Saturday, 5 August 2017

Workers of the world unite! (or revolution at Felbrigg Hall) - UPDATED

I have been brought back to Vaclav Havel's text The Power of the Powerless (full text available by following the link from this page) in reflecting on the position of the National Trust in its "Prejudice and Pride" programme, its participation in gay pride events and in the position in which it put some of its volunteers (the more cautious BBC reporting is here). Though, of course, the BBC's Gay Britannia programming equally prompts it.

What exactly are we doing when we ask people to wear that T-shirt, that badge, that lanyard or to walk in Pride marches? What are we asking of them in seeking their reception of that TV and radio programming?

Are we asking people to adhere to an ideology (of gender, of sex) that is unrelated to an authentic understanding of the dignity of the human person and therefore related only to ethical indifference? Are we asking people to adhere to an ideology that should be subject to the level of critique that Vaclav Havel offered to the communist ideology of his times in Czechoslovakia?

I suspect those National Trust volunteers who have preferred not to wear the requested badges and lanyards have exercised an ethical freedom that is becoming less common.

See Wrong rights? for my fuller account of Vaclav Havel's essay:
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves.

UPDATE:

The National Trust have now issued a statement reversing their instruction to volunteers:
The National Trust was established “for the benefit of the Nation” and we passionately believe our purpose is to make everyone feel welcome at our places, as our founders would have wanted. 
We are using the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality as an opportunity to tell the stories of the people at some of our places, whose personal lives were outside the social norms of their time. 
We hugely value our volunteers and many across the country have taken the opportunity to get involved in developing our Prejudice and Pride programme, which explores LGBTQ heritage. 
At Felbrigg, many volunteers have enthusiastically supported a new exhibition, which looks at the life of the extraordinarily generous Robert Ketton–Cremer.  His decision to leave the house to the Trust was the result in part of the fact that he had never married and had no heirs. 
We asked all our staff and volunteers at the house to wear rainbow lanyards or badges during the six-week event as welcoming symbol to all our visitors.  We remain absolutely committed to our Pride programme, which will continue as intended, along with the exhibition at Felbrigg. 
However, we are aware that some volunteers had conflicting, personal opinions about wearing the rainbow lanyards and badges. That was never our intention. 
We are therefore making it clear to volunteers that the wearing of the badge is optional and a personal decision.  We will be speaking to all our volunteers at Felbrigg over the coming days about this issue.
The change of policy does not appear to apply to National Trust employees.  The Trust's earlier statement is as follows (I have added emphasis - it would be interesting to know the nature of the "training and support" and the meaning of feeling "confident to take part").
Annabel Smith, Head of Volunteering & Participation Development said:
“All of our staff and volunteers sign up to our founding principles when they join us – we are an organisation that is for ever, for everyone.  We are committed to developing and promoting equality of opportunity and inclusion in all that we do regardless of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
“Relating specifically to the Prejudice and Pride programme, we do recognise that some volunteers may have conflicting, personal opinions.
“However whilst volunteering for the National Trust we do request and expect individuals to uphold the values of the organisation. We encourage people with any concerns to chat to our teams. As part of Prejudice and Pride we have worked closely with Stonewall and the University of Leicester who have been providing training and support to help as many volunteers as possible feel confident to take part.”
As part of our ‘Prejudice and Pride’ programme our staff and volunteers are wearing rainbow badges and lanyards, as an international symbol of welcome.
Some volunteers at Felbrigg have said they feel uncomfortable wearing these and we have offered them the opportunity to take a break from front facing duties if that’s what they would prefer.

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