On the consequences of the weaponisation of abuse

Abusive behaviour and the resulting apportioning of blame have been at the forefront of this Labour leadership election, with a particular emphasis on the abuse of minorities (typically women). No one denies that it needs to be rooted out, however certain reactions to it demonstrate quite well some of the less popular aspects of the ‘current Westminster politics’[1]. My fear is that certain aspects of these reactions could serve to hinder the progress towards equality for some of those minorities.

Of late, the member for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Phillips[2], has been at the forefront of the campaign for women’s rights. Phillips is someone that I really want to like: there is indeed a lot to like with her never being shy about speaking up in the strongest terms for the weak and the disadvantaged. Furthermore, anyone who stands up to the people who go around the internet looking for prominent ‘SJW’s’ (as they call them) to troll is well worth the admiration. When she left Team Corbyn back in June, it was like an honest and hard-working footballer leaving your team and moving cross-town: someone you’d still wish well even when turning out for your league rivals. However, she is a Westminster politician who has since acted in a way consistent with the public perception of said politicians.

A few days ago I saw the following phrase: ‘reports of abuse’ being ‘weaponised for factional gain’. And I immediately thought of Phillips. The next second I felt bad about it: since being elected last year, Phillips received pages and pages of nastiness with some death threats and, despite fears for her own safety, despite knowing full well that sticking her head above the parapet in this way will invite increasing viciousness was never shy in taking the trolls head-on. Her outspoken feminism had already made her a big target well before her leaving the shadow cabinet: gradually, the Corbynites piled in as well, along the traditional ‘Blairite vermin[3] traitor’ lines of attack (but up to and including death threats), and once again it seemed that Phillips was totally in the right for taking a very public stand against this.

And yet, something felt not quite right. Firstly, lines were always blurred. Non-abusive criticism of moderate politicians such as Phillips (for instance in the threats to de-select[4] them) was always talked of in the same breath as personal abuse, which was in turn conflated with the death/rape threats by the right-wing misogynists from earlier. Now, perhaps that is the fault of unscrupulous media attempting to drive a wedge into the Labour support, a wedge that divides not just the party but a good number of determined feminists on either side. However, the moderates should have resisted that division, vocally stood up for their party members and sought to differentiate them from the small minority that abuse people personally (the distinction is not a hard one to make). It is true that even telling someone they are bad at their job in an unkind non-abusive way isn’t very comradely and adds to a bad atmosphere in the party, however it happens on both sides and in any case MP’s are supposed to act as peacemakers. Conflating strongly expressed criticism with real abusive behaviour looks like a cheap trick, creates resentment and sullies role models as a result. I am far from suggesting here that Phillips’ feelings and fears are not genuine, but that does not mean they can be used in this way.

Secondly, any abuse was immediately related (by the likes of Phillips) to Corbyn himself — for example by sarcastic reference to ‘kinder, gentler politics’. The non-sequitur fallacy of ‘they support Corbyn therefore he condones it all’ (or the correlation/causation fallacy of ‘well, it never went on earlier so it must be his fault’) is at the basis of every such remark: what real practical steps Corbyn can take to stop it is rarely specified. (When it is, it is full of mis-interpretation and ‘conflation’: equating for instance the quip by McDonnell, or Serwotka and Wracks’s strongly expressed opinions with real online abuse.) For instance, abusive trolling and making death threats are crimes just like any other, for the police to deal with, but I do not see people saying ‘damn, those muggings are going up, why isn’t Corbyn doing anything about it’. In fact, Corbyn has repeatedly called for calm in that regard, but somehow nothing he says is ever enough. Now, it is true that Corbyn is very liberal on the heckling and booing, but both are part of the sort of the historic Labour tradition he is used to, the tradition of speaking in public meetings where the crowd do not shirk away from loudly showing their disapproval. After all, the MP’s in parliament behave exactly in this way day in day out.

The third issue, as already mentioned above, is the presentation of any perceived wrong against a woman member of the shadow cabinet as sexism[5]. Few would deny that Corbyn’s management of the PLP during the last years has been very low on competence, which makes the need to explain through misogyny what can be explained through poor management all the more strange (Chi Onwurah’s piece (re-tweeted by Phillips) in the Guardian probably took the first prize for the sheer over-the-top-ness and added a thinly-veiled racism allegation to everything else, but it was one of many examples). And this discourse is perhaps the most disappointing: the moderates’ strongest suit is in pressing home the failure of the current leadership to form a coherent opposition and trying to add a cherry on top by engaging in accusations of ‘-isms’ detracts from this, hurts the campaigns against the real instances of said ‘-ism’ and hurts their case in the election.

One now cannot help feeling, when reading what Phillips and others write, that one is being played a trick on, a little sleight of hand to ever so slightly mislead you. Here a situation is covered from just one side, here something contentious is just asserted out of thin air, here two unrelated issues are treated as related. With hindsight, this can be seen in earlier contributions: here a discourse of misogyny in the Labour party has as every concrete example people outside it and here, Phillips justifies mandatory selection of a woman for one of the mayoral races by referring to ‘the great authority’ of a Nobel prize winner from Liberia, a very different society to the UK. But the subject of positive discrimination, and the more general issue of identity politics vs worker rights within the Labour party is one which does not deserve this superficiality: to someone who believes, like many do, that positive discrimination is papering over the cracks that will not be getting any smaller as a result of it (not to mention being horribly unpopular with the public at large), that the way to have (for instance) more women mayoral candidates is to encourage more women to go into politics, this ‘explanation’ leaves one feeling short-changed. The country, and its women, have much more serious problems than not having a 50–50 cabinet and all-women shortlists[6] (or indeed that of a now rather privileged woman getting a lot of stick on twitter), and these issues can often distract from the problems of real importance affecting women.

All this spin was very much not lost on the people on the receiving end. In an already charged atmosphere, Phillips and others became an obvious target, representations of frustrations with the ‘moderates’, with the political system, with people prepared to just shift a toxic situation a l’il bit to the advantage of ‘their team’ and pin the entire blame for the ‘bad atmosphere’ on an already embattled leader. Those people didn’t take kindly to that: and responded in the only way they knew: by offering more stinging criticism and in some cases more real abuse, both leading to more fears and more ‘weaponisation’[7]. This vicious circular ‘pastime’ is still going on as we speak.

The real losers here are the women. When speaking up for a minority, one almost by default finds themselves in the sights of groups of people that are quite vociferous and quite ruthless in how they act. These are not Labour supporters who broadly stand on the same ground on women’s rights, but the real opponents of feminism, for whom the door is left open to use the most subversive right-wing argument: that feminists attempt to extract personal (in this case party political) gain from making accusations of sexism. Those people already take advantage of the distaste of identity politics (for instance positive discrimination) in the general population, and both them and Labour’s political opponents, as Phillips already found herself, will use any opportunity to smear prominent rights campaigners. In the light of that, it is vital that the integrity of said prominent campaigners is absolutely spotless — and it hardly needs saying that they also need every bit of help from every like-minded feminist in the Labour party they can get.

Phillips’ cause is very just and very laudable: to get in power and to fight for women in this country. For that, as she had said herself, she is prepared to stab people in the front and now sees Corbyn in the way of achieving her ideals. That is her choice: the problem is that the way she has gone about this undermines the very cause she is championing. This cause needs to be kept as separate from party politics as humanly possible.

[1] Especially so among supporters of the current Labour leader, but not just.

[2] I realise this all comes across as having a go at a single politician: this is not the intention. It is merely a typical example of the general political culture within Labour.

[3] It is often overlooked that ‘Blairite vermin’ is a reference to the famous speech of Aneurin Bevan.

[4] It was always a mystery why the SNP has mandatory re-selections before every GE/Holyrood election and this is in no way controversial.

[5] Generally this fits with the wider narrative of the Corbyn supporter as a misogynist: women critics of Corbyn supposedly get criticised due to their gender and not the nature of their criticism

[6] An old chestnut, best summed by Jones in Chavs and again here: whether the way to gender equality lies not via positive discrimination, but via empowering the working class and women. New Labour’s focus on identity politics, according to Jones, was ‘an agenda that has happily co-existed with the sidelining of the working class in politics, allowing New Labour to protect its radical flank while pressing ahead with Thatcherite policies’. Women are arguably best motivated not by Theresa May or Angela Eagle, but by being given real concrete opportunities.

[7] I perhaps give a false impression the Corbyn supporters were merely responding which is not true: in reality, the conflict goes much further back: Phillips it seems https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/13/labour-leadership-jeremy-corbyn-owen-smith wanted to attend local Momentum branch meetings, but was not welcome. But whatever bad feeling there was was magnified, whatever abuse was flying around before increased in quantity.