Monday, October 21, 2013

The left’s consent problem

Lisbeth Latham

The left has a problem with consent – by this I mean that spaces that we would associate with “progressive” or even “revolutionary” groups tend to have cultures that make it difficult for individuals to act in a way that upholds their right to have autonomy over themselves.

While this is problematic in terms of these groups achieving their stated objectives it is more troubling with the extent to which these spaces are unsafe and create spaces where sexual violence particularly towards women is enabled. In our society where violence towards women is endemic any space can be unsafe. We are all exposed to sexist ideas which normalise the objectification of women’s bodies. To believe that a space can be simply be declared safe or progressive and that it would remain outside the impact of broader society is both naive and arrogant. If people are successful in the first instance of creating a safe space – it will only remain so as a consequence of permanent struggle against the incursion of sexist ideas.

The right to control our own bodies and to have autonomous control of our own bodies is one of the most basic of democratic rights. Whilst there would be few organisations which would reject the formal rights of individuals to control their own bodies the test of democratic rights is not whether we have the formal right, but the extent to which we are able to exercise those rights and the way others respond to efforts made to exercise those rights. The extent to which an organisation can be considered to democratic can be measure based on a range of factors. The most obvious is the formal democratic rights that exist in an organisation – particularly the formal right to raise differences or to stand for leadership positions.

At this level most left organisations, allow individuals to raise differences albeit this right may be constrained within the practice of democratic central¬ism as understood within the specific organisation. For example when can differences be raised? Do these rules apply only to older “decided” questions or to newly emerging issues as well? How are leadership s elected? Can factions be formed? What are the requirements/regulations around faction formation? Who decides when and where factions can be formed? How can members, particularly those located in different cities communicate with each other? The answer to these questions are a basis for judging formal democracy within an organisation more important is people’s experience of the culture of raising differences in an organisation and how this culture legitimises or delegitimises the raising of differences.

Anyone who has attended a left meeting will tell it can be a weird experience. A lot of new members will notice that there is a lot unanimity in meetings (if you try you can find lots of talks at left conferences about how the unanimity is a strength and a reflection of political homogeneity)-which can be intimidating if you don’t agree with the things being said in the meeting. It can get weirder if you articulate your differences. You can expect to have it explained to you why you’re wrong at least once, possibly several times in increasingly incoherent terms as other members attempt to demonstrate their understanding of the unveiled truths of Marxism. While these explanations will occur in the meeting you might be lucky enough to button holed af¬ter the meeting to be set straight and if you are lucky enough your objection or disagreement will end up as the basis of an educational and/or an article in the organisations publication.

Moreover the apparent unanimity in meetings is often false as the leadership bodies of most left organisations act as closed caucuses, which intervene into the body they are elected from as a block. In my experience it is very unusual for any differences in these bodies to be aired with the broader membership, while there are generally no written rules to this effect, and so it-is often a consequence of self-censorship it is also a culture that be reinforced by an unwillingness when people indicate they intend to disagree, I can think of contentious issues that were never taken to the branches I was a member of because I made it clear that I intended to speak against and vote against the motion in the branch meeting.

This culture has two impacts; it creates an environment in which raising differences inside the organisation is not the norm and, importantly, where doing and saying things you don’t agree with is normal. While this is a core aspect of democratic centralism this culture reduces the capacity for real democracy and importantly acts to undermine the ability of members to say “no”. Adding to this negative culture is the way a disagreement, whether internal or external, is handled. People’s right (and even capacity) to remain in the movement is questioned. Whether this relates to allegations about their class background, people’s positions on disputed reflect their “petty bourgeois” or “middle class backgrounds”, a position reflects some error (opportunism, sectarianism, bureaucraticism or movementism), or their confidence is questioned (person is demoralised). While all of these statements could be accurate they are often deployed without any real explanation as to why, but simply based on self-referential arguments – “we are Marxists or left, this means we are correct, you disagree, this means you are wrong and thus you must be right-wing, anti-Marxist (this is particularly bizarre when deployed against a person who doesn’t claim to be operating within a Marxist framework) and are thus wrong or petty bourgeois etc. This also reflects problems with empathy that are cultivated in many groups where you are not supposed to care about a person or campaign once they have been given a pejorative name – so the pain they suffer doesn’t matter, but in building people who can switch off their empathy you are also building people who will start to have no empathy.

Importantly in many organisations in the rare instance where there is a falling out within the leadership, then this is seen as a way in which newer younger members can prove their loyalty / commitment, which makes for a seriously unpleasant and toxic internal life-which allows members to know what members can expect if they raise differences. This erodes and dam¬ages the ability of members genuinely give consent and acts to normalise non-consensual behaviour. Exacerbating this inability to find non-consensual behaviour problematic is the culture that exists around party loyalty.

The idea “my party right or wrong” extends to not only the actions of their organisation but to the actions of individual members. Where problematic behaviour is initially denied (because it’s like problematic and we could never do something wrong) but once the denial doesn’t work then the behaviour is excused in other ways, such as trivializing it, or insisting that it was actually the right thing to do. Obviously this is not always just about excusing the behaviour of-the organisation in the eyes of others, but sometimes people’s way, of justifying to themselves to their membership. In both circumstance it speaks to a culture of members who are confident political people who are able to take a firm stand for what is right - which is what we need to achieve a better world. Instead the internal culture teaches people to go with the flow and to blindly follow the lead of others.

Left-wing organisations are not safe places. They are not nourishing the people of tomorrow capable of acting in the interests of the oppressed. Instead they create environments in which compliance is rewarded and critical/independent thinking is denigrated and crushed. Thus these are environments where predators can prosper. If we are to build a better world then we need to build a new culture new culture in the left that celebrates and build the capacity of participants to say “no” and be respected in saying “no” and takes action against anyone who seeks to victimise and prey on others.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What is and isn't wrong with using the word fuck to build a campaign

Lisbeth Latham

Now That's Just Rude!
In mid September a controversy broke over the poster for Community Action Against Homophobia's (CAAH) rally for marriage equality in Sydney on October 12, with both former CAAH convenor Bryn Hutchinson and Australian Marriage Equality (CAAH) National Convenor Rodney Croome writing article in the Queer Press critical of the posters. While I think there are good reasons why the posters can be criticised both Hutchinson and Croome rely on conservative arguments as to what is wrong with the poster reflecting an approach to achieve change based on convincing Abbott and other senior Coalition members of why they are wrong on Marriage Equality which fundamentally misunderstands why the adopts homophobic policies.


Both Hutchinson and Croome raise concerns that the posters are rude and will make it difficult to convince Liberals and other Abbott supporters of the need to change their positions.

Fuck isn't really an offensive word - albeit it is problematic to use the same word for sex as you do for forcefully telling someone where to go. This position ignores and erases the anger that many people feel at the election result and the Coalition and more particularly Abbott represent.

Objections to the posters on the basis of how they treat of Abbott places saying the word “fuck” on the same level as the real threats of violence that Abbott and Coalition's supporters have been and are willing to mobilise against Labor, the Greens and other opponents of their policies. The clearest examples of this are the discourse mobilised by Abbott and his supporters against Gillard – and the large number of examples of homophobia by leading members of the Coalition. I’m sorry Rodney but Abbott acknowledging that supporters of marriage equality are genuine in their conviction is meaningless in the broad scheme of things and does nothing to cancel his record of homophobia.

 Abbott and a number of other senior members of the Coalition are hardened bigots who are opposed not only further extension of rights to the LGBTI community but to the rolling back of gains - this is based what they see as being in the interests of the "moral order" but also on a cynical desire to win and maintain the support of the Christian Right - outside of a small section of these forces it is unlikely that we will be able to convince these people of the "error of their ways based on rational argument" instead it will be necessary to mobilise on the street in ever greater numbers those people who support the rights of the LGBTI community and posing a threat to status quo if they refuse to change the laws.

Croome’s arguments that internationally marriage equality has been achieved by building bridges flies in the face of the reality that the fight against discrimination always generates efforts by those who believe they benefit from that discrimination seeking to oppose any movement forward. In the case of the move to legislate for marriage equality the experience in France, which AME has cited as a basis to oppose a referendum on the question, has been met with large scale mobilisation by the right and by an escalation in homophobic violence – this has nothing to do with the tone of the campaign but the hatred that right holds towards our communities.

Attempting to convince conservative forces of the lack of threat posed by and/or acceptability of marriage equality runs significant risks. The first is to limit the campaigns visions to what will be acceptable to more conservative forces and essentially dump other issues affecting LGBTI and Queer identifying community – this approach is reflected in the invisibility of the trans* community in the discourse of the campaign - and a hostility to demands that seek to push the campaign beyond a hetronormative framework. An important example of this is AME's hostility to the call by the Polyamory Action Lobby's call for recognition of poly relationships and the reactions to Bernardi's comments that posed the danger equal marriage of bestiality and polygamy that essentially accept that bestiality and polygamy as equal evils, Croome in a statement released on June 18 2013 said “Not one country that has allowed same-sex marriage has moved to legitimise polygamy or bestiality for the simply reason they’re not linked, legally, socially or culturally.”.

Different treatment between Abbott and Gillard?

Croome raises concerns that the language uses against Abbott is different from that used against Gillard and the ALP and that this risks the campaign being seen as being seen as partisan. While Gillard and sections of the ALP have an offensive position with regard to the definition of marriage - which reflects both the bigoted views of a section of the ALP and the desire of other section leave open the possibility of gaining votes and preferences of the religious right. There are very real differences between the orientation of the ALP and the Coalition not only on marriage equality but on the broader rights of LGBTIQ communities and on issues that affect our community such as women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders, people of colour and workers. An obvious example of this are the changes that the ALP moved regarding federal anti-discrimination legislation including removing the right religious organisations particularly in aged care to discriminate on the basis of sexuality - while there remains a distance to go in ending the legal right of religious groups to discriminate the Coalition does not support this and wants to enable bigots like Andrew Bolt to vilify people with impunity.

People won’t support future activities?

Hutchinson raises concerns that posters undermine the ability of the campaign to reach out and engage with the broader community to mobilise in support the campaign. This is a legitimate concern, however in arguing that “high school students and church members often take real risks in speaking out in their communities” however to argue “such groups will most likely be reluctant to support or promote this and future activities – rightly so” is just bizarre. First it poses that it is the allies of the LGBTIQ community who are the real heroes – which is a real problem of the campaign where being a decent human is suddenly something that should be made a big thing of, but the idea that a poster with the word “fuck” on it would put them risk – I’m not sure who the risk is being posed by – obviously school officials might have issues with them being distributed, but high school students themselves wouldn’t – if anything having “fuck” on it would make it more popular. If people decide to not support actions in the campaign for marriage equality as a consequence of the poster then you would have to question their actual commitment to the struggle, and irrespective of your attitude towards the organisations involved in the rally or poster – if you support marriage equality you shouldn’t be celebrating the withdrawal of support from the campaign.


Hutchinson’s arguments rely heavily on red baiting. Red baiting, particularly of Socialist Alternative is not new in either this campaign or other movements. While there is nothing wrong having differences and criticisms with how Socialist Alternative and other socialist organisations engage in politics these articles don’t really go into specifics about these concerns instead relying raising socialist bogeymen to mobilise support for making the equal marriage campaign safe for more conservative forces.

What’s really wrong with the poster?

While there is nothing wrong with the idea of saying fuck or even fuck Abbott – I believe that Clementine Ford’s series of t-shirts rejecting the election of the Abbott government and what it represents did a roaring trade – as a rally poster it is problematic on a number of levels. It only relates to people who are at this point of anger and are comfortable expressing it in this way. The point of social movements is not simply to mobilise a subset of the people who agree with it’s objectives, but instead to seek to maximise the extent to which it is able to engage both those who already agree with the campaign and to win others to supporting the campaign and it’s objects – this poster doesn’t seek to do this and that’s what’s really wrong with the poster.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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