Yes, call out bigotry within our ranks. But we need to keep a lid on this bloodletting.

This post was written by Reuben on January 30, 2013
Posted Under: Uncategorized

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Counterfire members fiddle excessively with iPads and other electronica. Another, equally  immutable fact of life is that people with good politics sometimes get things very wrong. Recent examples include Tony Benn, George Monbiot and Suzanne Moore. In their different ways, all three have been important allies in the struggle for a more just and egalitarian society. And yet in recent months all three have been rightly taken to task for saying some pretty awful things. The question  is how we reconcile the latter with the former. How do we call people out without effectively casting them out?

Given some of the frankly unhinged rhetoric that was directed at Suzanne Moore (alongside the justifiably forthright criticism), I would suggest that this question still eludes sections of the left. And this question does not simply pertain to our relationship with lefty celebrities or to online discourse. In  offline, grass roots, settings too, comrades get things wrong. And here too, I have witnessed not only the effective, and well-judged implementation of safe-space policies but also instances in which (sometimes vulnerable) comrades have been bullied in a manner that is totally disproportionate to what they have said or done. Meanwhile, as a friend recently remarked to me, it is sometimes true that “the left never forgets”, even when years have elapsed since a comment  was made and sincerely apologized for. Ultimately, the price is paid in terms of bad blood, less unity and a shrunken progressive movement.

For some, the thorny issue of how we call people out while maintaining an underlying camaraderie is in fact no dilemma at all. Or rather it is one can be resolved by such formulations as “no real socialist” or “no real feminist” would say such a thing. Hence, no need to think about the need to maintain camaraderie with the sinner. This would work if the word “socialist” referred to some kind of ideal construct. Yet until we have discovered the spells necessary to summon a fine army of resistance out of nowhere, such terms as “socialist” must refer to actually existing human beings. And even those of us who are most embedded in left wing politics nonetheless live in a world in which a whole range of shitty, privilege-justifying ideas are pervasive and hegemonic.

Without denying the need for activists  to take responsibility for what they say and do, we on the left should be the first to recognize that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism etc. are first and foremost social phenomena, rather than simply manifestation’s of individual failings. As such we should think twice before aping the kind retributive justice that that is characteristic of the state, or effectively placing a permanent black mark against the name of a fellow activist.

This isn’t an easy one. It is a bloody good thing  that, within my political lifetime, we have seen the re-emergence of a left wing political culture in which people feel more comfortable in challenging bigotry and privilege within the movement. To soft-pedal on this is to accept a left that effectively excludes people who don’t want to put up with the crap they may face for being female, black, disabled etc. Yet we should be wary of the allure of mass condemnation – not least on twitter. And we shouldn’t succumb to what I call noble cause venom  - the conviction that full blooded, all out attack is always justified when one is on the side of the angels.   Ultimately we want to do the most we can to challenge bigotry and privilege, whilst letting the least blood between ourselves – not the most.

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To contact Reuben email reuben@thethirdestate.net

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Reader Comments

I’m not used to seeing sane reasonable arguments from you… but I kinda like it. Keep it up. Not sure Counterfire members fiddling with their ipads is one of those fundamental facts of existence, but nice plug for your party :P

#1 
Written By Salman Shaheen on January 30th, 2013 @ 11:13 am
modernity's ghost

Ultimately, the price is paid in terms of bad blood, less unity and a shrunken progressive movement.”

Reuben,

The modern British Left is largely the product of the 1968 generation and as such has been fractious for decades, years.

All the groups, all, which came out from that 68 generation have either vanished, split into irrelevances or been consumed in bickering.

Thus, it’s not surprising that the British Left has no connection to the British working class.

A better starting place might be to ask, what cultural and political attitudes have brought about these failures? And why does it happen so often.

#2 
Written By modernity's ghost on January 30th, 2013 @ 9:07 pm
Ben

Massive facepalm.

Trans* people (and their allies) had every right to be fucking livid at Suzanne Moore’s comments. Most of the rage was in response to the way she refused to accept the initial criticism, doubled down, and came out with some thoroughly bile-filled transphobic statements.

It’s easy to condemn as “unhinged rhetoric” but the targets of daily, unending oppression have every right to lose their tempers and no responsibility to respond calmly.

It’s reasonable that when the privileged are called out on their(/our) fuck-ups, they need to put up their hands immediately, apologise seriously and directly, and try to learn and do better. Neither Moore nor Monbiot did that, and if they had the explosions would likely not have happened. (Benn apologised, but a long time later and possibly under pressure. I’ve not seen any sign that he’s retracted his support for Assange, which does not suggest he’s learned very much or taken the issue very seriously.)

The problem is much less in overreaction as you imply, as it is in egotism and obstinance on the part of privileged people who regard themselves as progressive, and a resulting refusal to self-interrogate or back down.

Of course, where call-outs themselves play on oppression and privilege, as you seem to imply with your reference to vulnerability, there is a problem – the same problem again! – but that’s not to be conflated.

#3 
Written By Ben on February 1st, 2013 @ 4:06 pm
Ben

And it’s not critics’ fault for shrinking the left – it’s the fault of those who bring bigotry and oppression into the left.

#4 
Written By Ben on February 1st, 2013 @ 4:06 pm

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