I have just finished John Browne’s ‘The Glass Closet – Why coming out is good for business‘ and I am irritated. I don’t like the book. I am irritated by it and I am irritated that it irritates me and at the same time I can’t quite pin down why I am so irritated.
So what’s it all about. John Browne resigned from BP where he was Chief Exec in 2007 because he was about to be outed by the press. The book is about his story and about why gay employees should do what he didn’t – come out; and why business should encourage and embrace diversity.
I feel like I’m missing something. And maybe I am. I don’t work in business. I’m also a fair bit younger than Lord Browne and have made any decisions about coming out or being out in a different context. I’m also a woman. I get that for some people coming out is a really difficult and painful journey/experience and it certainly seems to have been that way for John Browne. The fact that he didn’t come out on his own terms but was outed compounds that pain. I agree that people should be able to come out on their own terms (sort of anyway). I agree with quite a lot he says in the book actually. Hm. Still irritated.
So, here’s the thing, well two things. I don’t think anyone should have to come out of any closet. The whole idea of coming out suggests that heterosexuality is the norm and we need to announce that we are not normal. How many straight people come out? When straight people feel the need to come out as straight I’ll happily announce my sexuality right along with them. Until then, I’m just me. But even if we think people should come out then I don’t give a toss as to whether that’s good for business. In fact, saying ‘come on you gay lot, get your backsides out of that closet of yours, business needs a bit of a boost and needs to be able to get the most out of you’ or ‘come on gay people, your leaving too much of what you should be committing to your employer in the closet, get out of there’ makes we want to punch something.
Lord Browne addresses his audience well and tells his story well. I am assuming that his intended audience is other business leaders and he speaks their language and maybe it will make a difference and create more welcoming environment. Maybe. But I wonder how many gay and lesbian young people, still in education or emabarking on their business career, read his book and reconise themselves in the stories. The stories he tells, including his own, start from an incredibly privileged position which brings with it its own set of problems but mostly is just, well, privileged. I think I am irritated by the privilege and the lack of recognition for other stories. It seems that if you want a business career now it might be ok to be gay but it porbalby still isn’t ok to be from inner city Bradford with a strong West Yorkshire accent. I’m not sure that helps much, I am not sure business is really anywhere near to really valuing diversity – just privileged diversity.
I want to be able to celebrate this book, to say: read it, listen to the message, diversity is important, gay people should be able to come out (oh hang on, that’s it in’t it, should be able to – not should) and if you create an atmosphere where difference is valued, people will be happier but I can’t quite bring myself to say that. I know I should like it more than I do. I know I should admire John Browne for telling the story and trying to drive change; I know that maybe business can be a real driver for change but I am struggling to get past the feeling that it’s always the privileged that get to tell the story, define it and set the agenda. While we are distracted by a former BP Chief Exec, what storeis are we not hearing? Let’s not allow this book to be the only story we hear about coming out in business or at all, let’s listen, let’s talk and let’s come out if we want to – for us, not for business!
The real luxury of having a few days off work is that I have actually had time to read – not read as I do for work but just curl up on the sofa for hours at a time and actually enjoy a book. For Christmas/my Birthday I got several books but was most excited about On Liberty.
Whenever I hear Shami Chakrabarti speak she always makes perfect sense to me. She can articulate clearly things that I just sort of feel but can neither put my finger on nor reason out fully. So you might say my expectations were high when I started reading. I finished the book in 3 sittings – the first only cut short by my inability to keep my eyes open past 11pm and the second by a cat deciding the book would make a comfy pillow. It’s a good book, it’s an easy read but it is also an important book. It’s a book, that for me, puts into focus why I like living here, why my politics are my politics, why I love law and why I love teaching law and teaching it at an institution like the University of Bradford.
I’m not a human rights lawyer, I have a basic familiarity with the legal provisions and even some of the cases (told as the personal stories they are in the book!) but I’m no expert and to read this, to understand it and to really think about it you don’t need to be. Shami has done the hard bit for us all and she writes so clearly and so persuasively that I find myself wondering why I hadn’t been able to articulate exactly that before I read her arguments. The key thing I keep coming back to – because like any good book On Liberty haunts me for a bit making it impossible to start another book, impossible to really think about anything other than the arguments or the story while what I read whirls around in my head – yes the key thing is this: The Rule of Law.
In various contexts I have been thinking about the rule of law lately. I have been involved in various committees etc inclusing one looking at the Quality Assurance Agency standards for law degrees in the form of the subject benchmark; there’s the various Law Learned Associations and our responses to changes to the regulation of the education and training for lawyers and then there is of course the introduction of new programmes at Bradford. All of these activities throw up the question of what we/I think a law graduate should understand/know/be able to do. What is a law graduate? Well, after reading On Liberty it seems to me that the answer is actually quite simpe – A law graduate must understand the rule of law, know its importance and be able to defend it. That’s it. Everything else is detail.
And of course I mean rule of law proper – not some watered down for convenience version where the powerful get to make exceptions when it suits them. Of course Shami is writing in a particular context – that of Human Rights and it is here where the need for adherence to the rule of law is perhaps at its most obvious, where it hits you in the face but there are countless other examples and the strength of the book, in my view, is that it shows how all our rights and those of others are interconnected. Things that do not immediately jump out as Human Rights issues so cleary are if you just stop to think for a minute (or accept that not everyone can have as brilliant a mind as Shami Chakrabarti and let her take you through the argument instead).
Occassionally the book rambled a little but in a good way, the way conversations ramble and move from one issue to the next not always following a predictable path but getting to the point nonetheless. It does this even where the terrain gets tricky, teacherous even. I like that Shami does not shy away from calling things difficult, that she admits that sometimes things make her uncomfortable. I read the passages about religion towards the end of the book with interest. I have always struggled reconciling my views on human rights, equality, religion etc and once again Shami does it for me – it’s ok to feel uncomfortable about religious symbols, dress etc but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t allow people to wear them. It’s ok to be offended and it is ok to offend. There must never be a right not to be offended, I agree. I also agree that there are difficult lines to be drawn for each of us personally and maybe also legally so I leave you with this quote from the TV Series The West Wing which Shami uses (see p 120) and which is one I had noted down for teaching. In the series (fictional) Matt Santos, Presidential Candidate, says this about the US Constitution and religion: ‘This wasn’t designed to make us comfortable. It was desgined to keep us free’. I think it applies to Human Rights and the rule of law too.
So, made any resolutions? It is the time of year after all! I haven’t. I never do. I have the usual vague thoughts about losing weight, exercising more… that kind of thing but I never actually make any actualy resolutions. I have thought about what I would like 2015 to be about as far as work is concerned:
1. Successful launch of our new Law Programmes – there’s a lot of work to do here yet. The paperwork we need for the University processes is nearing completion but we will need to create materials, pull together timetables and assessment plans etc to make sure the programmes really work. It’s exciting and a little daunting
2. Sticking to my principles – I have always believed in a liberal legal education which is shaped by my own socio-legal and interdisciplinary background and which exposes students to new ideas and challenges them – this has to come through in the new programmes – and I think it does but the devil is of course in the detail
3. My research on identiy has stalled, I just haven’t had the time to drive that forward and yet that is the work I really want to do – so in 2015 I want to find time for that – I guess this might be resolution territory!
4. I would really like to work more with others, within my institution and outside – but that means I probably need to be a little less of a control freak. So that’s not going to happen really
5. Ah yes, number 5. I have had this little book idea, half an idea really rattling around in my head for quite a while but I don’t think I’m ready to share that quite yet – it will grow over the next 12 months, I’m sure
Oh but there is a resolution I need to make. I have been Head of School for 6 months. I have another 6 months to do with the possibility of applying for the post for a bit longer. I will apply and if I get it, my resolution is this: I will do management but I will do management my way and I will not be drawn into corporate crap, I won’t play games, I will just be me. There – how’s that for a resolution? 2015, I think I might be ready!