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The issue of affirmative action - old enough in the U.S. to be subject to revision - has only recently entered the political agenda in Sweden. The women's liberation movement has been strong enough for several decades and enjoyed much official support, but in the 1990's there has been a growing awareness that Sweden is far from the paradise of equality between the sexes, races and classes we somehow thought it had become. Statistics still show a divided labour market and a striking underrepresentation of women in the higher echelons of politics, public administration and private enterprise. During this time, a whole battery of measures to reverse the situation has been enforced. Most political parties have started using quotas. At the university various forms of preferential treatment are practised, and there is a general atmosphere in which people consider the proportion of women as soon as a committee or board of any kind is being appointed. Similar efforts in favour of other groups, particularly immigrants, are now being demanded, and a more encompassing legislation including laws against discrimination based on ethnicity, age, etc. is currently discussed.

There seems to be a general optimism regarding the possibilities to finally get rid of discriminatory practices by enforcing rules and regulations. This paper has evolved from a disturbing feeling I have that formal measures, apart from sometimes replacing one injustice with another, are not enough. If discrimination was only a question of prejudiced people appointing or employing or firing on other grounds than merit, the obvious answer would be legislation. But discrimination is also or even more so about everyday and often unconscious actions and mental maps, such as handling female babies more gently than male, discussing "female" leadership as if leadership was something inherently masculine, or talking of immigrants of the second or third generation, which is often done in Sweden, as if the identity of immigrant was an hereditary property.

This paper is not the result of detached pondering on these problems of society. It originates in a concrete situation in which I have had to deal with the consequences of this subtle kind of discrimination.

Class-room encounters

As a doctoral student I am charged with teaching in a five week's course in organisational behaviour. In this course, lectures have been replaced with seminars where students present and discuss texts and cases. This kind of teaching has the advantage of putting the student rather than the teacher in the centre of attention. It encourages active instead of passive learning, critical thinking instead of automatic knowledge processing. But it also demands new things from the students, since part of the examination is oral (and public). Self-confident, self-monitoring and assertive persons have a decisive advantage. And it happens to be the case that in all classes I have had until now, male students tend to be much more self-confident, self-monitoring and assertive than female students. There is often one or two high-performing and self-confident girls, but always a small group of quiet female students who expose a general reluctance towards oral presentation and who turn very nervous when they have to do it. Discussing their predicament, even in private, may only aggravate the problem, something which seems to have happened once when I tried to encourage one such student. Ignoring it is not much better, since students must participate actively in order to learn and to get fair grades. What more is, I know that their problems will not disappear just because the course finishes. The demands to speak in public, or at least in front of a small group, will only increase once they enter professional life.

According to my assessment of the situation, this group of students have been subject to the subtle, everyday and largely non-conscious discrimination outlined above. It is cold comfort that they may profit from preferential treatment one day in the future. It provides some comfort that they may never have to confront discrimination. However, they seem to have been already harmed as persons, and their ability to realize their potentials has already been limited. Mutilation is perhaps too strong a word in this context, but when it comes to some particularly inhibited girls, I think I would like to call it just that. Of course, there will always be individual differences, and some people are more extrovert than others, but merely assuming and accepting that a certain number of the girls in each age cohort will always be "shy" is perhaps a sign of indifference and overly habitual thinking rather than real tolerance.

In a more general sense, this problem can be expressed as Judith W. Kay puts it in an recent essay (1996): Once we have got the people out of Egypt, how do we get Egypt out of the people? I.e. once formal oppression of women or workers or people of a certain ethnicity has ended, how can internalized oppression be abolished?

It must be said straight away: I do not have a ready-made or easy solution, neither to the dilemma of the "shy" girls in the class-room nor to the problem in general. What I do have is a an attempt to find a solution, or a slightly new way of thinking about it, in the form of some reflections inspired by personalist thought. Definitely no expert on personalism, I am still eager to share these reflections, since I have found personalist ideas a much more relevant and rich source of inspiration than the liberal concept of fighting discrimination with rules and legislation.


Personalism is not a philosophy. Firstly because there are several personalisms, or several very different thinkers to whom the concept of the human person is central. Personalism took its beginnings in Europe in the 1930's, as a series of attempts to formulate a contemporary humanism, opposing both rationalist, de-humanizing trends in modern society and the totalitarian reactions, whether nationalistic or communistic, to these trends. Among recent exponents to personalism we can note such celebrities as Pope John Paul II and the former president of the European Commission Jacques Delors. The names hint at two significant connections of personalism, i.e. to Catholicism and to European Christian Democracy. However, the basic personalist arguments to which I am referring in this paper should not be considered as opposed to other religions or humanist convictions - they are claimed to be based on natural and not revealed truth. On the other hand, they are not easily reconcilable with relativist reasoning, such as strict social constructivism.

Secondly, even the personalism of a single personalist, such as Emmanuel Mounier, is "less a philosophy in the ordinary sense of the term than a frame of reference, a set of values, and a method with which a new and more human society might be constructed." (Rauch, 1972, p. 3). The following presentation of personalism is based primarily on the thinking of this Mounier, who started a veritable movement around the magazine Esprit in 1930's France, and his contemporary Jacques Maritain (se particularly Mounier, 1962 [1949] and Maritain, 1949).

The insistence on the notion of person stems from a conviction that a human being is not just an individual, physical entity, but a spiritual, unique and irreplaceable person. There is nothing more valuable than a single human person. The person has no existence outside the individual - if you kill the individual you kill the person, as Maritain puts it. The material aspect of human life should neither be scorned nor over-emphasized at the expense of the spritual aspect. The person is basically a mystery which must be respected and cannot easily be defined. It is not a fixed unit, but something that is constantly being created.

The human being does not exist apart from other human beings. Not only because of biological facts and physical needs, but also in order to realize him- or herself, a person needs other persons, i.e. the help of other persons just as the opportunity to help them. Human interdependence is not anonymous. Each person has a very particular place or a mission to fulfil in the multitude of persons. We all fit together as the pieces of a puzzle. Another way to characterize the human person is that it can give itself to another person and also receive another person. When giving him- or herself, or when receiving another, the human person is the most human.

The person demands dialogue with other persons. However, this proves to be difficult, since there is always a temptation to treat others as things rather than persons, or to let oneself be treated as a thing. As a consequence, there is something fundamentally painful about human existence. One way of treating others as things is to reduce them to their social function or identity, e.g. regarding the woman as "just" a woman, or the Gypsy as "just"" a Gypsy, or the student as "just" a student.

Personalism and affirmative action

If we return to the topic of affirmative action, we can see that quotas and preferential treatment involve a risk of degrading the human being, since it means using persons belonging to various privileged groups as tools in order to create a desired social outcome. But a discourse which criticizes quotas and indicates no other solution than individual efforts implies another mistake, from a personalist point of view, namely that of over-emphasizing the individual and regarding him or her as cut off from others.

The part of affirmative action which involves efforts to empower members of an underrepresented or otherwise underprivileged group does not conflict with personalist values. On the contrary, it means exactly to treat persons as persons, since personal growth is not a zero-sum game. The social and institutionalized dominance of dominant groups not only interferes with the development of members of other groups - it also makes it more difficult for dominants to become true persons.

Personalism in the class-room

In the case of the "shy" girls in my classes, an appropriate empowering action could be special speech classes for female student. This may seem as an insufficient measure in front of mutilated persons. This apparent insufficiency springs partly from the illusion that grandiose, top-down projects and rules will solve the problem so much faster than local, bottom-down efforts, and partly from the correct observation that what is missing in these girls is not a number of oratory techniques but self-confidence.

Judith W. Kay (1996) finds hope of getting Egypt out of the people in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Systematic oppression causes non-conscious and bad habits, such as resentment and self-degradation, among the oppressed people. But according to Thomas, habits are never completely unconscious or unintentional. As an essentially free person, a human being can always change by free will.

But how do we instil confidence in others? If we can do it at all, it probably has something to do with treating them as persons, in the sense explicated above, and behaving as persons ourselves. In his Traité du caractère, Mounier develops a number of ways in which we try to use or refuse the other. (Mounier, 1961 [1947], p. 473-494). One mode is to use the other as a mirror, to look obsessively for signs of appreciation, tenderness or approval and to despair as soon as there are no such signs. There are many politicians who suffer from this kind of egocentricity, says Mounier. They always compromise, and especially they compromise the truth, since a small adjustment of the truth is a fast way to seduction. Curiously enough, I find this error particularly relevant to the situation of the teacher. The teacher may try to impress the pupils by being the great orator, thereby (superficially) enhancing his or her own esteem but hardly that of the pupils. The teacher can also try to become popular by not demanding too much, or by over-simplifying the matter. Thereby reducing others and him- or herself, the teacher may incite a general tendency to manipulation, and make students try to compete and triumph rather than cooperate and help. On the other hand, one single teacher who is a true and honest person can make a difference. As Mounier has noted: real presence is contagious. To avoid confusion, I would like to underline that behaving as a person means being oneself, nothing more and nothing less.


It is no coincidence that my reflections end in something very similar to the Aristotelian notion of the virtuous person, which has recently resurged in current ethical discussion. The modern conception that the common good can be accomplished through anonymous systems seems to be giving way to the much older idea that good and bad are in the hands of each and every one of us, though we of course need the assistance of society at large. In my opinion, this is not a substitution of one ethics with another, but a return to real ethical thinking.


Kay, J. W., 1996, "Getting Egypt out of the People: Aquinas Contributions to Liberation", in Harak, G. S. (ed.), Aquinas on Empowerment: Classical Ethics for Ordinary Lives, Washington: Georgetown University Press, p. 1-46.

Mounier, E., 1961 [1947], Traitédu caractère, reprinted in Oevres du Mounier, Vol. II, Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Mounier, E., 1962 [1949], Le personnalisme, reprinted in Oeuvres du Mounier, Vol. III, Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Maritain, J., 1949, Personligheten och det gemensamma bästa , Stockholm: Natur och kultur. Original title: La personne et le bien commun.

Rauch, R. W., 1972, Politics and Belief in Contemporary France: Emmanuel Mounier and Christian Democracy, 1932-1950, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.


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