Monday, June 1, 2015

Solidarity, empathy and combating misogyny, the limits of the Australian Socialist Alliance's code of conduct

Lisbeth Latham

In the June 2014, the Socialist Alliance adopted a new code of conduct entitled Defending Comradely Solidarity in Socialist Alliance. This document had previously been published in the March issue of the Socialist Alliance's discussion bullet Alliance Voices. Published alongside it was a second article, by Susan Price, Socialist Alliance co-convenor, titled Thinking About Party Leadership and Functioning in the Socialist Alliance, which looked at how left/progressive organisations should address the influence of oppressive social behaviour within the working class.

Neither documents make clear motivations for their drafting, although Price's contribution does make reference to the destructive impact on the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of that organisation's handling of rape allegations against former SWP national secretary Martin Smith. The covering note to Defending Comradely Solidarity makes reference to the new code including “appended guidelines to assist leadership bodies dealing with reports of sexual assault by members”, which would suggest at the very least a perception that the organisation's existing Code of Conduct is inadequate for properly handling allegations of oppressive behaviour by members and specifically with the ability to handle allegations of rape. As a person who is keenly interested in problems of misogyny within the left and as a former Socialist Alliance member this is a critical reading of the documents, discussing both the merits and limitations of Alliance’s attempt to address issues of oppressive behaviour, particularly rape.

Why Challenge Oppressive Behaviour?
Both Thinking About Party Leadership and Defending Comradely Solidarity motivate the need to challenge oppressive behaviour primarily on the impact of such behaviour on the unity of the working class as a whole and on the internal “political solidarity and mutual confidence so essential to building a united team of activists and an effective political leadership”. Such explanations are common in many left organisations when focusing on the need to challenge oppressive behaviour. In a recent contribution to the US International Socialist Organisation's (ISO) internal discussion bulletin which examined the handling of rape allegations in that organisation, the need to challenge misogyny was posed on the need to “practice our fight on the needs of the oppressed” on the basis of “considering it fundamental that the overthrow of capitalism will require the confrontation of oppression by the oppressed themselves. We must therefore do everything we can so that victims of oppression can feel safe in the ISO and with ISO comrades, in order that they can fully participate in the struggle”. These instrumental arguments downplay the broader impact of this behaviour on individuals experiencing the behaviour – they do not motivate opposition on the basis of empathy, or even morality, but instead a calculation of the cost to the organisation of the behaviour. By doing so you risk making decisions to take action (with regard to oppressive behaviour) based on this calculation, a calculation which historically has seen the retention of members of dominant social groups, most notably cis straight white men, as more valuable than members of oppressed groupings.

What are discrimination, bullying and harassment?
Defending Comradely Solidarity seeks to define discrimination, bullying and harassment as behaviours that are viewed as inappropriate for members to display towards other members. This falls short in a number of ways: the focus on behaviour within the organisation is problematic, as often some of the worst behaviour by members of the left is reserved for individuals outside their own organisations; behaviour which is often given a pass due to the tendency of organisations to defend the action of their comrades from external criticism. It is important to note that Defending Comradely Solidarity includes a comment that violence by SA members, whether towards members or non-members, will not be tolerated; however, it is unclear how this functions in practice as the guidelines that are set out only apply to members raising complaints.

Discrimination – Whilst Defending Comradely Solidarity is correct in saying that discrimination can be defined as “treating a person or people less favourably than others, because they are a member of an oppressed group”, this tends to specifically be a feature of direct forms of discrimination. Such a definition does not countenance forms of indirect discrimination. Indirect forms of discrimination occur when policies and practices are adopted that, while not seeking to disadvantage someone on the basis of being in an oppressed group, the requirements of these policies or practices are likely to disproportionately affect an oppressed group. It is also important to recognise that you can act in a discriminatory way if you fail to take reasonable action to address an experience of disadvantage, i.e. you don't treat a person who experiences oppression in a preferable way.

It is the questions of both indirect discrimination and the need to seek to provide preferable treatment to oppressed groups that many left organisations struggle with. Price in her piece in saying that “sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, ageism in the party are unacceptable!”, immediately says that, “at same time, we are a political not a welfare organisation – and there are limits to what we can do to right the wrongs of an unequal, racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic and ableist society”, which gives the organisation a pass on anything beyond direct discrimination by individual members, in which case “if a member’s actions bring the Alliance into disrepute or if a member engages in behaviour that is considered to be detrimental to the best interests of the Alliance. In such circumstances, a financial member can be asked to 'show cause' as to why their membership should not be suspended or cancelled”. This approach denies that the internal life of a left organisation could be actively discriminatory, a conclusion that it is not safe to draw given the problematic attitudes held by many left organisations historically. The approach also poses the question of discipline as being hinged on the behaviour being detrimental to the organisation – how do you judge that? – rather than on the basis that the behaviour is problematic.

Defending Comradely Solidarity defines bullying primarily in terms of direct interactions between people in meetings, ranging “from raising one’s voice and finger pointing to more extreme forms of physical and psychological intimidation. It can also include physical behaviour designed to undermine the confidence of a person when they are speaking". The problem with this definition is that it makes no differentiation between individual acts and repeated behaviour (which is generally key to most definitions of bullying); it also tends to focus on subjective interpretations of interactions within meetings and formal interactions while not problematising behaviour which is aimed at marginalising or undermining individuals outside of formal settings. The discussion also totally fails to deal with the question of power within the context in which the behaviour is occurring, whilst those with limited power can bully those with more power, this is generally only possible if it is based on a group of the less powerful ganging up on someone, or alternatively an individual with less power being supported by others with more power. Moreover, it fails to address how in many organisations bullying behaviour is seen as being a sign of being an effective organiser and is a standard aspect of internal discourse – such as dismissals of concerns or differences based on individuals being demoralised or unwell.

Defending Comradely Solidarity in defining harassment tends to again focus on direct verbal and physical harassment which, given the existence of both social media and the phenomena of stalking, seems an overly narrow focus. This approach also places significant emphasis on how the victim of any harassment perceives that harassment, which can put an individual member in the difficult position of having to raise concerns about the behaviour of another member against them – ignoring problems of power within the organisation or the standing of the individual within the organisation who is harassing them. It allows the organisation to step away from its duty of care and instead leaves it up to individuals experiencing the harassment to make this call – which can be difficult given the potential consequences of making a complaint. Defending Comradely Solidarity states that “persistent and/or serious sexual harassment by a member should trigger prompt consideration of their membership status in accordance with the constitution, whether or not the harassment would constitute an offence under criminal law”, however it does not clearly empower the branch to take this action off its own bat. It is also unclear how the terms “serious” and “persistent” are being used in the context, particularly persistent – is it in relation to harassment of a single individual, or does it extend to a pattern of harassing behaviour towards a range of individuals?

Duty to report
A positive aspect of Defending Comradely Solidarity is the paragraph under the section “What can I do?” which states “All members with knowledge of antisocial violence perpetrated by another Socialist Alliance member have a responsibility to report it to their branch leadership”. Although as I discuss below, how this duty relates to the rights of survivors to not participate with a process and have their privacy and confidentiality respected is not clear.

Guidelines for dealing with reports of sexual violence
The final section of Defending Comradely Solidarity provides the guidelines for the handling of allegations of sexual violence within the Socialist Alliance. There are a number of positive aspects to both the document as a whole and the guidelines, but there are also some weaknesses.

There are a number of positive aspects to these guidelines, these include:

  • That they emphasise the right for an individual to seek redress within the organisation for violence against them, and that this right to redress is not dependent on the outcome of any legal process.
  • That reports of violence at a local level are required to be passed up to the national representatives.
  • The requirement that people who are close friends with, or people who have worked closely with, a person accused of violence are not to be part of any decision making process.
  • It is also positive that an individual is able to refer a complaint directly to the national leadership, bypassing the local leadership.

In the introductory remarks to Defending Comradely Behaviour it is stated that, “Socialist Alliance recognises that there are serious flaws in the way the Australian legal system deals with both survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence. We are struggling to replace sexist bourgeois law with socialist laws and processes that truly address and reduce all forms of violence”. This statement does not acknowledge that the flaws of the legal system are not simply the consequences of bourgeois laws and capitalist state, but the extent to which ideas that normalise and justify violence against women undermine the ability of survivors to achieve justice; and that these ideas operate within socialist organisations and often persist based on the organisation's rejection of “bourgeois morality around sex”.

The concept of consent does not feature at all in the document. This is a major omission because it is central to the issue, as sex without consent equals rape. A major reason why survivors have so much difficulty in obtaining justice is that in our society statements that a person did not give consent are not readily believed and so survivors find themselves in a situations where they have to prove they didn't give consent rather than the perpetrator having to prove they had consent.

A key issue in the British SWP's handling of the allegation against Martin Smith was that members of the investigation committee mobilised rape myths during the interviews with the survivor “W”. The mobilisation of these myths served to rationalise the denial of “W's” account of what had happened.

Given this, individuals mobilising rape myths and rape apologism to justify and or defend their behaviour and shift the blame onto others is a question that the left needs to address. Defending Comradely Solidarity does not do this. Defending Comradely Solidarity emphasises the importance of educating individuals to shift their world view, e.g. we are all socialised in an oppressive society and we will thus carry and continue to be exposed to problematic and oppressive attitudes. However, if a person is actively mobilising sexist ideas to justify rape and an organisation's response is simply to seek to educate that person you would have to question the extent to which survivors could hope to feel safe in that environment. While education may be appropriate in some circumstances, where members are actively aiding attempts to further victimise a survivor then surely their membership should be called into question. Defending Comradely Solidarity’s anti-harassment section should go into detail here and be explicit that this is the case (if so).

The Socialist Alliance's procedures in handling allegations allows accusations to be investigated by a sub-committee of a relevant body but requires that any decision regarding an individual's membership to be decided by the body as a whole. It's unclear what form this decision would take – would it be a rerunning through of the case or simply an endorsement of a recommendation? If it is the former, it makes it difficult for a survivor's privacy to be maintained and it would also make for a flawed subsequent process. If the process is seen as being purely a formality why refer it back from the sub-committee?

Clause 5.8 of the Socialist Alliance's constitution allows for decisions to suspend or cancel an individual’s membership to be appealed at the organisation's national conference. This is a standard feature of most left organisations’ constitutions. It is unclear on what basis such an appeal can be made. Is it limited to procedural questions or does it extend to a testing of the facts? If it is the latter, maintaining confidentiality would be impossible in such circumstances and it would be a serious disincentive for survivors to report abuse.

Once a decision has been made to exclude an individual from the Alliance it is unclear whether the Alliance or its members can continue to work with them. It is also unclear whether the decision to cancel a person’s membership, and why the decision was made, will be made public. Both of these are questions that need to be answered. If exclusion does not stop the Alliance or its members from continuing to work with an individual whose membership has been cancelled then the disciplinary action will effectively be meaningless and make life extremely difficult for any survivors. Failing to make public a decision to cancel a person’s membership will leave a predatory individual free to be abusive other people in other organisations – lots of left organisations are more than happy to recruit the ex-members of other left organisations, and will trumpet such recruitment as reflecting the superior character of their organisations. To stop predators and abusers from being able to simply do the rounds of the left, it is important that the abusive behaviour is made public. There is an incentive for left groups to not publicise the exclusion of a former member – to not admit that the organisation’s membership included an abusive individual, implications being what that says about their organisation. Due to this pressure it is important to make it very clear that there is an obligation to the broader movement and survivors to make it known when they exclude someone.

Another unanswered question in Defending Comradely Solidarity relates to the tension between maintaining the autonomy of survivors, including their right to confidentiality, and the maintenance of a safer space. What happens when a survivor decides they do not want to proceed with an allegation, or if someone brings a concern forward where the survivor does not want to proceed? It is important that individuals have the autonomy to control their own lives and to not have things that have happened to them discussed without their permission. At the same time it is important that active steps are taken to identify predators and exclude them from organisations. In part this comes down to who the onus is on to raise a concern – responsibility should not have to lie with a survivor making a formal complaint for action to be taken – but also a survivor who for whatever reason doesn't want to participate in a process about something that has happened to them cannot and should not be made to participate in a process, and no information which they provide should be used without consent nor should their right to confidentiality be violated.

A final question focuses on the Socialist Alliance's interaction with individuals or organisations who behave in oppressive ways, or have been accused of behaving in oppressive ways. The guidelines are completely silent on this question, but questions of violence and oppressive behaviour are not simply internal questions and there have long been criticisms of the willingness of left organisations to ally themselves with problematic individuals and organisations when it serves their interests. Doing so sends a strong message about the strength of the left's commitment to the struggle against oppression.

A recent and obvious example is that of Julian Assange. Whilst it is possible to draw a distinction between the campaign by imperialist governments against Wikileaks and the allegations of rape made by two Swedish women against Assange, Socialist Alliance’s statements around Assange have not drawn this distinction clearly and have often a relied on a blurring of these issues to make their arguments. Moreover, while the Socialist Alliance were critical of the Wikileaks Party's preferencing of right-wing parties in the Senate in NSW and WA during the 2013 Federal elections they did not critique whether a person facing allegations of rape should stand for parliament. This sends a specific and negative message to survivors.

How do we address the pressing issue of working class oppressive behaviours directed towards marginalised groups? While it is welcome that the Socialist Alliance has sought to have an internal discussion about these questions and to develop formal guidelines, member experiences in many organisations show that the problem is not simply solved by the development an effective document and policy. The development of the political confidence and will to implement policies if and when an individual with significant social capital behaves in an oppressive way is imperative. Despite the positive aspects of Defending Comradely Solidarity, limited thinking through of the problems associated with oppressive and violent behaviour raises serious concerns for the extent to which it would aid Socialist Alliance members in dealing with problematic behaviour by a prominent member of that organisation.

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