I was trained as a police instructor to teach police recruits. The course was only of ten weeks duration, sufficient for a ‘by the points’ method where there was a review of what had been taught every 15 minutes and a summing up at the end. Each lesson would have points to prove. We were given instructions of which way to face, how to stand and to shave twice a day, although those with fair hair and females were excused, as long as their beard didn’t show before class end.
Years later, when I was told I was going on a ‘discrimination course’, presumably anti, I researched my instructor to discover that the chap had only a day’s instruction on how to teach. Given my failings after 50 days, I was sympathetic and decided to use my experience to assist the poor chap.
So when the opening question came: “Can discrimination ever be good?” I waited for any contribution from the others. After a couple of seconds, when no one else volunteered, I raised my hand. I was pointed to – bad move, always ask the person to contribute by name – and I regurgitated the dictionary definition I had looked up the previous day. I said:
“Yes it can. Discrimination is the ability to discern differences, such as in artistic matters. You can discriminate between a work of art and daubing.”
Job done I sat back in my chair to await the follow up question, which I assumed would be ‘when does discrimination become bad’, or something similar. The response surprised me.
“No. Discrimination is always bad.”
It was obviously fanciful, but it was said in a voice which brokered no argument.
“Oh, wait,” I said. “What about a discriminatory palate? That’s got to be good, surely. And what about good an evil? Isn’t it essential to discriminate between them?”
“No,” came the reply. “It is always wrong.” It was obvious that the instructor had been told to make the ridiculous statement and had been given no defence to someone who had an O-Level in English literature. So, feeling sorry for him, I shrugged and said: “If you say so.”
He then made a silly mistake. Instead of accepting his little victory, he asked: “I’m telling you that discrimination is always bad. You have to accept it.”
I put up both my hands in mock surrender and said: “You can believe what you want. I will continue to go by the Oxford English Dictionary, Concise Edition. I’ll accept it for the purposes of this course if it makes you happy.”
I realised I had just made the course all but impossible for the young lad, directly opposite of my intention. Mind you, it is not as if it was an unknown occurrence for me.
As we went for our mid-morning break, I went up to the instructor, apologised for any trouble I caused him, but said that whoever had told him to deny the definition of a word needed to stay away from Lewis Carroll. Apart, that is, for believing six impossible things in the morning.
After coffee we had one of those exercises where circumstances are described and blame has to be apportioned. It was a simple enough exercise, indeed I had designed it when I had been an instructor, so I knew just about every possible contortion of logic it gave rise to. I was able to help the instructor by suggesting ways to go, etc.
During the morning the chap made the fundamental error of showing a distinct preference for the nicest looking woman in the class, not the sort of thing to do in an anti-discrimination lesson. I was wondering whether to mention it to him when we broke for lunch. I say we, but it didn’t include me. Outside the door stood a chief inspector from discipline and complaints. He told me to follow him.
We went to an empty classroom and I was told my attitude had been called into question and that I was in serious risk of being reported for disruption. I couldn’t help but laugh, which didn’t go down well. I asked him for particulars and the idiot mentioned sticking to an outdated definition of discrimination. Outdated definition, eh? A gift of a phrase to someone like me who knew his way around the English language.
I gave him the full OED definition, which included the prejudicial aspect. I said that if the OED felt that there were various meanings then who am I to disagree. And, I added, who is he.
He accepted my point of view but said it had been disruptive. I explained that I had intended to be helpful but that the response had thrown me. He said I should say no more about it. I said I’d just sat through two lessons where I hadn’t mentioned it and I saw no reason not to do the same.
After lunch, from which I returned five minutes late, my apology that I’d been detained being accepted, I ran along with the course. I was a good little boy.
Right up until the summing up that is.
The rather attractive woman, who’d been favoured by the instructor, had not been favoured when it came to giving out brains. She was a little on the slow side and the exercise had strained her abilities. Her immediate supervisor, a woman I knew and admired for her abilities, had been supportive of her but she was beginning to tire. When it came to summing up, it came as no surprise to discover that she hadn’t cracked the lesson.
She said: “I’ve got a lot from this course. I said Ms A was to blame at the start of the exercise, but now I realise that Mr C was in the wrong.”
This for a lesson to show that blame was many faceted and no one was innocent and nor was any one person totally to blame. In fact, evil can be done by the well-meaning. In the embarrassed silence that followed I decided to take the sting out of her statement, if only for the sake of her boss.
“The same goes for me,” I said. There was an intake of breath from the attractive woman’s boss. She knew me and knew something was coming. “At the start of this course, I would have said, ‘Just like a woman to change her mind’. Now I know to keep my mouth shut.”
But I hadn’t learned. I was at a joint agency meeting and was the only male in the group of eight or so. I was being told about sexist language and how the police were to blame. I said the English language wasn’t much help with no non-gender specific pronoun to replace him and her.
One women, a high-up in social services, then complained, saying that most female words were modified male ones, such as the very word she’d used; female. I wasn’t thinking too sharply, which sometimes happened in meetings, and said: “I think you will find that male is from the French ‘homme’ and female is from ‘femelle’.” Factually correct but not, it seems, the proper time to mention it. I wasn’t addressed for the balance of the meeting. Job done, one might think.
I was in another joint meeting with social workers, this time with a varied team which included gays and lesbians. I knew one of the former, having worked with him. He was a genuinely funny guy and great company. A strong point of his was the barbed aside, so sitting next to him was a bit of a test for someone like me who has a sense of humour.
A rather boring social worker was telling us stuff that we all knew in the build up to concluding what we all had already concluded. She was pompous and more than a little deprecating towards men. My gay friend was vicious in his quiet put-downs.
One time the woman said: “You may know about the embryonic gay and lesbian liaison [social workers, outreach and police] group.”
Well, of course we had, for much longer than she, so to put off the expected long, drawn out, explanation, with details of the failure of the police side, I whispered to the chap next to me, but in a voice that carried to the woman in front: “Embryonic gay and lesbian? Can they tell at that age?”
There was a moment’s silence which was broken by the laughter of the two self-identified lesbians sitting in front of me, who had, up till then, been able to stifle their appreciation of the comments from the chap next to me.
Their laughter spread and a number of people turned around to smile at me, a couple giving me a thumbs up. The woman at the front was not amused. She was about to say something about my comment, I could tell, when the chap next to me turned and said: “My hero.” in about as gay a way as possible.
You’ve got to take a risk.