We, like many others in the student movement, were disgusted and appalled by the comments made about rape in connection with the Julian Assange case by Tony Benn, George Galloway, and others. Statements undermining rape or rape victims are not exclusive only to the Assange case. They take place in the context of the “Lad” culture on university campuses, with “Lads” magazines and websites like Unilad that consistently glorify, joke about or dismiss rape. Clearly, the student movement must make a stand over these issues.
The position of the SWP can be seen clearly in our paper, Socialist Worker:
“Julian Assange must face rape charges, not US revenge.The rape accusations should never be trivialised or brushed aside. But if the Swedish authorities were serious about investigating them, they would guarantee that Assange would not be extradited to the US. That could clear the way for him to face his accusers.”
The SWP has made our opposition to the statements undermining rape unequivocal and clear. They should be condemned. However we do not share the conclusion that No Platform should be extended to rape apologists.
The slogan ‘No Platform for Fascists’ was raised in the student movement in the early 1970s. It was developed as a response to the rise of the far-right and fascist groups organising on campuses. These organisations had a particular aim: to drive black and minority students off campus as part of their overall project to drive them out of the country. Wherever the fascists organise, racist attacks increase.
The experience of the rise of fascism in Germany and elsewhere shows that fascists cannot be treated as if they are just another political party. They use democratic channels to build support, but will then use that to suppress all forms of political opposition. Fascists, as history has shown, stand for the annihilation of democracy and entire groups of people. This is not limited to race – it includes women, LGBT people, disabled people, and other oppressed groups.
They seek to prevent the left, trade unions, and campaign groups from organising and to exterminate all forms of opposition.
In British politics, fascism has been most associated with racism and a rise in racist attacks on ethnic and religious minorities, but it is also associated with the most vicious forms of homophobia and misogyny. The BNP London organiser, Nick Eriksen, is quoted as saying that ‘Rape is simply sex. Women enjoy sex, so rape cannot be such a terrible physical ordeal… [It] is like suggesting forcefeeding a woman chocolate cake is a heinous offence.’
Fascism is not based on rational arguments; we do not challenge these organisations to debate. Instead they have to be stopped from gaining a platform to push their ideas. This means denying fascists a platform – while also attempting to stop their marches and prevent them from holding meetings and rallies. The No Platform policy was never extended to those who held some racist ideas. If this was the case there would be many more people that we would No Platform. It is possible to argue with these people, in open and democratic forms, and win some of them to anti-racism.
We should not No Platform rape apologists; instead we should demand that they retract their statements. People like Tony Benn and George Galloway have influence in our movement. We need to challenge them to ensure that it is never acceptable to make statements that undermine rape again.
We welcome the retraction and apology from Tony Benn. Goldsmiths Students’ Union used its resources to argue with Benn to change his position, which aligned him with NUS policy on this issue. This is a concrete step forward in the fight against sexism and rape apology, and it shows the benefit of challenging these ideas as well as denouncing them.
Challenging Sexism in the movement
Whatever people on the NEC think of Tony Benn and George Galloway, their influence and support among wide layers of students and in broader society means their words have to be criticized and challenged. This is why we will be opposing the amendment put forward by Student Broad Left, which we believe does not go far enough in either criticizing or challenging their words. We stand by the assertion in our amendment that ‘Opposition to imperialism must not lead to a lack of support for women’s rights or inaction over rape allegations’.
We also need to develop an atmosphere on campus where sexist ideas and actions are confidently challenged. On a number of campuses SWSS members have been part of doing precisely this. At Cambridge when DSK was invited by the Cambridge Union we worked with others to make clear he was strongly opposed amongst the student body. At Portsmouth when student societies organised a naked calendar we built a campaign against it, including hosting discussions on fighting women’s oppression and calling a Student Union meeting to debate the issues. At Sussex we helped initiate a campus wide solidarity protest against sexism in response to a series of sexual assaults on campus. At Essex we campaigned against the Student Union hosting a “Play Boy Bunny” event.
These kind of responses are essential to challenging sexism and creating an atmosphere on campus where it is unacceptable. They need to be supported by resources and training from the NUS and proactive campaigning to challenge the increasing acceptability of sexism on our campuses.
It is a reality that racist, misogynist, homophobic and reactionary attitudes exist on many campuses. And they exist more widely in society.
There are many politicians with reactionary views about women and other issues. There are those in government who are responsible for driving vicious attacks on women – including the cuts that will further threaten support for rape victims, sexual violence and domestic abuse. There are many Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat politicians whose hands are stained with the blood of millions of Iraqis and tens of thousands of Afghans.
But we don’t no platform them.
Whilst No Platform has been proven effective in challenging fascist organizations, it cannot be used to challenge mainstream ideas. We believe collectively challenging these ideas on campuses is the way forward, as the example of Tony Benn illustrates. We therefore cannot support the move to change or extend No Platform policy.
We all want – and need – a student movement that challenges rape apologism wherever it is raised, and a movement that has the confidence to directly challenge the wider sexism that prevails on our campuses and in society.