“Prominent London chambers expels member for expressing views on the law”. Fake news? Not at all. It happened last month.
Barrister Jon Holbrook, then at Cornerstone Chambers, had tweeted from his personal Twitter account: “The Equality Act undermines school discipline by empowering the stroppy teenager of colour”. The tweet comments on a post by The Equality and Human Rights Commission. The EHRC had supported a discrimination claim by a mixed-race student at a Church of England school in Hackney. She had been sent home because her hair was judged to infringe the school policy requiring afro style hair, including buns, to be of reasonable size and length. The case settled out of court with a payment to the complainant. The school’s conduct was never adjudicated upon. Reports say that the school did not accept liability. It has since changed its policy. Meanwhile, Mr Holbrook, who refused to remove the tweet, was expelled from his chambers.
It is noteworthy that Mr Holbrook’s conduct and his person met with strong public disapproval from some members of the profession (“particularly offensive” “shameful” “should be embarrassed” “what is wrong with you (apart from the obvious)” “pathetic” “you shame the Bar”). Complaints have been made to the Bar Standards Board. A seemingly successful career at the Bar has come to an end, for now at least.
This article is not about the rights and wrongs of these events. It is an invitation to anyone with feelings around this issue. Our invitation is to be brave, to read on though what you read may challenge you.
We ask a simple question: “If we put aside judgment of what is right and wrong, what do we observe, and what can we learn?”
The issue is systemic, not personal
The first observation is that the reactions to the tweet bear the hallmarks of a systemic issue rather than a personal one. The forces driving people’s responses and his chamber’s decision to expel him lie beyond the specifics of the actual event.
Mr Holbrook’s condemnation was swift, firm and public. Within two weeks of his tweet, he was out. People who may never have met him were happy to publicly shame him. There was no shortage of righteous judgment.
But what was his offense?
Was it the use of the term “of colour”? The acronyms POC (person of colour) and BIPOC (black, indigenous and persons of colour) are mainstream terms of expression in the field of racial awareness. Not everyone agrees on their acceptability, but that difference is tolerated. Black and minority groups use the term as a form of identity. Their use does not label the user a racist. There was no other obviously racially charged language in the tweet.
Were his views on the case racist? The case was never decided. There is no case report looking into the facts, no consideration of the policy and its impacts in context, no assessment of any claimed justification for it. It is reported that the Church School did not accept liability. There was a live issue on which opinions might differ, on which there was no formal determination.
Yet lawyers and his colleagues were emboldened to publicly shame him. This is very unusual in the traditions of the Bar. Barristers normally hold strong differences of opinion without condemning each other publicly. Opponents will fight tooth and nail for their client and then share a dinner afterwards. Members of chambers frequently act against each other while remaining close colleagues.
The Bar’s culture of respectful disagreement has always been cherished and upheld by its members. If Mr Holbrook had been commenting on an environmental dispute and tweeted “Environment Act stifles growth by empowering stroppy green campaigners” he may have had his dissenters, but he would still be a member of his chambers. He would not have been publicly shamed. It seems that in this particular case, something else was in play.
These features point to the issue being systemic rather than personal. There are forces at work beyond the present circumstances of the immediate event. This realization is important because it opens up a wider lens through which to observe and learn. It enables blind spots and uncomfortable truths to be seen. In this way learning and progress can be made.
Personal and systemic conscience
The passing of judgment, side-taking within the profession and exclusion from chambers are good examples of personal and systemic conscience in action.
Systems (like a firm, chambers or family) have a conscience. Systemic conscience exists and functions to maintain the wholeness or completeness of the group. It is not concerned with justice or injustice. It will exclude a member from the group at great personal cost to them in order to maintain group survival. Systemic conscience is like a tide that carries you unawares. An unfelt force that controls behaviour. This is why it is so powerful.
People have a personal conscience. Personal conscience is felt. It guards our belonging and exclusion from a group. When we are part of a group and follow its rules, we feel innocent. When we break the rules, we feel guilty. Personal conscience warns us when our behaviour risks exclusion from the group. Personal conscience protects us and keeps us safe.
How do these forces play out here? Expulsion from chambers is a manifestation of both levels of conscience.
Chambers’ survival among its peers and clients is preserved by the public act of exclusion. The group must come first, no matter the cost to the individual. There have been no expressions of regret at a career cut short, at the financial impacts this may have on Mr Holbrook or his dependents, at the personal cost. Systemic conscience has no concern for this. It can be ruthless in that way.
Personal expressions of condemnation are expressions of personal conscience. They carry the judgment “I am not a racist; I am not like him”. These judgments are passed with the innocence, entitlement and sense of security that comes with affirmed belonging. This innocence empowers people to condemn another without any sense of guilt. The louder the condemnation, the greater the sense of personal security.
This is of course the same process that allowed colonialism and slavery to be carried out in good conscience. It is the same force that allows one man to innocently kill another in the name of Queen and Country. When we pause to consider it, we are forced to recognise an uncomfortable truth. Notions of good and bad, right or wrong, are entirely subjective. Slaves were beaten to bring them closer to goodness, and to God. The same God was on both sides of the Crusade.
The wider field
When examining a systemic issue we consider what is in the wider field. Here we find what needs our attention.
Issues around race and discrimination are heavily influenced by unresolved trauma which engages people in systemic roles with particular dynamics. Common examples include viewing members of a minority as victims, and the majority as perpetrators; a sense of grievance from the minority group and a sense of guilt from the group in power; a need to atone within the majority group and a need to receive recompense in the minority group; the role of the majority group as helper and saviour; and so on. These dynamics are often hidden or unrecognized, even though they are strongly felt.
The strong need within one group to be seen to “do the right thing”, or strong offence taken by one group at the words of another, is often the manifestation of hidden trauma. Trauma clouds judgment and amplifies emotional response. It disempowers and removes agency. It grasps quick comfort at the expense of lasting resolution.
Systemic trauma is not personal to those acting it out, but it persists and is carried by members of the system until brought to the surface and resolved. The slave owners and their slaves died long ago, yet they also live on today. When people are unable to tolerate open discussion on racial issues, when they are unwilling to embrace all sides, no space is given for these unresolved issues to surface, be listened to and held in our attention. Yet only then can they be resolved. Generally, condemnation and exclusion drives issues underground, stifling an opportunity for resolution. Good intentions often have the face of the perpetrator. Hitler believed he was protecting Germans from evil privileged Jews. The shift from Weimar Republic to Nazi Germany was swift. Much harm can be done with good intentions.
The law as truth giver and the double bind
There is another force at play in the Holbrook affair: loyalty to the legal system, its rules, values and norms.
A notion often held by lawyers is that the law provides answers or truths. In the context of a legal dispute this is credible: the system has rules (laws) which are argued about by some members of the system (the lawyers) and adjudicated upon by other members of the system (the judges). Yet it is in our loyalty that blind-spots live. Loyalty excuses us from the need to look any further. It narrows the frame of view and allows lawyers to avoid self-examination and protect their privilege.
Let’s take an example. The Roma people and Irish Travellers experience probably the worst deprivation of any group of people within the UK. Their historic maltreatment and the history of laws and policies that have worked against them are well documented.
Yet members of the Bar regularly engage in cases whose sole purpose is to prevent gypsies and travellers settling on land, often land that they own. The families are evicted and moved on, despite the fact that they often have no settled place to go. Barristers taking these cases are not publicly condemned or shamed though their work may contribute to the discrimination and deprivation of the group. On the contrary, chambers publicise their successes.
Here we see another example of the innocence of belonging and the challenges caused by limited notions of inclusion. Barristers evicting gypsies do so in good conscience because they see themselves as upholding the law which the gypsies are breaking. The barrister need look no further to justify taking sides. The White – African Caribbean schoolgirl is seen as fighting an unjust policy which is judged to be against the law. She is a victim. The profession need look no further to justify taking sides. One is listened to and her concerns are respected, promoted; the other is excluded, dealt with as a law-breaker.
Were the profession to look beyond the law, an uncomfortable truth would surface: how can chambers condemn a member for expressing his views, while supporting the work of those who add to the hardship and suffering of another minority? How can we perpetrate harm on one group while defending the other at the expense of one of our own?
The need for radical, not basic inclusion
Everything we have written points to the need to step away from basic notions of inclusion where we take sides and include only those we agree with and prefer. We need to move towards the more resourceful space of radical inclusion where every side is listened to as offering a valuable perspective. From there we can move towards solutions.
We wrote about radical inclusion in an earlier article (here). It is challenging, yes. It is uncomfortable, yes. We accept that for many it seems out of reach. We accept that for many the popular dynamics of racial discourse have a painful seduction that is hard to resist. Yet intolerance breeds intolerance, no matter which side you take, and with intolerance there will be no solutions.
A personal note
We end on a personal note. Raising these issues exposes us too. But they are important and must be expressed. We raise them not to apportion judgment, but rather to bring awareness to the complexity of claiming moral superiority and choosing sides. We acknowledge that this is a challenging area for leaders, members of the profession and those who identify as belonging to victimised groups. As the diverse children of immigrants, as people connected to the legal profession, and as coaches working in this field, we know many of the challenges.
Our invitation to you is to be brave. Be brave enough to sit in the space that challenges and frightens you. The place you find unbearable. There, is your learning.
The authors are co-founders of The Libra Partnership (www.thelibrapartnership.com) which offers coaching and training to lawyers, firms, chambers and others, including training on diversity, inclusion and unity.