Notes on a footnote

Category: Organisation
Published on Tuesday, 17 December 2013
Written by Charlotte B, Rosie W, Ellen T, Ciara S, Magpie C
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An article that we put our names to has caused quite a stir in the IS Network since its publication. We had hoped to start a period of debate and discussion about the central argument of the piece – that we are tending towards a sect, that we are shrinking and that this ought to be viewed as a crisis and that urgent, collaborative attempts be made to rectify this parlous situation. Instead, the furore that has followed has focused on the footnote at the very end, in which two particular incidents are cited as examples of the ways in which liberation politics are occasionally misused and misapplied in the IS Network. We concede that it was perhaps an error to assume that a footnote was adequate space to explain what we think these incidents exemplify – this second commentary, then, is an attempt to explore the issues raised in more detail. Before we respond to the many and various reactions to the article that we have been alarmed by, let us explain precisely what the footnote referred to, what we think it exemplifies, and why we disagree.

One of the authors of the ‘Anathema’ piece was accused of sexism after the IS Network conference in October of this year because he ‘shouted’ during one of his contributions. Let us be clear, this is not to say that some people are not intimidated by shouting, or that shouting cannot be upsetting for people. Neither is it to say that anybody was lying about finding said speech intimidating, or that our comrades becoming distressed by raised voices is something we should attempt to diminish. Clearly, in the interests of ensuring that IS Network spaces are comfortable for all participants this is something we need to address – however, we are alarmed by an analysis we have noticed from some of our comrades who conclude that a raised voice, or shouting, is in and of itself sexist behaviour, as we feel this buys into dangerous stereotypes about women that ought to be rejected. The subtext here is that women are by their very nature meek and mild creatures, and non-women must take these feminine sensibilities into account at all times lest the poor dears become upset at a loud voice. Of course this may not be the intent of our critics, but the implication of such arguments – that women are delicate things who must be protected in this way – is itself sexist.

It is of course true that some women are intimidated by shouting – but so are some men, and irrespective of gender a comrade being upset by the tone (or volume) of another’s contribution is something we need to have a conversation about: particularly if it is the case that these issues are disproportionately affecting those who experience oppression of any form. The point is, we included such an example in the article and gave brief reference to a specific incident in the footnote because we see this misapplication of liberation politics as a real problem in the IS Network and felt it important to give an example of what we meant when we said “political justifications cited for anathemising individuals are usually not convincing”.[1] It is not convincing to label a comrade a sexist or accuse them of sexist behaviour for raising their voice and to assert that it is cedes ground to dangerous tropes about delicate women and big bad men. We can, and must, do better than this.

Failing to identify individual bullying but instead denouncing all men men for ‘masculinist’ discursive methodology leads to bad politics. This is evident in the article by Lisa Millbank cited, without comment or criticism, by one of our critics, which opens with an instruction to men to ‘assume you don’t have a right to be in the room or to express your opinion’, and to consider not using ‘power modes’ such as ‘being...relaxed’. These are not socialist politics predicated on solidarity, and are instead a manifesto for radical guilt. We believe all comrades, irrespective of gender, should be as relaxed as possible, should be in the room, and should be free to express their opinions – even passionately.

None of this is to sign off on the legitimised bullying that characterised what the SWP CC liked to call its ‘polemical’ tradition. The point is that while of course all comrades should be encouraged to consider the most inclusive way to express themselves, the best way to foster solidarity is not to police discursive style in the interests of ‘protecting women’, but to ensure that all comrades, of all genders, feel confident to raise their own opinions. One of the major successes of the IS Network has been the creation, in the majority of meetings, of precisely the sort of atmosphere in which people feel comfortable and confident to speak out. Surely we are better served by continuing the work we have done in this regard – not looking to a White Knight solution that silences those who already possess the oratory confidence we want everyone to enjoy. Sensitivity is one thing, but we as women need no protecting in the safe spaces of our own organisations.

The second example that was cited was the accusation towards the authors of a pre-conference bulletin piece that their use of the word ‘trauma’ was disablist. While we acknowledge that intent is not by any means a carte blanche, we want to be clear that, of course, the use of the word trauma and the argument that people need to get over the trauma of the SWP was not intended to insult anybody, or to minimise anybody’s disabilities or any trauma that people may have experienced. It was also not levelled at any one individual, but used as a description for the IS Network as a whole. One of the criticisms we received after the publication of our piece was that we diminished trauma by identifying our exit from the SWP as such – however, one of the authors of this article was expelled from the party she had been a member of for ten years, was obliged to talk about rape and sexual assault on an almost daily basis for months on end and was vilified by people she once considered friends – and yes, she found this pretty traumatic (OED: “distressing, emotionally disturbing”).[2] This is not to say that her experiences are the very worst of what has been endured or that people should get out the tiny violins in sympathy – far from it. The point here is merely to reinforce the idea that it isn’t really the job of other comrades to define what has and has not been traumatic for others and that in advising people to try to move on from such experiences the authors of the external bulletin piece were not attempting to belittle any other manifestations of trauma or to minimise the personal circumstance of other comrades. We do not think it unreasonable to use that word in this context.

This is not an argument that genuinely oppressive language or behaviour should not be called out. When people repeatedly and unapologetically behave or speak in an oppressive manner, when they have form, or they mean to offend, or when they are rape apologists who have nailed their flag to the mast we of course advocate calling them out in a way that should shame and belittle them. The chance that someone who does not respect women will be receptive to an explanation of why the language they have used is inappropriate is negligible. If someone, even well-meaning, uses a genuinely oppressive term then they need to have it pointed out to them. There are contexts, however (including, for the most part, within our own organisation), where this manner of calling out and public shaming is politically unjustified, devastatingly unhelpful and serves only to create barriers between comrades who would otherwise stand side by side. It is obviously understandable that such instances occur, and we are as guilty as anyone else of occasionally tearing the head off someone using what we see as problematic language before taking a breath and realising that such retaliation is not always the best way to win people round to a better politics.

It is inevitable that even those of us who share a commitment to liberation politics will slip up from time to time. We will behave in a way that is unacceptable, will use a word that has connotations we have not considered, will speak over someone in a moment of lapsed self-awareness, will raise our voices in front of someone who finds such behaviour triggering, and so on. Incidents like these should absolutely be raised, and pointed out. We are not advocating free passes for those who are causing discomfort or offence to any other comrade – of course not; we should all do everything we can to ensure that our comrades know when their language or actions have been problematic. But we must start from the assumption that comrades do not intend to transgress, and assume that they have not abandoned liberation politics but have simply acted or spoken in a problematic way without thinking. We do not need to shame them. There is a way to challenge oppressive behaviour that leads to a better understanding on all parts, which is a comradely conversation about the issue at hand – which might be uncomfortable, but isn’t going to lead to personalised arguments of the kind we’ve witnessed recently. If someone is a committed socialist, having come out of a protracted fight within their last organisation precisely around the failure of liberation politics, the chances are they will be mortified, and duly sorry that they have caused offence. We need to call out the language – not attack the comrade who made a mistake.

We must, of course, all accept that these conversations will happen and that errors of judgement will be made as comrades rethink liberation politics in a way that is new for most of us. It is inevitable that having discussions like this will be difficult and frustrating at times. However, we note with some alarm that an argument is developing in the IS Network that it is a layer of predominately older ‘intellectual’ ‘men of status’ who are behaving in a patronising manner towards ‘young students’ that is tantamount to bullying around liberation issues, and that an understandable unwillingness to tolerate patronising old men is the reason that young people (mainly women) have resigned either from the steering committee or from the network as a whole.

We reject this analysis outright. Behind it is the inference that only people of the same gender, or of a similar age group or level of education should engage with each other over incidents of problematic behaviour or questions of oppression. It is an argument that seems to suggest, for example, that we as female undergraduate students in our twenties must not be challenged by men older than we are if we express contradictory ideas. This analysis is not liberating; it robs us of our agency as intellectually curious women and it is hardly productive for the network if all we have is comrades of similar ages and levels of education talking to each other for fear of patronising someone younger than them. This analysis, in fact, is in itself belittling as it assumes our younger (and, let’s face it, women) comrades do not want to argue, to debate and exchange ideas with men, or with academics, or with those older or more experienced. As young, women students, we are deeply troubled by this notion. We want to be argued with, to be challenged, for all of our comrades to feel free to disagree with us without fear of being labelled a patronising old man. We would seriously reconsider our participation in an organisation in which those more experienced, older, or with more extensive vocabularies felt they could not freely argue with us for fear of intimidating us. We would find this incredibly patronising. We need to empower women to speak out but we cannot do so by silencing men.

We also think that the IS Network has done remarkably well at doing just that. The rethinking of the set-up of meetings to allow participation of those less confident, the creation of liberation caucuses as safe spaces for oppressed groups to talk about liberation and discuss strategies for building comrades’ confidence, the creation of the women’s publication to give women control and agency, and to encourage more women to write – these are brilliant examples of how to ensure the inclusion of liberation groups, and we should applaud ourselves at how far we have already come in this regard. We want to be in an organisation where everybody feels they can participate, argue, disagree, and voice their opinions. The IS Network has already come so far in comparison with much of the left, but we do not think this can be furthered if we create an atmosphere in which those currently lucky enough to be confident enough to assert themselves become afraid to speak freely.

Many of us, when we left the SWP, spoke with relish about the reading we had done outside of the IS tradition, and our eagerness to talk at length about the new ideas we were engaging with. This political inquisitiveness is part of what has shaped the positive elements of the IS Network since our formation. We have broken new ground for the section of the British left we locate ourselves in – with the publication of our steering committee meeting minutes, with our pursuit of revolutionary unity, with our principle of gender balanced representation, with the establishment of liberation caucuses and with the development of the women’s publication. We have only achieved these things and taken these steps because we’ve all been involved in the discussions. Getting liberation politics right, and calling each other out when we slip up is no different – we all need to participate here too.

Charlotte B & Rosie W

Also signed by Ciara S, Ellen T and Magpie C