Safe spaces: Conway-Hudson school of censorship
Paul Demarty defends the idea of free speech on the left
A particular news item struck me this week - the Football Association, that blundering gang of fools who pretend to administrate the beautiful game in this country, are once more interfering with the people who indirectly pay their wages by going to games. Tottenham Hotspur fans are expected to stop describing themselves, in songs and chants, as ‘Yids’.
Nobody at the club seems to back the idiotic plan to prosecute ‘Yid Army’ chants, which are in origin a response to endless anti-Semitic abuse directed at a club with historic connections to north London Jews, but is now more or less part of the background noise at White Hart Lane, along with that hardy perennial, “We hate Arsenal”. Nobody in the FA hierarchy or the serried ranks of concerned citizens - principally the Zionist Board of Deputies - seems to have considered that subtle philosophical dilemma as to whether it is possible to direct hate speech at oneself, let alone sensible to prosecute on that basis. The word is just unacceptable - any place, any time, any context.
Given its incompetence in all other matters, it is hardly surprising that the FA fails to understand the ambiguous workings of language. It ought at least to understand the ambiguous workings of football support - that fans are rude, brash and loud, but specialise as much in self-ironisation as abuse of the opposing team and fans (lest anyone imagine that only Dalston hipsters, rather than the working class of Seven Sisters, understand irony).
Football is a constant staging ground for a most depressing feature of contemporary capitalist culture - the attempt to impose by means of bureaucratic diktat standards of etiquette in contexts where they simply have no relevance or utility whatsoever. The standard of etiquette seems invariably to be derived from that of a certain sort of middle class dinner party, perhaps in Hampstead, where all present are painfully aware of their disconnection from the mass of the population and unsure of how they may speak of the latter. Football, on the other hand, is - like all dramatic genres - predicated on the suspension of disbelief and the ‘normal’ rules of society. Context matters.
Likewise on the far left. “Revolution,” Mao famously quipped, “is not a dinner party … it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous.” Quite. But others have a different view - that the fundamental reason our forces are so small (and so male and so white) is that we are insufficiently ‘inclusive’, the latter word being defined in accordance with the views of Hackney Council. To be more inclusive, we must exclude all those who do not speak proper; but, rather than the Queen’s English and ‘received pronunciation’, one is expected to abide by the increasingly Byzantine rules of right-on liberal language.
Above all else, it is necessary to be polite - that is, not offend anybody, for any reason, except if they are on a predefined list of acceptable victims of offence: Tories, fascists, racists and what have you. (The latter crews are equally capable of playing the poor oppressed victim; certain Anglican reactionaries stand out in this regard for bare-faced cheek.)
Regular readers of this paper will know where I stand on these matters. Not two weeks ago, I published an article critical of a proposed ‘safe spaces’ policy, submitted humbly for the consideration of Left Unity (‘Playing it safe’, September 12). I say ‘critical’; it would be more accurate to describe it as irreconcilably hostile, sneering, snarky and sarcastic. It was commissioned as an attack piece, conceived as an attack piece and executed in accordance with the plan.
I am pleased as punch with the result - not least because it has, shall we say, struck a nerve. It was submitted to the Left Unity website for publication - not a website notable for its exacting editorial standards. Alas, poor comrade Demarty’s contribution has been quietly dropped, but not before causing some consternation on the editorial team. Apparently, Terry Conway and Kate Hudson think that my piece should be rejected because it is offensive. By saying those responsible for the ‘safe spaces’ policy should be ashamed of themselves is equated as an attack on the whole Left Unity project.
I have reliably been informed that I am in breach of LU’s ‘editorial policy.’ However, when I asked various LU tops about this I was told that in actual fact the ‘editorial policy’ does not cover commentary. So am I in breach of LU policy or not? But comrades Conway and Kate Hudson seem unconcerned: whatever they find objectionable will not get published on the LU website. It is almost as if they make up policy on the hoof, as it suits, as they find convenient. Democracy in action!
Hudson is reported to have drafted some kind of bland reply to my submission. A thanks but no thanks missive. But so far nothing has come my way. Obviously the comrades want to say that my ‘safe spaces’ piece runs counter to some LU resolution. But there is no such resolution (for the moment, thank god). But I do have ‘friends’. Simon Hardy, former Workers Power top and now one of the moving forces in the Anti-Capitalist Initiative has come out on my side. He says that barring an article on vague grounds is a dangerous precedent. Indeed, good for him, he has been demanding that comrades Conway and Hudson produce “specific” objections. Otherwise it will look bad for LU. But, of course, the whole episode does look bad for LU. But comrades Hudson-Conway remain stubbornly unmoved. My ‘safe spaces’ article is branded from beginning to end as “disrespectful, derogatory and at times offensive.”
Supposedly they would like material written in a ‘comradely’ tone. Perhaps Conway and her cohorts could write a helpful 11-page document defining what she means by comradeliness. I assert that my article is comradely; and not in spite, but because of, its aggressive, polemical style. There are no rules conveniently etched into tablets of stone for deciding these purposes, but I will suggest we inherit one from Moses - thou shalt not bear false witness. You do not lie - not to your class, and not to your comrades.
I do not, to stress the point, believe that the ‘safe spaces’ document put together by Conway and co (as an aside, she has reportedly complained that my naming her specifically is ‘bizarre’; has she forgotten it was she who sent it out to comrades on September 4?) is a brave attempt that is flawed in one or two respects. I believe it is a dreadful whole that is less than the sum of its appalling parts, that adopting it would be a disastrous mistake for Left Unity, that it is a recipe for bureaucratic chaos and - moreover - that the very mindset in which such a document appears to be a good idea is an affliction on the contemporary left, of which it needs to be cured.
How on earth does one say all this politely? Well, one solution would be to write some vague, Delphic critique that could be read any way you like - to avoid offending anyone. But that would mean lying. That would, in fact, be a dereliction of duty to anyone I would call a comrade - Terry Conway included. It would certainly be a dereliction of duty to all those undecided on the issue, and possibly leaning towards the ‘safe space’ mindset.
I pick on Conway so insistently because she is a Trotskyist, or claims to be (or claimed to be - her organisation, Socialist Resistance, has appended so many ephemeral buzzwords to its self-description that it is rather hard to tell at this point where Lev Davidovich stands in its thinking, through SR remains a member organisation of the Fourth International he founded). Nevertheless, comrade Conway is a veteran with several decades in the Trotskyist movement to her name.
If she is so concerned with avoiding a ‘derogatory tone’, and so on, we can only ask - when was the last time she read any Trotsky? His writings are peppered with the most abrasive polemics; he is a literary master in the way of cruelty, tearing all political opponents to shreds. “Everybody has the right to be stupid once in a while,” he wrote of erstwhile ally Dwight MacDonald, “but comrade MacDonald abuses the privilege.” He promised the anarchists: “You will be swept away with a barbed-wire broom!” As for those who considered Heinrich Brüning a ‘lesser evil’ compared to Hitler in the 1930s - hardly the least superficially reasonable proposition in history - such people are “feeble-minded”.
He is not the only one. Rosa Luxemburg was probably a match for him. Lenin’s polemics are not so refined, but no less devastating; and they are all the more pervasive. A brief glance through the collective works reveals nary a branch report from some insignificant Social Democratic committee without some sharply worded score-settling involved. Marx ridiculed his leftwing opponents; Engels mocked “the Bakuninists at work”.
The canon of revolutionary Marxism must be the rudest crew ever assembled. The method of Conway and her comrades is directly counterposed to this. SR is generally very keen on everyone being nice to each other, and saving their anger for ‘the enemy’; but this inevitably means that opponents of such sham agreement face the most bile of all. I got spiked from the website; a comrade of mine was told in a private email by an SR member that he was “somewhere between a dick and a wanker” (charming!) for daring to raise discussion on ‘divisive’ insignificances like, er, the Syria crisis.
Older heads in the CPGB remember this kind of skulduggery well; and it is hardly an inheritance of Trotsky, or anyone else who came out of the 20th century with any honour intact. It was formulated, first of all, by Georgi Dimitrov, during the Stalinist reverse ferret into what would become the popular front. We will not attack the social democrats, he told the Comintern’s 7th Congress - we will only attack the enemies of unity.
The closer analogue is more recent - Eurocommunism, in many ways the logical outcome of popular frontism in the ‘official communist’ movement. The Euros were remarkable in their double-faced nature. Their ideology was based on liberty, democracy and the rule of law (all defined essentially in liberal terms); their internal practice in the communist parties was, if anything, more bureaucratic than that of the Soviet loyalists who preceded their ascendance.
The Euros too got sucked into fatuous identity politics; and in their hands, equally, it became an instrument of arbitrary exclusion of those to their left who were inconvenient - the latter ranged from our own predecessor paper, The Leninist, to the more oppositional of the pro-Soviet factions. Their great historic achievement was Blairism: equally, the most intolerant regime in the Labour Party’s history.
The ‘safe spaces’ ideology is the most perfect expression of the colonisation of the left by the bureaucracy. If you want to see what lies at the end of this road, take a look at Blair’s party; take a look at the omnivorous bureaucracies of official liberalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism and so on; indeed, have a look at the absurdity of Spurs fans possibly being prosecuted for racial hatred against themselves.
On the other hand, Conway-Hudson could graciously cease deciding on the basis of their own prejudices what constitutes an acceptable level of vituperation, and actually engage in the political debate on this matter. Defend the damned document, comrades! At least put it up on the website, so people can leave comments. If you wish to step outside the confines of your website’s politeness policies, the pages of the Weekly Worker are open to you, wherein you can call me a dick, a wanker, or any combination of the two. Just do not presume to set yourselves up as guardians of public decency; a task from which any leftwinger in their right mind should recoil in horror.
Leave such foolishness to the acknowledged masters - the FA.