The paradox of “parity of esteem”

The paradox of “parity of esteem”
by Sam ALLEN for Shared Future News
15 November 2017

The term “parity of esteem” has been used in Northern Ireland politics as far back as the 1940s — it is even used four times in the 1998 Belfast Agreement. The term has been used in a variety contexts, from public policies to communal identities. Simon Lee (Law Professor, Open University) spoke on the use of the term in the politics of Northern Ireland, its origins in political dialogue, and whether we will see it used more frequently.

The talk was part of the Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series (KESS). It is the Assembly’s Research and Information Service (RaISe) effort in joint partnership with Queen’s University, Ulster University, and the Open University, to provide a platform for academics to “present their research findings in a straightforward format, on issues that are relevant to governance in Northern Ireland”.

Lee explained the origin of the term, “parity of esteem”, as from a 1940s debate on secondary education. He then described an “economy of esteem” (detailed in the book The Economy of Esteem), which is the notion that there is value in being esteemed or respected; similarly there is a negative cost to being viewed with disdain. This definition can be applied to individuals, groups, and institutions.

For example, in regards to higher education, a university with a long history can put it in high esteem (among its adherents); a new, “modern” university could be viewed as substandard in academic circles. This could lead to a belief that “we ought to be more esteemed that you ought to be”.

The term “parity of esteem”, in regards to the political landscape of Northern Ireland, has been received in a variety of ways. Lee stated that the term has particular relevance to Northern Ireland, with detailed provisions in some of its laws and statutory guidance. He believes that there is a space for parity of esteem in the politics of Northern Ireland and has written proposals of how to achieve it.

One of Lee’s examples was based on the philosophy of John Rawls on justice (and specifically, Rawls’s “veil of ignorance”): “Imagine yourselves coming together to agree a constitution but not knowing who you are … And i you decide for the best interests of everybody without knowing exactly who you’ll end up being”. With this mindset he argues you may come to the conclusion that you want parity of esteem.

His second example was based on the Biblical parable of the workers in the vineyard, describing the story of how labourers were paid a fixed sum, regardless of when they joined the workforce. Lee stated: “In this parable it isn’t about merit, in that sense, or what you earned, but what is freely given and it could be described as parity of esteem”. He said that you could apply this thinking to those who “came late to a country or a place or those who came late to a peace process”.

The term “parity of esteem” appears in other regions of the world as well, such as in the constitution of South Africa and the use of its languages: “All official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably.” Lee spoke of some of the legal issues and controversies that have happened due to this legislation.

He then went back to the term being used in the first half of the 20th century in Northern Ireland concerning education. While it was used to describe the education system here, it came with a caveat “that in a sense you have to earn it”. This leads to two questions: if we feel ignored or discriminated against do we have to show our worth? Or was the term parity of esteem meant to override this?

Another example given of the issues revolving around parity of esteem was the recent controversy of the German High Court stating that the binary options of male or female for official records are no longer viable. The court insisted that other options need to be available — including the option “no gender”. Lee linked this to the issue of how parity of esteem can be applied to the seemingly binary political options in Northern Ireland. (Ed. — Perhaps reflected in an “Other” designation for MLAs at the Northern Ireland Assembly?)

In his conclusion, Lee laid out the conditions where he believes parity of esteem can thrive. First, he argued, parity of esteem is more about the process of a policy outcome than imposing any particular outcome: “It works best in constitution building … in other words when there is dialogue.” His second suggested condition was that it is not appropriate to use the term against others who we feel aren’t living up to it, if simultaneously we are not reflecting on how we live out the idea: “How can we cultivate an attitude in which we genuinely esteem other traditions and genuinely attract esteem from those who disagree with us?”

In the subsequent Q&A session, the first comment addressed the issue of dignity in conflict resolution. Specifically, it was pointed out that in peace talks the issue of dignity will come up and will often become an obstacle to further dialogue. Lee agreed and elaborated more on the elements that make up parity of esteem. The first dimension is that it is evaluative; you are judging sometime. Second, it is comparative; you esteem something over something else. And thirdly, it is directed; there is intention behind it.

Another member of the audience stated that he felt the term parity of esteem was making a comeback but is mistaken sometimes to mean equivalence or “one for you and one for me”. In addition the commentator stated they felt that “sometimes we allow ourselves to use the ambiguity [of the phrase] because it helps us get somewhere” and this is problematic.

One commentator compared parity of esteem to human dignity in that “it is not really tangible” and that it was difficult to imagine it as “a particular great source of legal obligation”. Later, Lee addressed this: “If you put something in a statute you may think it’s waffle but it ends up being justiciable. And we have lots of examples of that through the ages.”

Yet in Lee’s very final remarks, he mentioned that the paradox of esteem is that it can’t come through a demand but rather has to come through understanding.

A policy briefing and presentation are available for download at a KESS article of the event.



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