Rape apologism, imperialism and the student left. We need to talk.

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A debate has sprung up in the British student movement over a motion to the National Union of Students (NUS) National Executive (NEC). It concerns whether elected officers should share platforms with individuals considered to be “rape apologists” or “deniers” in the light of remarks they have made during the Julian Assange extradition crisis. Here we publish the thoughts of Michael Chessum, a member of the NUS NEC.

The resolution to the NEC can be read here but the controversy focuses on the formulations which read, “…NEC councillors and NUS officers shall not share a platform with George Galloway, Roger Helmer, Andrew Brons or other speakers who are rape deniers, and who blame and undermine rape victims. The NUS shall not offer a platform to speakers who are rape deniers, and blame and undermine rape victims, nor shall it officially support any event that does”. 

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The debate that has sprung up over the motions going to the next NUS NEC is important, both because it is about protecting people’s safety and fighting rape apologism, and because the attempts to tamper with this effort have their roots in deeper ideological problems on the left.

I think that we should talk about them, so I’ve written this note. It covers three broad themes.

To view the papers, click here

1. I disagree with the amendments, and I will vote against them. Here’s why: 

The main controversy is over No Platform. One of the key points of the original motion is a redefinition of the No Platform policy, something which currently exists to deny fascists a platform – to cover rape apologists. On one level, No Platform isn’t a moral thing, it’s a tactic for attacking fascism and fascist organisations, disrupting their activity and ability to spread their ideology (it’s the same political instinct that says that we should physically blockade EDL marches and steal and destroy contact sheets from BNP stalls). Galloway, Benn, and others named in the motion don’t fit this bill – they’re not organised fascists.

However, on another level No Platform is about the fact that we don’t have to offer Nick Griffin a platform – and that the rights and safety of (for instance) black and muslim students take priority over a fascist’s right to speak or be legitimised. I think No Platform for rape apologists is a good move in this context.

The motion submitted by the women’s campaign argues that this policy should be extended to cover “speakers who are rape deniers, and who blame and undermine rape victims”. Critics of the motion, and proposers of the amendments, are arguing that this is “diluting” the No Platform Policy as a whole. They argue that if NUS denies rape apologists a platform, then “surely the policy should also be applied to those whose have engaged in actual actions that have led to the death, rape and torture and denial of basic human rights” – in other words:  “those MPs, politicians and others who support the illegal occupation of Palestine and blockade of Gaza.”

To start with, this is a case of whataboutery, a rhetorical technique used to deflect attention from real issues by talking about something else. (Supporters of Israeli military policy use it whenever you mention Gaza). I think that this obscures, or (if you’re generous) innocently misses the point, on two major levels:

A – Giving known and unrepentant rape apologists a platform is a fundamental barrier to creating a safe space. It effectively excludes a lot of people, especially survivors and victims of rape and sexual assault.

B – Giving rape apologists a platform contributes to a dangerous culture of not taking rape seriously, and excuses potential rapists for their actions. Rape apologism normalises rape. This is a direct and present danger to real people.

Just as attacks on muslim students would rise after a visit from the BNP or the EDL, attacks on women and acts of sexual violence occur more frequently when rape is normalised. Mike Williamson (a fellow NCAFC supporter on the NEC) put it well: “The slippery slope argument does not apply. There can be no analogy with the MP’s that voted for the war in Iraq, unless the argument is that hearing those MPs speak will make people more likely to attack Iraqis in public, which is simply not the case.”

The second, and arguably more major problem with the amendments, is one of emphasis. They take a motion about rape apologism and turn it into a motion about American foreign policy and Ecuadorian sovereignty.  From this perspective, it is easy to understand why the amendments are being viewed by some as attempts to wreck and derail the original – taking the carefully and collectively written definitions of the Women’s Campaign and casting them up into the air alongside a cloud of nonsequitors and promises to protect Assange from extradition.

This is, at the very least, a serious tactical error from the point of view of anyone trying to get NUS to take a line to defend Wikileaks: any such motion should have been clearly separate. Insisting that anything that mentions Assange must talk about imperialism in detail implies that there is a hierarchy of oppressions. Unlike motions against war and fascism, motions against rape apologism are apparently not allowed to sit unappended – as a “serious” issue in its own right.

2. The amendments are bad, but it is perfectly possible that Aaron’s position on the uniqueness of No Platform comes from a sincere place – and people should respect that as far as it goes.

None of this excuses the problems that have been laid out – but no-one should be arguing that the amendments are just about derailing the original, though that is probably one of the effects that they have. In any debate about moving a definition, there will be people who want to keep it where it is. Aaron is wrong, in my opinion, in his conclusions – but that does not make the root of his concerns unreasonable.  It would be undemocratic, and dangerous for our No Platform policy, if we did not have a proper debate.

White NEC members, to whom the Black Students Officer is not accountable, should be especially careful about simply slamming Aaron simply for having a different view on the definition of No Platform; and straight people should be careful about commenting on Matt Stanley’s position on the LGBT committee.

3. The problems in the motions are the result of a specific set of political problems which exist on the left – and which have to be addressed.

The amendments are both proposed by organised left groups. Jamie’s amendment is written and submitted by members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), who operate openly inside NUS. Aaron’s text comes ostensibly from supporters of Student Broad Left (SBL) – a faction whose (somewhat opaque) inner workings can be largely traced to a group called Socialist Action, who essentially claim not to exist, but still have a website (long story).

It would have been entirely possible for Aaron and Jamie to oppose a redefinition of No Platform without the whataboutery and insistence on shifting the emphasis away from rape and apologism – but they didn’t. Instead, they chose to dilute the motion with a full ‘anti-imperialist programme’, in a move that demonstrated a distorted and hierarchical version of anti-imperialist politics, along with a twinge of opportunism and celebrity-seeking.

The way that imperialism has been put into a hierarchy above all other oppressions is easy to find. For instance, look at the Socialist Action website and you will find articles on, amongst other things, why Gadaffi and Assad should be supported because they are the targets of an “imperialist offensive” (click here  and here ) and why the Chinese government is essentially progressive because it is a bullwork against American power (link here ). These positions are obviously disgusting from the point of view of the victims of state violence in China or Syria – but they also raise questions about Liberation politics in the UK. If someone ignores or downplays Iran’s execution of gay men as “an excuse to invade” – which, incidentally, Galloway has done (see here ) – what does that say about their commitment to equality and liberation in general?

From this mistaken perspective, the issue is not about justice or class struggle, but about a set of “progressive forces”, which – however sexist, brutal and inhumane – somehow carry within them the road to the next stage of civilisation. In other words, ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ is a political reflex that has become built into large swathes of the left when it comes to opposing imperialism. It has been done with Assad, Gadaffi, the Chinese state, and the Soviet Union – and now it is happening with Assange.  (If you don’t believe that this is a widespread problem, look at Occupy London’s twitterstream).

(For the record, I think it is right to oppose Assange’s extradition to the United States – where he may face torture and political imprisonment. It’s just extremely damaging to propose it in the context of a motion about rape apologism – and if you don’t simultaneously call on him to face trial in Sweden).

The other unavoidable observation is that the political currents surrounding the amendments both have connections – past or present – to Galloway. It’s fair to say that the SWP’s (always slightly rocky) relationship with Galloway has changed a lot since they organised as Student Respect a few years ago, but a number of SBL’s key members are members of Respect and, to the best of my knowledge, still haven’t left.

The amendments argue that only designated fascists should be subject to No Platform – but Julie Bindel is already subject to a boycott policy, and no such fuss was raised on her behalf. It is basically impossible to escape the conclusion that if the extension of No Platform had been to cover rape apologists who were in the Tory party, it is unlikely to that these amendments would have been raised. These proposals for a boycott/No Platform are being opposed heavily partly because they are an attack on a number of charismatic, celebrity allies of some on the left.

After all, lefty NUS officers are rarely asked to share a platform at a rally with a sexist Tory MP, but they are often asked to perform alongside Galloway… like, for instance, at events organised by… SBL members. In fact, George Galloway is speaking at a rally for Venezuela on the same day that NEC is taking place.

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Given how heated this debate in the student movement is we feel the need to add the editorial disclaimer that published articles do not necessarily represent the views of the Anticapitalist Initiative, and we would welcome responses to Michael’s piece.


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One Comment

  1. Dan
    October 21, 2012 at 4:09 pm · Reply

    “Rape apologism” is a stupid neologism created by fools. There are no such people on the left and those who say otherwise are not part of the movement.

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