same philosophical issues2. Stating what many (possibly most) people consider to be basic facts of life is now forbidden in many workplaces, sometimes by human resources codes, but more often by a chilling culture that suppresses substantive discussion.

It is a matter of public debate that we may be witnessing the emergence of a new form of intolerance linked to changing attitudes towards freedom of expression3. The trend is illustrated in the context of our universities by a survey of UK student opinion in May 20224, which found significant increases over the past 6 years in demands for protections from feeling threatened and for banning speakers that cause offence. It seems to mirror a similar shift in attitudes in the US5.

Our launch

Our network celebrates the drive towards greater equality, pluralism and respect for difference over recent decades, and in particular the more tolerant society that this has heralded. We are concerned that this progress is now under threat. Seeing some of the reactions to the launch of SEEN as an officially recognised cross-government staff network has made it clear to us that the Civil Service is not immune to this trend away from mutual tolerance. We have attracted significant criticism and hostility purely for announcing ourselves, and some colleagues have openly discussed getting us banned. Yet our network website (our only communication to date) makes clear our commitments to protection of everyone’s rights, encouraging a diversity of voices, and open and respectful dialogue and tolerance between those with differing beliefs and experiences, as well as the need to respect colleagues’ beliefs (or lack thereof). Some perhaps genuinely believe these are empty words, but they are not. We are the same people you have always worked alongside with mutual respect, and these values are in our DNA.

The criticism of SEEN’s launch - which contrasts starkly with the hundreds of supportive messages and membership information requests we have received privately - has almost all focused on the nature of our core belief. It is a belief that our courts have ruled to be “worthy of respect in a democratic society” (and so holds the status of a protected belief under the Equality Act), and is shared by people from all backgrounds, of all political leanings, and by theist, atheist and agnostic alike. This hostile reaction to us has only strengthened our view that, for some in our society, their perceived needs have come to demand the silencing of those who hold beliefs they feel threatened by, regardless of the holders’ stated commitments to tolerance and pluralism. For this reason we would like to use our first blog article to consider tolerance, and why it matters.

The paradox of tolerance

One SEEN-critical comment in particular has stood out from the others by articulating an ostensible justification for silencing us. It referenced a popular philosophical maxim known as the “paradox of tolerance”, attributed to the philosopher Karl Popper, which in its simplest terms states that tolerance without limit will result in intolerance. The specific example Popper gave of those views which should be excluded because of their fundamental intolerance of others was Nazism (which courts have ruled gender critical belief “does not get anywhere near to approaching”6).

Commonly omitted from such citations of the paradox is the fact that Popper went on to say:

I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument 7

Popper was speaking of philosophies inclined to meet rational argument with “fists or pistols”. A lucid reading of his words makes clear that what SEEN has said does not reflect anything like such a philosophy, let alone merit suppression.

However, other philosophers like Raphael Cohen-Almagor8 have gone further to argue (again using the example of Nazism) that psychological harm is equal to physical harm. Ideas that cause others distress can, therefore, be legitimately restricted. Some of our critics have made this argument against us, claiming that even a statement of our core belief causes emotional harm and should be withdrawn or taken down.

From our perspective there are two problems with this argument. The first is that it ignores the fact that the law protects the reasonable expression9 of a protected religion or belief. The second is this: who gets to decide when a particular speaker, group or people with a particular belief pose a risk of psychological harm so great that they should be kept silent? And how can others be sure the decision is fair? Under Cohen-Almagor’s proposed scenario, judgements on what is acceptable speech seem far more likely to emerge not through consensus but through the dominance of certain perspectives over others. Hence in the context of a policy to prioritise emotional ‘safety’, those holding beliefs perceived as threatening are likely to be disproportionately affected, regardless of their actual commitment to pluralism and tolerance. And the evidence suggests the notion of emotional safety is not impartial: support in our universities for banning speakers from our main political parties is very unequal10.

In terms of the potential for causing harm, we invite readers to contrast our commitment to pluralism and tolerance with the open hostility we have received from some of our colleagues, which has caused intense distress and anxiety for some members of SEEN. We call upon colleagues who may disagree with our reasonably expressed viewpoints to express their disagreement with respect and professionalism, to tolerate different beliefs, and to call out the use of hostile language. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and to be able to do their jobs free from bullying, harasment and discrimination.

Tolerance in a pluralist society

We do not have to share beliefs in order to tolerate them. We live in a pluralist and diverse society. The beauty of living in a pluralist democracy is that we tolerate and indeed celebrate differences, and we manage to get along, including with those whose beliefs we do not share. A pluralist society allows us all to be free to express our beliefs, within the bounds of the law. For such a society to thrive, as Popper recognised, there must be limits to tolerance. However, these limits are not defined by those who shout the loudest, but ultimately by what is lawful. The Equality Act 2010 provides a legal framework to prevent people acting on their prejudices or disagreements in a way that results in discriminatory treatment of others. It sets out the nine characteristics that are protected by the law11, including the protected characteristic of religion or belief, which is extended to beliefs that must, amongst other criteria, “be worthy of respect in a democratic society, be not incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others”. Harassment of and discrimination against those holding and respectfully expressing such beliefs are examples of genuine intolerance.

Tolerance and expression within the Civil Service

As Civil Servants we are bound by the Civil Service Code which requires political neutrality. So it is not appropriate for us to express views on matters of political controversy at work; we abide by that restriction and expect others to do likewise. We therefore only assert our right for our views to be heard with tolerance in respect of matters relevant to the workplace. Sometimes it will be necessary to explain the underlying beliefs in order to exercise our rights at work.

The 2022 Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Strategy12 makes a specific commitment to challenging groupthink and inspiring a greater diversity of thinking. SEEN is committed to working to ensure that departmental policies for human resources and diversity and inclusion, as well as their implementation, reflect this commitment. If you support our mission and values consider joining us.

[Cover image: source, licence]