Tolerance and merit. These abstract concepts have been two of the great legacies of Western culture. They drive freedom, competition and wealth. But both are under incredible threat from those who prefer to see the world in terms of identity politics – this is the basic notion that the most important thing about any individual is the group to which he or she belongs. It’s not one’s ability to work hard or her moral character or his resilience or even one’s unique beauty or brains that matter. Nope. It’s the sort of reproductive organs you bring to the table. Or your skin pigmentation. Or the religion you practise. Or that your kind arrived somewhere first. That’s the core of identity politics and it has infected politics, the universities, the corporate world, the churches, the entirety of the Human Resources sector. Heck, the whole of the myriad DEI bureaucracies are based on identity politics.
It also lies at the heart of many claims of discrimination, of ‘unconscious bias’ (a notion, by the way, that cannot be cashed out and whose original mooters now doubt is coherent), and of the tediously frequent various days of ‘celebration’ for this supposedly downtrodden group or that – how many different flags fly atop your university alma mater do you reckon? Here’s how this identity politics thinking goes. You start by seeing the world solely in group terms. Then you look for differential outcomes (by group, never in terms of individuals where some were more talented and deserving than others). Then, by definitional fiat as it were, you attribute the differences between groups to discrimination, oppression, historical wrongdoing. Then you pick some highly desirable job or educational place or political party pre-selection spot and if there is a statistical discrepancy you allege – you take it for granted in fact – that the cause and the explanation is discrimination. (Again, it is always some desirable spot. No one says “almost all rubbish collectors are men so we need to use the power of the state to even things up”. Nor does anyone point out that over 95% of those who die at work are in jobs held by men and so “by God we need to change this sort of historical injustice so that we can get more women into these jobs where they can die at work and even things up. For too long women haven’t been dying at work”.)
In other words, this sort of thinking deals in the same sort of causal reductionism as old-fashioned Marxism (which also dealt in group thinking of course). It’s no longer all economic and control of the means of production. Now all explanations are in terms of discrimination and past injustice and oppression. But that only works today, or for Marxists, if you ignore individual merit, preferences, druthers and instead see everything through the prism of some single feature – their sex, race, religion, take your pick – and of groups not individuals.
And that takes me back to the current attacks on tolerance and merit in the West. For the first of these you might not at first glance think that tolerance is under attack because all one ever hears is the demand for tolerance. But the sort of ‘tolerance’ demanded by today’s identity politics warriors is very different to the one that drove the success of Western countries since the Enlightenment. The old-fashioned variant of tolerance – I call it ‘real tolerance’ – grew out of the religious wars in Europe between Protestants and Catholics. The numbers killed were big. It eventually dawned on people that things would be a lot better if we in this principality left you in yours to worship as you pleased. We leave you alone and you leave us alone. ‘Live and let live.’ You can run very successful societies with that underlying core foundation. But notice that old-fashioned tolerance is a means of getting along, of being polite. It in no way requires anyone to believe that others are living good lives, fulfilling lives, or worthy lives. Heck, the Protestants and Catholics stopped killing one another and indeed often lived in the same countries but both still thought the others were going to hell and were wholly misguided. They certainly did not think the others’ views were worthy of respect – full disclosure here, I come from a long-line of Scots-Canadian Calvinists (my parents being atheists, but culturally in that same mould) and no one in my extended family thought the Catholic worldview was anything other than massively wrongheaded. Put bluntly, tolerance did not include any notion of respect for the life choices of others. But today’s language of ‘tolerance’ has wholly inverted things. Groups based on whom they sleep with, or whom they worship, or what their culture happens to practise demand total ‘respect’ – if you don’t give it to them then you’re not being tolerant they say. You’re probably a bigot. That is not sustainable; it doesn’t deal in honest behaviour. ‘Live and let live’, with a healthy dose of politeness, is the sort of tolerance that works.
And as for merit, this idea is daily trashed by the wokester identity politics crowd. Once you’ve gone down the path of seeing people only in terms of the groups to which they belong and then dealt in statistical outcome differences with all group-differences always and everywhere being explained as discrimination then there really isn’t any room left for the notion of merit. Is there? But boy oh boy a society throws out the idea of merit at its peril. Merit drives competition and hard work. It delivers wealth, innovation and indeed self-respect. Jettison merit and you go back to feudal times. Or to the quota-obsessed India after independence. Everything collapses into box-ticking. Sure, the quotas won’t always be explicit but that’s what life will amount to.
At this point some of you are probably thinking, “Allan’s overstating things here”. I’m not. Last week the Vice-Chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology – be clear readers, not my University of Queensland – announced that QUT was going to remove all references to ‘merit’ from its hiring policy. The new approach would factor in gender, ethnicity and departmental balance. This is what societal decline looks like. That is politics all the way down (and as an aside, balance will not include any spots for conservatives I can assure you). If law firms and other employers had any cojones – they don’t, this is a wish – they would announce that merit does matter to them and no QUT graduates would henceforth be hired by them. Full stop. Same for governments. And alumni would simply announce that they will never give another penny to QUT until it reverses this policy.
I wonder if the Vice Chancellor of QUT believes that she earned her spot at the top on merit? I’m betting she does think that. Almost everyone who imposes these anti-merit quota-type policies on others believes that she, herself, got there on merit. If not, maybe she could just handover her VC job to a disabled, homosexual, Zarathustrian, vegan – or whoever better ticks all the ‘departmental balance’ criteria. What an embarrassment to QUT.
James Allan is the Garrick Professor of Law at Queensland University. This article first appeared in Spectator Australia.