But let's move onto shakier ground. The workplace. Even here, I suggest we are rightfully discriminatory. We choose the candidate best suited, best qualified for the job. We would never employ someone as a brain surgeon just because they felt it was their right to be one – we would want evidence of their qualifications and experience. We would laugh out of court anyone who argued that we had unfairly discriminated against them just because they wanted the job even though they patently weren't qualified.
Still with me? Let's melt the ice under our feet a bit. What do we mean by 'qualified'? Clearly, the brain surgeon needs to have been to Medical School, needs to have passed the appropriate exams and be recognised formally by the profession. But what if they are basically, a horrible person with whom no-one can get on? What if the chemistry is all wrong with the existing team? Are those appropriate grounds for being discriminatory?
Now lets thin the ice out a bit. What if the job is project based, with tight deadlines requiring periods of long working hours, with very little tolerance for absence? There are jobs like that, right? For example, a Project Manager in a small company with few staff able to provide cover. What then? Can we assess the likely availability of the candidate? Can we take into account a person's previous attendance record? Even if they are qualified in every other way, could we discriminate against them on the basis of their health, their age, their marital status – all of which might give an indication of future availability? They might be the best candidate in other respects, they might do a splendid job, whilst they were there. But a 'poorer' candidate who is there most of the time might be a better choice than one who is great when they are there, but a pain when they are not.
Or maybe it's a job with a two year cycle. It takes a quarter of that time to become familiar with the role, even longer to build relationship and trust with the client in order to successfully execute the contract. Of course, anyone you employ might leave or get sick during that time. But can you discriminate on the basis of the probability of that happening? Could you choose not to employ a young, married man or woman, based on the risk of them taking maternity / paternity leave at a crucial time? Or the young parents on the grounds that they are more likely to take time out if the kids are ill?
I can feel the ground crumbling so let's remove it altogether...
What about the role that requires high levels of sustained energy? Can I discriminate against the Muslim candidate on the grounds that they may not be able to perform as well during periods of fasting? They maybe brilliant on all but 40 days of the year, but am I allowed to take the full picture into account? Can I legitimately ask them whether they would fast in alternative ways, to fulfil their religious sensibilities in a way compatible with the demands of the job?
In reality of course, employers do take all these things into account. They just don't write them in the HR records or rejection letters. Some 'acceptable' reason is found, but pretty much everyone in the process knows what the deal really is.
And that's my problem. By being inconsistent in the factors that we are allowed to use in being discriminating, by being afraid of 'discrimination', we actually push underground a great deal of the very thing we are trying to avoid.
I'm not for one moment suggesting that the factors I described above should be the only grounds for making a decision, nor am I suggesting that they should ever be used as a blanket discriminating factor. Deciding ahead of time that a candidate is unsuitable, solely on the grounds that they female, male, young, old, Muslim, ill, gay, straight or Christian is always reprehensible.
I am suggesting that the suitability of an individual for a given role, should include all the factors that the individual presents. Isn't that nothing more than common sense? That a church might want to employ only those sympathetic with Christian values, a Mosque, those with an Islamic faith. That a hospital might want to discriminate against those without medical training for certain jobs. That a small company seeking to invest in a trainee might choose someone who was likely to be around long enough to repay that investment. Surely this is common sense, not discrimination.
Of course such evaluations need to be open, to ensure that genuine discrimination doesn't take place, that candidates are not being disqualified solely on the grounds of blanket prejudice. And of course the full reasons for a decision need to be disclosed, and if necessary, open to challenge.
Ironically though, as things stand, by treating some selection criteria as 'off-limits', we exalt them to the very prominence that we are trying to avoid. By making gender, marital status, age, health, religion, no-go areas, we prevent them being genuinely and openly assessed – and therefore hidden from accountability, except in the grossest cases.
That seems to me the real problem. Discrimination happens, some of it of the 'common-sense' type described above, some of it the knee-jerk hatred or fear of entire groups. But in either case it is covered up. And that leaves the door open to the truly hateful forms of discrimination, the ones where it isn't this individual's genuine ability being openly assessed, but rather on the basis of their colour, their gender, their religion.
Can we be courageous and acknowledge the right to be discriminating, in order to expose fear and hate based discrimination?