Student movement debates rape apologism: thoughts from activists

By Esther Townsend and Kate Harris

This is a contribution to the debate that has blown up in the student movement as a result of the ‘No apology for rape apologists’ motion going to the upcoming (26 September) NUS National Executive Council meeting; the amendments that have been proposed to it; and the surrounding discussion. (See here, motion 3 and amendments.)

The Politics of this Contribution

In the course of this piece we will make some critical comments on the motion. So we want to begin by emphasising that – in addition to agreeing with the majority of the motion – we are strongly in solidarity with its spirit and with the proposers of it.

For a long time, the reactionary antics of the likes of George Galloway have been tolerated and even encouraged because of the prevalence of a view that subordinates principles the left should hold dear – democracy, working-class struggle, LGBT liberation, women’s liberation – to a warped version of ‘anti-imperialism’ that says my enemy’s enemy is my friend and supports anyone as long as they are anti-US. It is positive that the Assange debate has pushed many prominent women (and men) in the leadership of NUS as well as on the more radical student left to confront and challenge this view.

There are parts of Aaron Kiely and Jamie Woodcock’s amendments that – on the surface – are reasonable. But the purpose of the amendments seems to be to undermine the political thrust of the motion. In other words, Kiely and Woodcock seem to be acting as they have in the past: as ‘left-wing’ apologists for all kinds of reactionary, repressive, anti-women individuals and regimes on grounds of ‘anti-imperialism’. We are anti-imperialists, and we think there is a real and substantial ‘anti-imperialist issue’ involved in the Assange case. We don’t want Assange to be extradited to the US. But that’s not really the discussion here – and not the question the original motion intended to raise. The question is attempts to downplay the issue of rape, and by extension to defend or semi-defend Galloway etc doing so.

The Amendments

Amendment 1 to the NEC motion is proposed by Aaron Kiely (Socialist Action/Student Broad Left; Labour Party member) and Amendment 2 by Jamie Woodcock (Socialist Workers’ Party).

Amendment 1 seeks to minimise the seriousness of the offences that Julian Assange is accused of committing, by instead focusing on the evils of imperialism and the merits of Wikileaks. This in itself is highly problematic: a rapist is not absolved of their crime/s by doing something good but unrelated.

Kiely goes on to talk about No Platform and how this is a policy that should be used exclusively to deal with fascists. He says that, “If the no platform policy was applied to George Galloway, Tony Benn and Roger Helmer for their offensive views on rape then surely the policy should also be applied to those whose views have engaged in actual actions that have led to the [sic] death, rape and torture and denial of basic human rights.”

Where to begin? We agree that No Platform policy as such should be used only for fascists and the equivalents of fascists (see below). However, the motion does not actually advocate adding anyone to the No Platform policy as such (again, see below). It is also worth noting – and we have checked this – that Student Broad Left/Socialist Action have in the relatively recent past supported a broader definition of No Platform, no platforming not only fascists but also racists and sometimes sexists and homophobes. They changed this stance a few years ago essentially because they were worried that this definition would catch right-wing Islamists (who they consistently apologise for – again because they are supposedly anti-imperialist) in its net. The point is that what is involved here is not a principled position, but an opportunistic one, as usual with SBL/SA.

Secondly and, in this context more importantly: we don’t know why Kiely chose to use the word ‘actual’ in the above sentence. Perhaps it was not a fully conscious choice. But in any case this highlights a trend in his thinking. Marking some actions as ‘actual’ implies that Galloway’s or Benn’s actions are not having an ‘actual’ effect on women or rape victims, which is insulting to say the least. Galloway’s comments feed into a wider rape culture in which consent apparently doesn’t matter. Lack of consent in sex is the definition of rape: so Galloway’s comments, which perpetuate the broader culture, absolutely were rape apologism. Not taking this seriously minimises and perpetuates the issue of rape apologism.

It seems as if Kiely’s aim, and whatever his intention this is the effect, is to take the emphasis away from the basic thrust of the motion, which is that “the NUS Women’s Campaign will develop on detailing what consent is, why it is essential, how to actively seek consent and how to teach others about consent.” When one in seven student women is sexually assaulted on campus, as the original motion points out, this is clearly the most important part in order for NUS to take effective action to protect its members and combat rape culture.

Jamie Woodcock’s amendment is similar to Kiely’s. Like Kiely, he talks about “actual actions that have led to the death, rape and torture and denial of basic human rights…” – presumably as opposed to the ‘inactual’ actions of Galloway and Benn who, because they opposed the Iraq war, should be absolved of all misdemeanours. This is not said explicitly, but that seems to be the trend of thought on some parts of the ‘left’ which these two amendments draw from.

Surely Kiely and Woodcock should have met up and proposed a single motion so that those of us with little patience for their terrible gender (and broader) politics wouldn’t have to read more of the same. In any case the Stalinists of Socialist Action and the Trots acting like Stalinists of the SWP are very much on the same page here. Once again, the SWP should be ashamed of themselves. The point is that, whatever the truth of this or that statement contained within them, the amendments are not constructive contributions, but cynical attempts to blunt or deflect the political dynamic of the original motion.

Aaron Kiely’s Facebook Note

Aaron Kiely has also written a Facebook note defending his position, which is in a similar vein. There are however a number of additional points of interest in it.

The note isn’t clear, but it seems to imply that the proposers of the motion are seeking to undermine NUS’s No Platform policy. This is not a reasonable way of discussing; it is a grotesque accusation; and moreover if that is what Kiely wants to say he should just come out and say it. Instead everything is hint and implication.

The note criticises Galloway’s comments. That is good. But it does not address the broader issue of the reactionary, fake-left, anti-feminist politics which ‘inspired’ Galloway to make these comments — of course not, since these are politics which Kiely shares much of. In this context it is worth noting that Galloway has been invited to speak at the upcoming 26 September ‘Venezuela solidarity’ (in reality Hugo Chavez solidarity) rally which SBL and Socialist Action are central to organising. So clearly they do not take any criticisms of Galloway which they have been forced to make very seriously.

Kiely talks about cuts to rape crisis services and so on. Good point, but it’s a bit rich coming from someone who is a Labour councillor in a Labour council (Thurrock) which has made massive cuts to jobs and services – but who has never once dissented from or opposed these cuts.

Moreover, the note attacks right-wingers for being hypocritical and inconsistent when they apologise for or downplay repression by right-wing regimes like Pinochet’s Chile in the 70s and 80s, including their use of rape as a means of torture and repression. That’s right. But the same also applies to so-called ‘anti-imperialist’ regimes like Iran and Syria, which Kiely and his friends consistently apologise for and denounce any criticism of (for instance at NCAFC conference in Liverpool in January). The Iranian state regularly uses rape as a weapon. So yes, right-wingers are inconsistent, but so are Stalinists like Kiely and SBL/SA. Only the genuine left is consistent.

The Motion

We regret that we failed to write amendments to the motion in time and lobby for them to be submitted – we recognise the following comments could have been more constructive in that form. In any case, we want to stress again that any criticisms of it we make are in a supportive and friendly spirit of solidarity. It is a positive motion, much of which is well put and should have activists’ support.

The motion’s resolutions says that “NEC councillors and NUS officers shall not share a platform with George Galloway, Tony Benn, Roger Helmer, Andrew Brons or other speakers who are rape deniers, and who blame and undermine rape victims” and that “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”. We repeat, we think the sentiment behind this is good, but some of the formulations are problematic or inadequate. We will explain why below. The issues are quite complex, so apologies for the length.

Contrary to what Kiely and Woodcock say the issue here is not exactly No Platform – not No Platform in the sense that that term is usually applied to fascists.

a) No Platform

No Platform in this sense is or should be about consistently excluding certain organisations and individuals from our organisations, our events, our spaces, our streets and our community – in our view, through mass direct action if necessary. In this context, we believe that No Platform as such should be used exclusively for fascists or fascist-type organisations, not because of how repulsive their views are (though they are) but because of the threat their very presence and even existence poses to oppressed people and our movement (and the labour movement). We are against extending No Platform to reactionary views as such. Of course, the line can be blurred: rape apologists and misogynists do present a threat, not just a set of views. However, fascism represents a set of aims and practices which go beyond being vile and oppressive.

We think our general, overall principle should be free speech. Within this there are tactical questions which may act as limitation on the principle. At the extreme end is No Platform for fascists. At a lower level there are somewhat different questions about standards of behaviour in meetings, safer spaces, not inviting certain people to speak and so on. Of course there should be basic standards of reasonable behaviour in our unions and at our events: if someone gets up and makes a sexist, racist, etc comment they should be challenged and depending on the severity of it and their persistence asked to leave the meeting. But it does depend: for instance, supporting immigration controls (we regard immigration controls as racist) is much ‘milder’ than saying immigrants are taking all the jobs, which in turn is less severe than saying black people shouldn’t allowed to be NUS members and so on. The response, from tactful challenging through to sharp challenging through to asking someone to retract a comment through to asking them to leave depends on what exactly is being dealt with.

But all of that is different from declaring a general policy of ‘No Platform for racists’ or ‘No Platform for sexists’ etc. Why? Racist, sexist and so on ideas and opinions are, in a diluted and sometimes not so diluted form, very widespread in society. They cannot be banned, they have to be challenged. Again: we think immigration controls are racist, but we would not advocate no platforming everyone who believes in immigration controls. Similarly, we think the Tory party is racist, but much as we might like to no platform Tories for being Tories, we shouldn’t… Maybe you don’t agree immigration controls, or the Tories, are racist. But then where should the line be drawn? In general reactionary views have to be debated and challenged, a process which generally helps our side. We — the left, the student movement, the workers’ movement, and certainly oppressed groups — have a vital interest in free speech, as well as it being a good thing in itself.

b) How does that relate to this situation?

i) Giving a platform

As we say, however, the issue here is not exactly No Platform. The motion doesn’t argue for no platforming anyone in the sense that that we would want to No Platform fascists. Rather it talks about not offering a platform to certain people to speak. Of course there is a blurred line here – which is why the language of the motion seems unclear to us. If there is a problem with the motion it is not that it undermines NUS’s No Platform policy, as SBL claims, but that it is tactically wrong.

You can certainly make a case that rape denial is far more ‘radical’ than ‘ordinary’ reactionary or oppressive views or statements and needs to be treated differently. But in fact those who in some sense engage in it – and certainly those who engage in minimisation of rape – are quite large in number. For instance, the famous feminist Naomi Wolf defends Assange, as do Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and many other prominent figures. Beyond these prominent individuals, sexual consent is an issue on which many, many men and women have confused, ill-informed assumptions and ideas drawn from the dominant ideologies in society. Of course Galloway, for example, is much worse. But it isn’t necessarily easy to mark a clear line.

Two things to draw out: Firstly, it is vital that as a movement and a union we acknowledge the very real impact people espousing rape apologist (and indeed other anti-oppressed) views have on people who hear them. But this can tactically be dealt with through democratic control over inviting speakers and a strong and coherent safer spaces policy, with chairs, organisers and members empowered to uphold it. It is important to say that people who persistently deny or justify rape should not be allowed to speak at NUS events, and to support people to take quick and decisive action if someone makes comments at an event apologising for rape.

But: while we wouldn’t want eg Galloway invited into NUS as a speaker, debating him is a potentially different matter. One of things that has allowed him to get away with it is that he is so rarely challenged in the movement – and the same is true of other prominent ‘left-wingers’. If Kelley Temple or many of the other supporters of the motion were to debate Galloway, he could be absolutely destroyed. We’re not necessarily advocating a debate with the likes of Galloway, because we recognise it comes with its own problems and issues and might be problematic from a safer spaces point of view, but we shouldn’t rule such things out either, in all circumstances.

ii) External platforms and events

What does that mean for the question of whether NUS should in all cases refuse to share a platform (ie an external platform) with Galloway, Benn and others guilty of the same sort of statements? Or ever support events that have them on the platform? In our view, ruling these things out doesn’t make sense.

Absolutely these people should be shamed and shunned. Absolutely Tony Benn’s life membership should be removed (Amendment 3) – Benn (who in many respects is not as bad as Galloway) has apologised but this isn’t good enough. Absolutely they should not be invited to present or speak at NUS events. But what if, for instance, a big war came and the organisers of a mass anti-war demonstration invited NUS to send a speaker? It is, sadly, all too likely that Galloway or someone similar would be on the platform, given who has previously dominated the ‘leadership’ of the anti-war movement (ie the SWP and Socialist Action!) In that case, why should NUS have to refuse to send someone? Much better to publicly campaign for Galloway or whoever to be disinvited, and if unsuccessful, to send someone who would use their speech to, among other things, criticise/denounce him and the fact that he was on the platform.

(In 2003, NUS President Gemma Tumelty did, rightly, speak on an anti-war platform, but didn’t say a word about Stop the War’s dubious politics, eg their refusal to utter a word of criticism of Saddam Hussein’s regime, or support Iraqi democrats, socialists and feminists. We guess she didn’t want to rock the boat. But as socialists, that’s not our approach!)

Similarly, there might sometimes be events which NUS should – critically – support, while criticising and opposing certain people being on their platforms.

c) The need for a political campaign

Whatever its rights and wrongs, not appearing on platforms with certain people and so on is not, in any case, a solution. This problem can’t be solved administratively: it has to be tackled politically. We need a high profile political campaign against rape apologism and against the politics, on right and ‘left’, which defend or downplay it, including fake ‘anti-imperialism’.

That is not a substitute for challenging sexual violence on campuses, ‘rape’ jokes, sexism in our unions and so on. Rather it is a vital complement. Unfortunately there are many students who need to be convinced that this culture is unacceptable: that an uninvited grope in a club is not something to be laughed off, and that rape ‘jokes’ are not remotely amusing. Members also need to be supported to actively challenge these kinds of views. That’s why we support the excellent Resolves 1, mandating the Women’s Campaign to create and distribute resources. We hope that some of the ideas contained in this article can help to inform and shape those resources.

To Conclude

The principle and drive behind the motion are right, but its resolutions are not ideally formulated and have the wrong emphasis. However, instead of trying to deal with this as they would if they were serious, principled left-wingers, Kiely and Woodcock (for which read SBL/Socialist Action and the SWP) have cynically used it to further tangle everything up in confusion.

Solidarity with the sisters and brothers on NUS NEC who – even if they don’t agree with everything we’ve said here – are trying to take the issue of rape apologism seriously.

In solidarity,

Kate Harris (formerly University of Edinburgh, LGBT+ convener 2011-2012 and member of the Feminist Society)

Esther Townsend (University of East London, Women’s Fightback London organiser, NCAFC Women’s Committee member)

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About womensfightback17

Women’s Fightback is a socialist feminist paper and blog produced by members and supporters of the socialist group Workers' Liberty. Workers’ Liberty is a revolutionary socialist organisation fighting as part of the labour and student movements, and in campaigns, for a socialist alternative to capitalism, based on common ownership and democracy.

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