The Good Fight
Simon Fanshawe on Merit and Diversity

Simon Fanshawe on Merit and Diversity

Yascha Mounk and Simon Fanshawe also discuss how gay and lesbian rights were won—and what that should teach today’s activists.

Simon Fanshawe is an activist, writer, and consultant who is a co-founder of Stonewall UK and the rector of the University of Edinburgh. His book is The Power of Difference: Where the Complexities of Diversity and Inclusion Meet Practical Solutions.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Simon Fanshawe discuss whether there is a tension between hiring for merit and hiring for the value of having different kinds of life experiences present in organizations; how the gay rights movement framed the debate around legal equality and toleration rather than asking the public to affirm gay and lesbian identities; and why building alliances and finding common ground are essential for achieving social change and creating a more inclusive society.

The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You do a lot of diversity work, but you root your diversity work in the thought of people like John Stuart Mill and the spirit of the Enlightenment. How do you think most diversity work gets that wrong and what is different about the kind of diversity work that you engage in?

Simon Fanshawe: Our approach is that we start from the fact that the human condition is that we can't understand each other, and that the human ambition is that we want to try and do so but we can only try and do so in the certain knowledge that we never will; in other words, I can't see the world from your point of view and I can't experience it the way you experience it and so on. Going on that journey (sorry, I hate to use the word journey) that is the valuable thing and it's why we talk about diversity inclusion because it's about trying to understand people's different experiences of life and it's also about trying to understand what they then bring to joint enterprise.

What organizations or businesses really have is a bunch of strangers brought together to achieve a common objective, whether it's making pizzas or teaching a course at university or putting a man or woman on the moon. And my proposition to them is that it's through their differences, what they each differently bring to that task and its different components—that's why diversity matters. And one further thing that I would say is that there's a key difference when we think about this notion of diversity. We think about the deficits. In other words, you can look at data and you could look at where the imbalances are between different groups of people. But there's another element of this which is the diversity dividend, and that's what happens when you start to combine the differences. Diversity is absolutely a talent strategy if you’d like to achieve common objectives.

Why has it gone wrong? I think what happened was that some years ago, executives, HR directors, boards thought, yeah, diversity, this is a good thing. We're not getting access to talent, and there are injustices out there, and we ought to be part of making sure that our companies don't replicate that, so let's do diversity. But what they then did was they delegated. They didn't attach it to the strategy. They didn't make it a drive of the strategy. And what happened was it kind of grew into a bit of a monster because they didn't tie it into the core of what they're doing. And I think ultimately what's happened is that lots of staff are now asking of organizations what they actually ought to be asking of the world.

Mounk: First of all, I broadly agree with that approach. That part of what I love about living in New York, about my experiences living in different kinds of countries and getting to know various people was that “diversity”; the chance to get to know people who are different from you, who perhaps come from different cultures, have different religious beliefs, different philosophical outlooks. And in cooperating with them, you get to discover something about the other person and the world. 

I guess I wonder to what extent a self-conscious diversity program is necessary to achieve that in societies that are already quite diverse. I think one of the places where I've learned that is from your work, but I also wonder whether there's a tension within it: The Enlightenment value par excellence is merit; it is a career “open to the talents” and the idea that you should be considered on the basis of your potential contributions rather than on the kind of group to which you belong. But despite saying that your outlook is rooted in the Enlightenment, you seem to be quite skeptical of the concept of merit. So to what extent do institutions have to go beyond saying you can't discriminate against each other, you can't treat each other horribly, to, say, let's hold diversity seminars, let's hold these places where we're really sort of addressing our diversity in a way that seems to turn us in a way into representative of our boxes? And to what extent should companies go beyond just trying to hire the best talent without discriminating against anybody on the basis of their identity?

Fanshawe: I don't think I'm skeptical about the notion of merit. What I would say is that you need to think about what you mean by merit. In other words, what do you value and what people are able to bring it into organizations? Typically what you have is that merit is largely based on a technical notion, on a professional skill notion. They will bring that technical skill. But the truth of it is there's a kind of skill threshold when you're trying to fill a job or create a team. But then the question is, what else is that person bringing? And I'm not suggesting, ever, that people should be recruited because of who they are. I'm saying that, actually, it's not who they are that matters. It's what they bring through who they are; it's the stories they bring, the experiences. And what I would say crucially—and where I depart, I think, a lot from the generic standard kind of approach to diversity—is I think everybody's got a voice in this. Everybody's got their difference to bring. We're not just diverse because we belong to certain groups. How much experience do I share with other gay men? Well, the truth of it is when gay men get together we talk about coming out. When you first meet somebody who's gay that's one of the things you talk about because it is a shared experience. But beyond that how you then thrive and survive in the world is down to your individual talent and personality.

So what I would say is that if we start to think of merit as being that combination of skill and then also the knowledge of that and the experience you bring through who you are and your personality, then what you start to do is to combine a number of things with other people. So it's important to recognise that the members of certain groups and certain members of those groups experience disadvantage. But it's not a uniform experience. It's not an all-day experience. I often say that the thing about prejudice for lesbians and gays is we might experience discrimination every day, but we don't any longer experience it all day. 

Let's reevaluate merit, because what you often have in jobs is that people have an assumption about the merit that's required for the job. They then recruit to that assumption and that assumption is never challenged. And in effect what it can do is cut out people who actually have got enormous amounts of talent they could bring to that job but they're just not perceived as being suitable for it.

Mounk: When there are genuine problems with sort of meritocracy, I think it's often because we have too narrow a concept of what merit entails. I'm all in favor, in the United States, of laws passed to ban the requirement of a bachelor's degrees for jobs where there's no obvious reason why it would need to be required; it's just become a way of excluding people who may be very good at the job who simply have had different life paths and often because they started with fewer advantages. So I agree with having to carefully examine what merit entails. 

I'm a little bit skeptical about this idea that a lot of what merit entails requires this personal story to tell. And I'm skeptical of it for two reasons. The first is that one of the things I most hate about the admissions system in American universities is the requirement to write this kind of personal statement where you self-exoticize in some way. It's sort of terribly fake. And, in fact, I worry that the new Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in the United States is going to lead to an even greater emphasis on the personal statement because that's the one context in which universities can continue to consider race. And I don't think it's very healthy to tell 17-year-olds across the country that the one way in which they can gain an advantage to get into college, and they will gain a significant advantage, is to tell us a story of how much their identity has been a terrible obstacle to them. 

In certain kinds of jobs, I can see how just having a diversity of walks of life is in itself relevant to the task. If you want to effectively advertise to a population that's diverse, it helps to have people who have roots in different parts of that population to have a sense of how the ad is going to play in different milieus. Now, by the way, if all of those people are graduates of Cambridge and Oxford University in England or of Harvard and Yale in the United States, then even if they're ethnically diverse, they may not capture that diversity. But having a genuine diversity rightly understood for those jobs seems relevant. There's many jobs where I'm just not sure that's relevant, right?

Fanshawe: Absolutely right. I'm not saying that. I'm saying it's a way of thinking about people's talent and it's a way of giving some value to the stories that they bring. And I think the key word which you said was exoticize. I mean, what you're finding here is that it's people desperately trying to find some way of participating in the oppression Olympics in order to give themselves what apparently is social value. I mean, I find it infuriating.

What I'm talking about is the recognition that data will tell us that certain groups of people have disadvantages. But crucially, we have to understand in businesses, does that matter? Does it matter that certain groups are imbalanced in certain professions? It might, it might not. Secondly, what actually is the cause of it? And thirdly, what can you actually do about it? So what you're trying to do here is unleash real talent. You're trying to unleash merit rather than stifle it. 

Mounk: So you've alluded a few times to the fact that you were one of the key voices in the gay rights movement in the United Kingdom. What do you think made that movement, and I wonder if you'll agree with this assessment, fantastically successful? I mean, despite the discrimination that obviously persists in society to some extent, the position of gays and lesbians in British society and for that matter in America and in German society and many countries in Latin America and many countries in East Asia, at this point has just fundamentally transformed over the course of our lifetimes. 

Why do you think that that movement has proven so successful and without polarizing society too much? I'm sure it polarized society at various junctures, but where we stand today, even right-wing populists across North America and Western Europe by and large accept gay rights and sometimes even try to say that they are the only people who are going to protect gay rights against supposedly less tolerant immigrants and so on. So how is it that the movement won and did that without at least at this stage polarizing society around this issue?

Fanshawe: Fundamentally it was successful because we did not ask people to express their view about homosexuality. What we asked them to do was express a view about equality. So if you go back to, in Britain, to 1957, and a famous report commission called the Wolfenden Report, and it was so-called because it was chaired by Sir John Wolfenden, and it was a report into homosexuality and prostitution, a kind of peculiar sort of a clash of two different things. But Wolfenden did something really interesting. He said, to be blunt, the question before us is whether or not the state has a role in anybody's morality or immorality. In other words, the whole question in front of them was not about the morality of prostitution or homosexuality. It was about the role of the state in relation to it. It opened up a discussion which, ten years later in 1967, became the partial (at that stage) decriminalization of homosexuality, but essentially it stopped being illegal. 

Then what happened was this flowering of gay things, everything: gay hiking, gay—I remember a very lovely American friend of mine who was from one of those kind of wealthy East Coast families, and he was trying to tell his grandmother (this sort of beautiful, elegant woman sitting in a smart house in Martha's Vineyard or wherever). Anyway, she says, what are you doing this weekend? He says, I'm going yachting with a gay yachting group. There was a long pause and she looked at him down her nose and she said, can't they yacht with anybody else? And I've always loved that. But the thing is, they couldn't yacht with anybody else because if they'd come out on the yacht, they'd have been thrown overboard. My point being is that this network emerged, hiking and politics and drag and all these things because we weren't illegal anymore. Then two things happened: AIDS, at the beginning of the ‘80s, and then at the end of the ‘80s a particular piece of legislation, the details of which I won't bore you with, but it was a right-wing inspired bit of legislation designed to stop local authorities investing in kind of gay welfare groups and education and so on and so forth. And that was what stimulated our starting of this organization called Stonewall because we realized we had no power to lobby about law.

What's crucial about all of that and then leading right the way through to 2014 when there was gay marriage was at no point did we base the campaign on saying to people, do you think lesbian and gay relationships are morally, theologically (in whatever way) OK? Because in 1989 when we started Stonewall, we were 80-20 down. We wouldn't have won. So what we did was we said, do you think it's right that a group of people should be discriminated against by society and the law as a group? And if you say that to Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, they know what you're talking about. So they go, yeah, we don't like you, but we don't think you should be discriminated against just because of who you are. That's not fair.

I always talk about the bigger principle. So I always say about Stonewall that for me what it was about was trying to create a platform for lesbians and gays to play a part in a world in which everybody wanted to live. So that when we talked about parenting, we didn't demand that we had the right to be parents. What we said was we want to contribute to bringing up the next generation. That's one of the great things one generation does for the next. When it comes to the armed forces, we want to be part of the defense of the nation because that is a part of citizenship, and I'll tell you a story about that if you like. I'm an army brat and my dad was a senior ranking army officer and I found myself in a television studio once with one of those generals. And in Britain they bark at you the whole time, it's like living with a kind of rather gruff dog and anyway so he—

Mounk: —That's very unfair to dogs, Simon. I'm gonna defend canine honor here.

Fanshawe: I like dogs and generals. I grew up with both. So anyway, I'm in the studio with this guy and he produced the classic defense, what I call the shower defense: If you're in the shower, you see, with a homosexual, you'll feel very, very nervous and anxious and rather afraid, perhaps. And I said to this guy, I said, to be perfectly honest, I said, if what makes you fearful and anxious is the idea that some other guy thinks you've got a really cute butt, I'm not sure the army's the job for you. I think you need to be a bit more resilient than that. 

We had a lot of fun doing it, but it was always about this bigger principle. I think the key thing about politics is that you need to build big alliances around big principles. You don't need to build small groups of people around ideological purity. And we never said to people, you have to like us, you have to admire us. We wanted, of course, to be accepted by our families and by our loved ones. And we didn't want to be beaten up. I'm not saying we didn't want and feel all that. But the political approach was always on this notion of equality and participation of citizens. And that's something you can build a very big alliance around.

Mounk: The question I have is, to take that stance (which I think rightly you credit with having been successful), how much of an internal fight was that within the gay rights movement? To what extent were there currents in the gay rights movement who wanted to say no, you know what? Let's tell these bigots, let's get into a fight with them. I know that in the American context in the fight for same-sex marriage—and Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch talk about this a lot and I've mentioned this in the podcast a few times—there was a contingent of people that said we don't want to get married, right? That's a terrible, hetero bourgeois mainstream institution. We want to revolutionize society.

How did that internal politics work and what did you need to do in order to align the organization and the movement more broadly on what you believed to be the winning strategy?

Fanshawe: Well, that's absolutely right. I mean, there was an organization called Outrage and there was Stonewall and we were definitely seen as these ghastly sort of suck-ups, awful sort of suited creeps wandering around the House of Commons and begging for equality. 

My view of it is very simple. I think that, in the marketplace of activism, there is absolutely the role for protest. There was a famous case where some lesbians abseiled into the House of Commons. And that is a dramatic way of bringing people's attention to an issue. So I don't have any problem with that. I think it's a bit stupid to glue yourself to the road, and I think it's a bit stupid to deface works of art. But there are creative ways in which you do that. And I think that's one. And there's also a kind of celebratory element to it where the barricades would go up and we'd be handing out the canapés. We'd be thinking, well, this is a party, it'll be fun. So we always had that reputation, I think, on the straight left of being silly. And then on the gay left, the Stonewall lot was seen as a sort of besuited kind of suck-ups. So, but I think there's an interaction between those two forms of politics. And I think that, actually, they're necessary if you use protests in that dramatic way to draw attention to things. So I have no problem with that at all. 

In Britain, when it came to arguing for equal marriage, to start with it was absolutely clear that we wouldn't win marriage. We absolutely knew that we could not get gay marriage legislation through the two chambers. So the clever people (and I wasn't one of them, but I was obviously supportive of this) invented the notion of civil partnerships. Why did they do it? They did it because the purpose of this was not to get gay marriage. The purpose was to deliver a legal relationship which would enable you to be the next of kin to your partner when they were in a hospital bed, to enable you to inherit the house, etc. So we needed legal recognition of the relationship.

The demands I think that are being made by that... the sort of, you know, marriage is heteronormative, we must tear it all down, da da da. That is a different kind of demand. It's of a different nature. And I think you begin to see it in some of the battles around sex and gender, where actually there is a demand that people change their lives in tune with what I want you to do. And we never did that. In the gay rights movement, and it's one of the reasons why it was so successful, which is your original question, we never really asked people to change very much. We asked them to accommodate us in some kind of way, as equals. Not accommodate us in a kind of inferior way, or you can have your own little separate whatnot, but as equals. And that's why we were so successful.

Mounk: So we've talked a little bit about the success of the gay rights movement. Many of the institutions that were central in the gay rights movement have now drifted towards mostly advocating for trans rights. And I think this is partially a story of institutional drift that is very familiar from very different contexts, which is to say that when you have a huge nonprofit that raises a ton of money, like the Human Rights Campaign in the United States, and it does that in order to fight for a cause like gay marriage, once you win that cause, you could start to give back some of that donor money and tell some of your staff that they'll unfortunately have to go and find other worthwhile things to do and reduce your size—or you need to find a different cause that justifies all of that donor money. And somewhat understandably, what they all usually end up doing is the latter option. Now, in a way, I think the fight for trans rights, and this is sometimes forgotten in this debate, has been a great success, which is to say that, you know, I went to a high school in which, actually, nobody was really out as gay or lesbian until they were 18, but by and large the people I went to school with were not particularly homophobic. There's a reason why people weren't coming out. I'm not saying that it was a super tolerant atmosphere. I think it probably wasn't. But if you went on a homophobic rant, people would look at you a little bit askew—transphobia, I think, was much more rampant until something like 20 years ago. The idea that there was something just deeply odd and perhaps pathological about trans people was quite widely accepted even in pretty progressive and liberal circles. And I think that has genuinely changed. The visibility and the acceptance of trans people in society went up very significantly between, let's say, the year 2000 and something like 2015 or 2018. 

Now, at the same time, it seems to me that particular aspects of that organized trans movement—and I want to distinguish here between the spokespeople of the trans movement and the majority of trans people—have ended up making certain maximalist demands that do seem to go beyond accept and tolerate us, to “You have to change how you behave.” And it now feels as though that's actually leading to a backlash that is putting in danger some of the progress and achievements that the movement has made in the first part of the 21st century. So how do you see the difference between the strategy that you followed when you founded Stonewall and the institutional position taken by many organizations fighting for trans rights at the moment?

Fanshawe: Certainly when we started Stonewall, and look, there were six of us in the start, and then there was a whole bunch of people who gathered around that. We always had equal men and women. Ian McKellen, the actor, was one of the six, and he gave an interview recently, and he said, “Simon was very helpful. He was always an irritant. He always got the outside perspective.” So I must be very clear and put my role into the correct, relatively small proportion which it justifies. But I would say that the big difference was that we were deliberately trying to change laws in a way that was encompassing. Whereas I think one of the problems now is, at the heart of it, this notion of complete affirmation. There is also a material difference between being gay and heterosexual on the one hand, and then being trans and not being trans. I mean, these are very different things. They have very different implications. And the implication (here’s the business cliche people say) when the rubber hits the road, Yascha, is when obviously somebody who's male, in biological sex terms, wants access to female spaces. And that is clearly the tension point. I would also say that when we talk about trans people, if you look at all the polling, certainly in Britain, if you say to people in Britain, the question that we posed with Stonewall, do you think that trans people ought to have access to healthcare, be treated without discrimination, be able to get on and lead their lives in privacy or in peace? Because people are basically a bit fair, they say of course, why would I want anybody to have a horrible time? But the moment that you say, do you think that people who are biologically male should be able to access sports spaces and services and then changing rooms and so on and so forth, that's when there's a need for a conversation. Because what happens in the polling is that support for that plummets. So the political strategy has been successful insofar as, by characterizing itself as the most oppressed group in the world, etc., that notion has been picked up by middle-class liberals—and we middle-class liberals love nothing more than associating ourselves with you know the poor and the dispossessed. People adopted the trans movement as if it was something that really signaled just how much they cared. The truth of it is that if you widen the definition of trans beyond people who are experiencing dysphoria and need therapy, support, possibly medical intervention—once you widen it beyond that, you get into very contested territory. And actually, I would say that movement would have had a great deal more success with the general public had they then said, well, we acknowledge that there are issues here, we've got to actually confront this and deal with it. The minute you refuse to acknowledge the issues, you are in an impasse and people go, well, I'm sorry. So I think there's a strategic failure, but it's also a refusal to acknowledge that actually you can have a perfectly different view about gender and sex and still manage to work together, manage to live on the same street or whatever. So we're back to tolerance. People are not prepared to go through that process of tolerance and understanding.

But worse than that, what's happening now I think is that I'm definitely now the wrong kind of gay. I mean, gay has turned into this peculiar sort of ideological notion now. And I thought the whole point of fighting these fights was so that we didn't have to be gay any longer. I remember my mother once (bless her, me turning up with the placards and the dungarees and the aubergine hair and the earring, and one of those placards saying, F you, I'm gay, or whatever it was) said to me, she said, darling, why do you have to make so much noise about it? And I said, well, so one day we don't have to. And I just said it off the top of my head. But I really mean that. I really mean it. Whereas it feels to me like what's happening now is that identity rather than material reality of people's lives is becoming more important than anything else. And what that means is that in the end you get to this notion of a subjectively defined identity, which is not about the material disadvantage you experience then. It then becomes a whole set of identities which are neither provable nor unprovable. 

My feeling is that I've got to come to terms with my own identity. I don't need society to affirm it. What I need is society not to deprive me of legal rights on the basis of it. But I don't need to affirm other people's rights, beliefs or whatever. I need to get along with them and tolerate them and work with them.

Mounk: So fill in people who may not know the British context on a little bit on the evolution of Stonewall and what happened to this organization that you founded. It really is, I mean, I remember from my time living in the United Kingdom, but it was the most visible and well-known organization fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians. How has the organization evolved over the last ten years, particularly on this trans issue, and what do you think that means for that fight?

Fanshawe: Well, up to 2014-15, which was when gay marriage became the reality, what it had done was campaigned in the way that I've described on these really quite basic issues. So they were originally the age of consent and that used a mechanism at the European court. In other words, there was a lever that we could use on the British government to look at legislation. We kept on losing the vote on the age of consent in the House of Commons, but I had this rather kind of Ho Chi Minh kind of phrase that I used to use, which is that every defeat is a victory in the court of public opinion. We built support even though we kept on losing the vote. And we built support on this notion of equal rights, equality, equal treatment. And that then extended to immigration rights, extended participation in the armed forces, to adoption and fostering, and so on and so forth. And there was a marvelous moment, I remember, when the regulations were changed so that if you were a lesbian and you and your partner had a baby, you could both be on the birth certificate as the parents. And that was a major, major moment. And there was a wonderful woman who had worked in the city of London, and she stood up, and this was just round about the crash, and she stood up and she said I never thought I'd reach a point in my life where being a banker would be less popular than being a lesbian. But we got there. 

2014 was gay marriage, the chief executive of Stonewall left. So they had an option. What do we do now? We've achieved our political objectives. My view was, and a lot of other people's view was, now our job is to go local and build those alliances locally, which we built successfully nationally, so that with employers or schools or whatever, we had that dialogue at a local level. So when we're talking about sex and relations of education or when we're talking about discrimination within businesses or whatever, we actually had the alliances to try and deal with that. They didn't do that. As you said, what happened was they then adopted campaigning on trans rights. My view has always been, and I think I may differ from Andrew Sullivan and others on this, I think Stonewall can campaign on what it wants to campaign on. That's not my argument with them. My argument with them has always been the way in which they campaign. Once they started acceptance without exception, which effectively said, unless you agree with us, you're a bigot (in its most extreme form). And in fact, one of its chief executives did say that lesbians saying that they were same-sex attracted was a form of sexual racism and equivalent to racism and anti-Semitism. I mean, that's an extraordinary position to be in where the organization that supposedly represents the interests of all lesbians and gays starts to turn against a section of lesbians and gays. So my argument has always been about the tactics and the strategy.

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