When fury trumps thinking
Various Twitterfeeds and a touch of morbid curiosity have kept me apprised of the situation in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The open letters by two groups of around 500 people each allowed a trip down memory lane, an anti-Friends Reunited of political (and sometimes literal) sparring partners from Leicester, Nottingham, Brighton, Sheffield and Leeds. Before tweeting or writing anything it was important not to let schadenfreude get the better of me, but looking around the blogs it's clear that not everyone was so restrained.
No sense in repeating all the examples of idiocy, chaos and stupidity that characterized how the Smallest Mass Party in the World handled this issue. But I am struck by the way that the wider discussion has become more degenerate than the SWP itself. Below-the-line commentary and assorted tweets move from serious concerns about rape allegations to bib-soiling dumbness in 140 characters.
1) Presumption of innocence treated as a nicety of bourgeois law (sometimes referred to as 'bourgeois law' with scare quotes): Both alleged rapists, Billy Delta and a Yorkshire organiser, are being treated as guilty i.e. as actual rapists. One Twit even tweeted 'No one will ever work alongside, let alone join, a party that defends accused rapists'. Ever heard of the Scottsboro Nine? The key word is accused: in terms of criminal law, living people are innocent until proven guilty. (Yes, there's some added complication coming in from the Scottish category 'not proven', apparently also introduced into one of the SWP's internal hearings on alleged rape.) The different accounts of what went on make both of those accused sound like deeply unpleasant men, but still the key word here is accused. (Ironically, both comrades were also the protagonists in criminal cases where it was claimed the police were fitting them up; in such situations the presumption of innocence is useful to a defendant.)
2) While the SWP has been ostracised for wanting to keep the state out of rape allegations, at least one alleged victim - Comrade W - is also implicitly criticised (and explicitly slated below the line on Harry's Place) for not going to the police. From this point, the commentaries sidestep into attacks on the old-fashioned principle of voluntary association, which is now presented as intrinsically sinister, echoing that News of the World hack who argued, in the run-up to the Leveson Inquiry, that 'privacy is for paedos'. How the volunteers of the SWP choose to organise themselves is their business, frankly. When a private organisation gets it wrong (or is being disagreed with from the outside), it is should be open to criticism, but not to external control by snoopers. This includes cults: the tolerant standpoint is to treat the adult members (i.e. age 18+) as adults who have made bad choices, not as little kids.
3) Double standards: outside the organisation, a common complaint about the Delta case is that the verdict was not the one the complainant wanted. From this vantage point, sections of the blogosphere go on to assert Delta's guilt. Meanwhile the Yorkshire case, where the accused WAS 'punished' by the SWP for his actions, is treated as a 'safe' verdict where the main problem is alleged to be the inadequate punishment. YOU CAN'T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS. Either the use of the SWP Disputes Committee on criminal matters is legitimate or it is not. (This is different from whether or not it SHOULD be dealing with criminal cases; the DC, like the blogosphere, is not a court of law.) Which brings us to...
4) Taking the alleged rapists to court: For all I know, this flurry of verbiage and media coverage might be enough to jump-start a police investigation. The cops could even create an open-ended 'historic' inquiry looking into years of SWP or far-left malfeasance (call it Operation Placard). Some in the blogosphere say they want this to happen. If so, why are they also continually publishing the REAL NAMES of the alleged rapists? If Delta and Mr NudeNoob ever end up in court, their defence teams could produce a few screenshots in order to claim that their clients can't get a fair trial because of their notoriety. In other words, people pushing for a criminal trial AND tweeting/blogging the pair's identities are undermining the criminal trial that they claim they want to see. They can't have their cake and eat it too.
5) Collective guilt: what ever happened to individual responsibility? Let's say these two did do what they are accused of. They should both take responsibility. Did people around them cover up the specific acts? If so, they are partly culpable too - maybe under criminal law, certainly morally. The idea that somehow this is the fault of the left or far left as a whole - will any similarities to Gerry Healy being treated as evidence of a real sex offenders' network going back to the 1960s - is intolerant and unjust. Shrill guilt-by-association rhetoric, long a favourite of the SWP, reflects badly on the people who use it. In the 1980s the British left spent some time campaigning against the courts and prisons treating people as 'types' (although campaigning less successfully and less often than they remember it); helping us to resist state oppression is the component of criminal law which, reasonably, lets the individual 'have his (or her) day in court'. Let's leave guilt by association to Nick Cohen, rather than make it into a radical-sounding argument. See what George Monbiot thinks as he slops out at Lord McAlpine's nominated charity.
6) "It's about rape, stupid": Okay, then treat it as a matter of criminal law, as you would if the alleged offence had happened in a gasket factory rather than a political party. Make a start by saying "It's about rape allegations, stupid." Then, if the complainants' attitude is one of "if you want to make a situation worse, ask a policeman", so be it (i.e should they choose not to press complaints). If is about a violent act committed by an individual, stretching this to attack the wider 'left' is illogical; Tony Benn and Ken Loach haven't even been accused of anything yet. Yes, there are structural factors in society which explain - not excuse - rape, but these would cause outrage if accepted as a valid defence by the individual responsible. A currently fashionable phrase actually gets things back to front: we are now more alert to the problem of rape. It is now more unacceptable than in earlier historical periods. "Bloke was only playing cupid" rarely works as a defence now; it's unlikely that the casual rape scene in High Plains Drifter (1973) would get filmed today. Cultures don't rape - rapists do.