Some things are not easy. It’s hard to make the right decision. Some things are not clear cut. There are shades of grey. I’ve been writing recently about fairness, about how we learn to make the right decisions, not just for the big conversations, but everyday. How do we drive an agenda of equality, fairness and social justice through every conversation in every organisation. Sound ambitious? Why should we strive for anything less?
My thinking has been challenged this week by a case in the news: Ched Evans is a British footballer who has just been released from prison after serving several years of a sentence for rape. He maintains his innocence. His old club has allowed him to start training with them again: in response to this decision, Charlie Webster, a female Patron of the club, has resigned, with this as part of her statement:
“He’s not just going into a job, he’s bandied as a role model, we cheer him on as a role model and he’s influencing the next generation of young men who are currently still making their decisions on how to treat women and what sexual mutual consent is.”
How do i feel about this? I support her stance and her decision. I think that someone with a rape conviction, tried within the framework of our legal system, cannot be a role model. He has a right to appeal the legal decisions, but currently his legal status is a convicted rapist.
But neither can we punish someone outside the law: it is surely unfair to punish someone with prison, the legally sanctioned penalty, then punish them again by socially moderated vigilantism. If you believe in the rule of law, then punishment comes through that mechanism: justice in action.
But the law does not make us good or bad people: the law provides a framework that we live within. It does not prescribe the things that make us good, it simply frames the things that are not permitted.
The law does not tell us who can or can’t be a role model: that’s a socially granted, socially moderated position. There is no doubt that one mechanism for generating a role model is success in sport, but would that success mitigate the penalty of law?
So we have two aspects to consider: legality and a socially moderated status of role model.
But there is more: what about the right to learn, to change, to be forgiven. None of these are fully covered by law. Whilst your legal penalty is spent after a number of years (after which most non sexual cases can be dropped from your public record), nothing states that you must be forgiven, or that you have a right to change. I explored this around the case of Paris Brown, the teenager who resigned as Youth Police Crime Commissioner for views she held and tweeted about when she was sixteen. Her response was dignified and true: she stated she was no longer the person she had been two years before, that her thinking had evolved.
I use Paris as a case study: if as a society we are unable or unwilling to allow a sixteen year old girl to make mistakes and change, to learn, that what hope do the rest of us have. If we just punish people, there is no space or permission to change our views.
But there is a difference between a girl expressing the views she expressed and a man raping a woman.
Why? Because research shows that whilst one in five women will face sexual violence in their lives, the figure for men is one in seventy one. In other words, sexual violence against women is normalise, endemic and tolerated by our society.
In that context, is it right that we take a convicted rapist and put them in a position that they can gain moral authority through sporting prowess? Is it right to say that the legal term is spent, so he can be free to grow again, or are there other elements at play?
One aspect that the media have reported on is his lack of apology, partly explained, one assumes, by his continued expression of innocence. Although convicted by law, a man has a right to retain and broadcast his belief in his innocence. If the legal process is done, can we continue to punish someone, or punish them further because they express their innocence? Do we ask people to fall on their sword (as Paris did by resigning).
I doubt that a convicted rapist could be elected to parliament: it’s not a conviction that speaks of moral authority. But can they be a sports star?
It’s clearly not a matter of law: the legal process will play out, which means it’s a matter of conscience, taking into account our ethics, our attitude to forgiveness, the need for equality, but equally the need to take responsibility to reform our clearly unequal culture.
Anyone who thinks a figure of one in five women being sexually assaulted is something we can ignore is seriously missing something, especially as the figure is so different from men.
This figure is not inevitable: it’s because it’s been normalised. To change it, we need to change society, and a decision about a convicted rapist is one of the conversations we have to have on the route to fairness.
To be fair, we operate within a series of pressures: what’s legal, what’s ethical, how will our decision be perceived, what’s fair?
The law will not give us the answer, either to this question or to the wider question of equality. The law can frame and punish, but it cannot make us fair, good, trusted, ethical, honourable, conscientious or truly equal. Only we can do that, creating a culture we want to inhabit.
So should Ched Evans be taken back on by his club? In law, he can be. In conscience, he can’t. Why? Because there is a wider issue of inequality, sexual violence and fairness and to grant him the permissive social authority that would result is simply wrong. As i’ve said before, fairness has to permeate all our conversations, not just the easy ones.
His right to legal appeal remains in place and he has no obligation to apologise for a crime he maintains he is innocent of.
These are complex issues, but they relate to how we drive towards equality and fairness. Organisations that truly wish to be socially responsible, be they banks, trying to reform their culture or manufacturers trying to equalise pay gaps, need to address every conversation of fairness, not just the ones that are clear cut.