What started out as a routine dog walk led me to an insightful reflexive experience about my own "moral journey" over the past couple of years, while considering the position of students standing up for their beliefs, and where all this leaves the company I used to work for, and my former colleagues.
As I walked around the corner towards the entrance of Portsmouth University library, having, as usual, let Maggie lead the way, I started seeing a group of young people in the distance, forming a line along the pavement, holding signs towards the library. Intrigued, as I have become, by all forms of public expression and resistance, I got closer, and it is only then that I managed to read some of the words on their signs, with one immediately jumping out: "BAE". I immediately knew what this was about, having stayed close to the news which reported, over the past few months, a number of protests at the sites of UK-based defence companies (including but not limited to BAE Systems), for their role in supplying arms and weapon systems to the Israel forces, enabling the killing of thousands of civilians in Gaza.
It has been roughly two years since I made the decision to leave BAE Systems, a decision motivated by a number of factors, which I have written about before, including the dissonance I felt between being a gay man and working for an organisation doing a substantial amount of business with regimes persecuting LGBTQ+ people, without openly acknowledging this as an issue. Adding to this the fact that the same regimes used the products developed by BAE Systems to cause death and destruction for questionable motives, I had run out of ways to morally justify being a part, no matter how small, of this wider system. In parallel, I conducted a research project for the MSc in Organisational Psychology I was undertaking at the time, where I focused on the moral conflict which people working in the defence industry may be faced with. My findings provided a fascinating and nuanced picture ranging from patriotic unconditional support, to moral conflict causing unsustainable distress. Aiming to evolve and publish this research, I have remained engaged with this topic and my research material, alongside my new PhD research, ever since.
Back to the student protest, I decided to approach the group, and initially simply asked if they were comfortable with me taking a picture of them, which they agreed to. As closely connected as I was to their cause, to them, at this moment, I was only a middle-aged man walking his dog who stopped out of curiosity for a photo opp. I decided to engage with them, and mentioned that I used to work for BAE. Their initial reaction was unsure, understandably, and so I decided to go further and explain, briefly, that I had decided to leave the organisation for reasons somewhat related to what they were campaigning against, which helped us move to a more relaxed - albeit brief - conversation. I went as far as sharing that the main job I held at BAE was to head up their graduate programme for a while. Even though that was truly in my past, I could still feel a degree of awkwardness, as their protest was directed towards BAE staff members which were inside the library trying to promote their graduate programme to students, something I would have overseen a couple of years ago - maybe even people I still knew. Hearing my own motivations for leaving the organisation, one of the protesters brought up the fact that BAE still, unbelievably, sponsored and took part in Pride, to which I answered that, indeed, I co-led and fronted their involvement in Portsmouth Pride a few years back, experiencing the full force of the dissonance.
This was only a brief encounter, as I stood with this group for just a few minutes. It was however the first time I was able to engage with protesters in that way, having in the past been in the receiving end of protests, maintaining a certain distance and sticking with the corporate line of response. What I felt at that time was that this group was doing something essential. By calling out what too many people ignore. By shining a light on something very real, with all too tangible consequences on many people's lives, and by doing so, not only making their voice heard by the university and by BAE Systems, but also helping fellow students who may express an interest in such careers, to be reminded of the full set of activities the organisation is involved with. Interestingly, in my research, in many cases the employees I spoke to were led to go and educate themselves on the UK defence industry's involvement in the arms trade by coming across protesters just like those standing on that pavement. People don't often stop and think beyond what is in front of them, and movements like these help keep the hard reality within the realms of people's consciousness.
I left BAE Systems, and conducted my research on moral conflict in the UK defence industry, around two years ago, just as Russia had started its invasion on Ukraine. This marked the start of a renewed focus on military capability building, leading to increasing business for defence manufacturers. This sent defence companies' financial results and share price on an upward trajectory, which some employees saw as a testament to their crucial role, and others saw as making money on the back of conflict and suffering. The last few months would have only exacerbated this dichotomy, and the need for many to find meaning in the fact that, even though their company plays a part in defending national security at home in the UK, which most would comfortably support, the misery and trauma which they also, albeit to varying degrees, contribute to, is unavoidably visible and real.