Picture the scene: aged 24, I am – nervously, sweating in a cheap suit – sitting in front of a panel of four imposing male equity partners, in a spacious wood-paneled room, at a large Manchester law firm, in the swanky part of the city. Out of hundreds of applicants to be trainee solicitors, all of whom must have had decent academic credentials to just apply, I was down to the final tranche. There were three training contracts on offer, to start in 18 months’ time.
I only remember the one question, from a suave, pin-striped litigator: “Mr Gray: Rank yourself in order of importance to your identity, from the following labels: British, European, English, Mancunian? And explain why.”
Although the supposed premise of the question was to see how would-be solicitors would perform on their feet, from my research – and confirmed by my success thus far – I knew that the firm prioritised Mancunians. And I was a Mancunian, who had studied at Manchester University. Quids in, as they say.
I can’t remember the precise ordering of my answer, but I know that I ranked Mancunianess high, perhaps first. I got the job – of course I did – starting 18 months later. I stayed for two years, until I qualified.
Reflecting on the horrors of the last week in the Middle East, I remembered the answer to that question. To get my job, I played identity politics. I knew back then that my true answer should have been: “Human, first, second, third and fourth”.
I don’t wish to besmirch my inquisitors, at a firm which I loved, but I doubt that I would have got the job, had I answered truthfully. I regret my answer.
It seems to me that the root of all conflict lies in our adherence to group identities – us versus them. I have many identities myself. If our group has been wronged, I have been wronged and I can respond accordingly. When group desires clash, groups are pitted against one another. War is the end point. If I am right, for as long as we see ourselves through defined groups, the seeds of war are present, everywhere. If there is a cure, perhaps it is to travel.
Given that I have just re-read the awesome Letters to a Young Contrarian by the dogged Christoper Hitchens, I’ll give him the final say on the subject.
“I don’t seem to have said enough about the compensating or positive element of exposure to travel. Just as you discover that stupidity and cruelty are the same everywhere, you find that the essential elements of humanism are the same everywhere, too. Punjabis in Amritsar and Lahore are equally welcoming and open-minded, even though partition means the amputation of Punjab as well as of the subcontinent. There are a heartening number of atheists and agnostics in the six counties of Northern Ireland, even though Ulster as well as Ireland has been divided. Most important of all, the instinct for justice and for liberty is just as much “innate” in us as are the promptings of tribalism and sexual xenophobia and superstition.”
(Image courtesy of Van Gogh Paint using the prompt “a lawyer lying to Christopher Hitchens”)