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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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