Universal Friendship is a Radical Goal

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strypey
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Jan 9 2019 10:14
Universal Friendship is a Radical Goal

This is a response to a 2005 article, '10 things the left should see the back of right now ' by Isla Williams. I know this is now an old post, but the issues she responds to in points #5 and #8 have not gone away. In point #5, Williams says:

"Look there Mr Cis-Het White Class-Analysis Man! I’m gonna let you into a little secret: most of the working class people in the world are neither male nor white! A great number of them are neither cis nor straight! An intersectional analysis is, as it has always been, also an empirically and materially proper class analysis because this is the way the world is."

I agree with the comment made by Biffard Misqueegan, when the article was posted on LibCom by Joseph Kay, that this misses the point. There may still be the occasional old-school, workerist paper-seller who thinks that anything other than workplace-based labour struggle is a middle class issues. But the main criticism being raised against Safer Spaces Policing is not about it's content, but it's practice.

It's possible to show support for women's liberation, anti-racism, decolonizations, queer solidarity, animal rights, environmental defence, and so on, while building relationships and broad alliances. Doing this makes the left more diverse, and thus more resilient and effective, and many of us have been arguing tooth and nail for doing this since the 1990s. I would argue it was this kind of intersectional work that resulted in the massive movement of movements dismissed in Williams' piece as a "summit-hopping activist milleux" (thus buying into talking points, carefully cultivated via the corporate media, that focused attention on the summit-disrupting mushrooms so as to totally ignore and dismiss the mycelium of ongoing grassroots organizing that produced them, but I digress ...). Safer Spaces Policing, on the other hand, not only fails at building relationships and alliances, it valourizes destroying them as a political practice.

When one's family, friends, co-workers, or online correspondent makes a comment that shows a lack of solidarity, this can be seen as an opportunity for a teaching moment. A chance to clearly communicating one's objections to the comment, while also using a rigorous exchange of views to gain a deeper understanding of why people hold reactionary views, and maintaining a respectful tone to build a platform for further teaching moments in the future. Safer Spaces Policing, on the other hand, involves declaring to the person that they are not only wrong, but *evil* for holding such a view, and demanding that they immediately recant it. If they do not, they must be immediately de-friended, blocked, banished, declared a non-person, and an enemy of the left and humanity in general (note: I'm not saying that these response are never appropriate as a last resort, just that it's counterproductive for them to be the first response).

In point #8, Williams says:

"If you are saying things like 'stop splitting the left' because you are protecting your sexually-abusive and/or racist mates, then jog the fuck on. The left should feel glad to split from you.

If you are saying 'stop splitting the left' because you want the ideas of your groupsicle to be hegemonic, then get a grip. The left has always been diverse and has always had real internal disagreement – read some of the letters of the 19th century greats to work this out if you must. This has nothing to do with it being an effective force."

This kind of practice does split the left. Not by increasing its theoretical or social diversity, but by fragmenting it into ever-smaller shards that cannot work together, because that group still talks to so-and-so, despite their heretical views on whatever. It's high school snobbery as politics, with all its elitist in-group/ out-group melodrama. It's also a practice that, once normalized, is easily manipulated to break up groups, campaigns, and networks, and destroy activist infrastructure projects, on behalf of corporations and their PR companies, the cops, or the alphabet agencies (remember COINTELPRO?). I'm sure I'm not the only one who has seen this happen, yet our inability to have free, uncensored discussions about it without devolving into flame wars and excommunications (online *and* in-person) leaves us vulnerable to it.

Another result of this approach is that many working class people feel they are not welcome in the left because they don't have the correct views. Sadly, most working class people do not yet have progressive views on every aspect of gender, race, trans-/homosexuality, and so on (arguably *nobody* does). Indeed, given that the most progressive views on these issues (from an anarchist perspective) are not mainstream views, the only way anyone could end up holding any of them is to be regularly exposed to respectful debates with people who already hold them. If any and all discussion on these topics (especially online) boils down to "agree with me or fuck off fascist", this is both counter-productive and self-marginalizing.

Ironically, this elitist and vanguardist practice offers an explanation for why conservative nationalist movements have been able to attract increasingly large numbers of working class people who are left-leaning, but not "activists", into their orbit. Along with many others whose anti-authoritarian/ libertarian attitudes would normally make anarchist movements attractive to them. If a person knows they can go into conservative nationalist spaces and openly express dissenting views about discrimination, but that they can't go into liberal internationalist spaces and question our sacred cows without being shouted down or kicked out, guess which ones seem more attractive to them, let alone more democratic and libertarian?

The solution is not, of course, to jettison anti-discrimination politics, which have always been part of the left (although there's always been rigorous debate about the nitty-gritty details of them), but to jettison the vanguardist, scorched earth approach to them. There is an urgent need to rediscover the value of open-minded debate, tolerance of dissenting views, and the ability to continue trusting people even when we disagree with them about important things. More importantly, there is an urgent need to resist the capitalist tendency to dehumanize and instrumentalize each other, to ensure that we see each other as complete human being, whether friends, allies, or even enemies, but never tools to be used or discarded in service of "the cause". If we can achieve universal friendship among all oppressed people, revolution becomes just a matter of organizing with our friends.

BTW Anyone who declares me evil for holding these views, and demands that they (or I) be scrubbed from this website for expressing them, is simply illustrating my point. Also, if you happen to think I'm not entitled to hold or express these opinions because I happen to be a "Cis-Het White Class-Analysis Man", I highly recommend 'Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice' and 'No Justice Without Love: Why Activism Must Be Generous', two important essays on the same topic by Frances Lee, who is neither cisgendered, heterosexual, white, nor a man.

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Lucky Black Cat
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Jan 9 2019 22:21
strypey wrote:

The solution is not, of course, to jettison anti-discrimination politics, which have always been part of the left (although there's always been rigorous debate about the nitty-gritty details of them), but to jettison the vanguardist, scorched earth approach to them. There is an urgent need to rediscover the value of open-minded debate, tolerance of dissenting views, and the ability to continue trusting people even when we disagree with them about important things.

I agree very much, Strypey. I'm glad you made this post... it addresses a serious problem.

However, I also feel that the extent of our patience, tolerance, etc. should vary depending on how great the violation is. The worse the violation, the less patience and tolerance we should have, and in extreme cases scorched earth would likely be the right choice.

Of course, judgment about just how bad a violation is, is subjective. Different people will have different opinions. The same incident can be seen as a mountain by some and a molehill by others. Which makes this whole thing of responding with patience, empathy, etc. very tricky to navigate and put into practice. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try... we absolutely should... it just means it's going to be difficult.

TL;DR: I declare you evil for holding these views, and demands that they and you be scrubbed from this website! tongue

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Noah Fence
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Jan 9 2019 21:10

Excellent post.

Quote:
There may still be the occasional old-school, workerist paper-seller who thinks that anything other than workplace-based labour struggle is a middle class issues

More than occasional, I would say. I can think of one or two that would baulk like a startled mustang at the very title of your post, and immediately set about casting you into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth!

Quote:
Of course, judgment about just how bad a violation is, is subjective. Different people will have different opinions. The same incident can be seen as a mountain by some and a molehill by others. Which makes this whole thing of responding with patience, empathy, etc. very tricky to navigate and put into practice. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try... we absolutely should... it just means it's going to be difficult.

This is a good point but by no means is it an insurmountable problem.

Another common occurrence is the outright rejection of one person, or one group, that may have much to offer, simply because their position on one or two things doesn’t fit with the expected norms, or to reject a good idea because it’s source is known for its bad ones. What a waste, and what a surefire way to keep a movement small!
Anyway, I’ve come across a few such discussions as this lately and I take it positively, as a sign that there may be a healthy self awareness developing amongst us.

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Lucky Black Cat
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Jan 9 2019 22:37

I should have added that at times we also face the opposite problem. For example, there is an activist organization I know of where one of the members raped someone, and his friends and comrades let him stay in the organization without suspension or any accountability process, made excuses for him, did not try to address his behavior, they just carried on like nothing had happened. They also put out a statement* about it that basically amounted to: 'We live in patriarchy and all men are influenced by it, so it's the system, man! Don't blame the individual!'

(* Edit: I just checked with my friend and it was not a public statement, but an email sent to other activist organizations they work with. It was years ago so I forgot the details.)

It seems like some people are quicker to excommunicate someone for saying the wrong thing than for outright abusive behavior? Or maybe how we react to people comes down more to friendship ties and popularity? (The man I mentioned above was a big-shot leader in his organization.)

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jondwhite
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Jan 11 2019 13:10

I wont tolerate bigotry, bad manners or belittling of different views as 'stupid' or 'evil' (which can be a problem) but revolutionary goals are not social justice goals and many 'social justice' goals I would be opposed to and say so. E.g. rent capping, direct action, sit ins etc. Universal friendship is not the goal, nor is excommunicating critics. The personal is NOT political.

Thinking about a few anarchist meetings I havent really encountered bad manners as much as at SWP meetings, and obviously covering up an alleged rape and ostracising the accuser is unforgivable as an organisation rather than as an individual. This isnt an honest mistake, its their deliberate policy.

strypey
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Jan 13 2019 17:11

Figuring out how to deal with accusations of serious interpersonal violence is a more difficult problem for anarchists than for other kinds of activists, for two reasons. One is that our organizational structures tend to be based on networks of affinity groups, where people trust and have a greater loyalty to the members of their affinity group, than to larger organizational bodies. There is a tendency for affinity groups to close ranks and protect "our comrade" when they are accused of bad behaviour by someone outside the group, just as they are used to doing when their members are accused by the cops.

Speaking of which, the other thing that complicates matters is our discomfort with involving the cops. After much reflection, I've come to the conclusion that unless a community has the capacity and the willingness to run a robust community justice/ restorative justice process, reporting accusations of rape to the cops is actually the lesser of two evils. I'd much rather face a formal trial over an accusation of rape, than the Stalin-esque kangeroo courts I've seen anarchist organizations devolve into when they are unprepared for carrying out a fair investigation and decision-making process.

Quote:
For example, there is an activist organization I know of where one of the members raped someone, and his friends and comrades let him stay in the organization without suspension or any accountability process,

Obviously this is upsetting. But it is, to paraphrase Bob Black, the other side of the same debased coin. In other words, it's a response that actually becomes more likely in the face of scorched earth Safer Spaces Policing. I've been in situations where there was a general understanding that third options were possible outside of the false binary of a) immediate, unconditional banishment, or b) total denial of the accusation. In those situations, every involved is able to work together to seek the truth of what happened - to the degree that's possible - and come to a consensus on how to keep everyone involved as safe as possible, while still respecting the humanity of the accused, and the autonomy of the groups they work with to decide the right response for them.

I don't know the exact circumstances of the group you describe. But for example, let's say a person accused of rape is the website maintainer for an organization. Kicking them out of the group has the practical effect of excusing them from doing the work they had taken responsibility for, and forcing others in the group, who haven't been accused of anything, to take on extra work. This boils down to collective punishment for individual misdeeds, and it's an ineffective way to hold a perpetrator accountable. The most likely outcome is that they'll just move on to another group that doesn't know about their history, won't be able subject them to any accountability, and whose members may be thereby placed in danger.

It's possible for them to continue to volunteer in the website maintainer role, without having any face-to-face contact with anyone who doesn't choose to seek it out. Continuing to work in the group, but being socially isolated from a lot of the surrounding activist community, and perhaps losing other privileges of full group membership, is a consequence they will have to face every day. Hopefully this, along with challenging conversations with anyone willing to keep interacting with them, can motivate them to address whatever brokenness led them to violate another person. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of banishment.

But I've seen people refuse to accept this kind of nuanced response, and go on a crusade against every group that has any association with such a person, or any group who associates with that group, in an orgy of guilt-by-association. Even to the extent of picketing activist camps because a person once accused of inter-personal violence was allowed to be involved in a carefully designed way, subject to wide consultation beforehand with everyone who wanted to be involved. In the face of this kind of bloody-mindedness, I can understand the temptation to just trust the people you know the best, and refuse to even entertain the possibility that accusations against them could be true. If only true justice could be that simple.

Oh, and johndwhite, good to know there's still a few old-school, workerist paper-sellers out there ;-P Keep the faith brother!