Dialogue and Retribution – Rethinking Labour’s Disciplinary Methods

By Ewan Cameron

Even agreeing on a name for the current discussions around Anti Semitism in the labour party is likely to cause disagreement. Call it a crisis and you may be accused of exaggeration. Call it a smear and you may be accused of apologism. Let us call it a problem for now. And the problem with this problem is that it has seemingly torn apart the party on fault lines that do not neatly fit along traditional material ideologies. It is not correct to say that all those who say there is a big problem with anti semitism are the “right” of the party, nor is it right to say that those who deny there is a big problem are all “cranks”.

We all have had differing lived experiences, and yet what we might generously call a debate has been conducted within a rigid epistomology where either side has claimed a truth that negates the other.  Critical pedagogy scholar Joe Kincheloe has created the acronym FIDUROD (Formal, intractable, decontextualised, universalistic, and one dimensional) to describe such limited ways of learning and thinking and it is applicable here. Kincheloe criticises the way that education imports the epistomology of western science (that seeks to measure and compartmentalise everything) onto not just other subjects in the curriculum, but in the very way we perceive intelligence. FIDUROD thus encourages a system that gives us quantifiable outputs, usually in the form of percentages and grades.

No one is giving people letter grades for their anti semitism (at least not yet), but we can still see this FIDUROD logic prevailing in our discourse. We talk about anti semitism and racism in general, as if they are discrete particles of matter and we imagine that people have become “infected” to varying degrees by it. Like the teacher who evaluates a student as clever, average, below average, so too has the debate on anti semitism in the labour party has been a back and forth argument on the “levels” of anti semitism levels and the correct response to each level.

And I do think there has been a failure from Labour in their response, but not in the way that has been framed. The criticisms that have been made of the Labour leadership for “not doing enough” or “slow to act” always seem to be made in a way that implies that the “doing”  and the “action” must be a punitive reactions.

What if “action” meant something different?

The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire published his seminal text, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the late 60s (read it, it’s very short). It’s not an obscure book and is often name dropped by leftist intellectuals, yet the pure and unapologetic humanism that Friere advocates for has been difficult to put into practice. This is not because it is wrong, but because even the most radical among us still find it difficult to escape from the conditioning, internalised ideologies of neoliberalism that see society as a competition and inter-personal interactions a game of dominance.

Freire was a constructivist, which means that he saw that knowledge is not something that exists as a chunk of information to be passed on from one person to another, but is something that is created in the interaction between two or more people. His banking metaphor describes the faulty way in which mainstream education works: the teacher attempts to deposit information in the student as they would deposit money into a bank. This hierarchical model of education, prevents students from inquiring and thus according to Friere, prevents them from becoming fully human.

Friere advocates instead for a mode of education that is not about a teacher/student opposition but a reconciliation. This is not to say that teachers cannot exist, but that learning will not function if it only flows one way. A teacher who rebels against the banking model, must not only be imparting knowledge to the student, but receiving it from them too. Dialogue, above all, is the method par excellence not just for education, but for social and material revolution.

So then, in the context of Labour’s response to anti semitism, those of us who want a true revolution and not merely a shuffling of leaders, should reject the idea that “doing more” against anti semitism must always be top-down disciplinary procedures, where power is reproduced and strengthened as it flows down it’s own gradations.

It is not a mere quibbling over tactics. We cannot arrive in a society merely by wishing for it to happen. How could the road to democracy (assuming this is what we want) be achieved by reducing it?  Many who criticise the Labour leadership, particularly Corbyn, seem to want no less than him stepping on the party mechanisms for due process and expelling anyone who has so much as the slightest accusation against them.

This isn’t to say that the mechanisms are perfect. Far from it. But making them worse is the grasping “solution” of those in power who see it slipping away. So wide is their hubris that Tom Watson had to be reminded that his demand to be copied into all anti semitism cases against members was a breach of the individual rights of those members.

The right wing often call the left “soft” when it comes to crime, and we rightfully recognise this rhetoric as a transparent attempt to shame us into betraying our principles, which look for holistic explanations and solutions in our response to crime in society. Yet strangely, the left has a huge blindspot when it comes to transgressions (real or imagined) within it’s own ranks. When people within a left organisation are judged to have broken a code of conduct, or even simply accused, we throw all our principles out the window and look to expel, ostracise and exile our fellow comrades. Any objections to the deeply disciplinary nature of this are met with the exact same logic that the right wing accuse the left of. We are told we must not be “soft” on these transgressions, but root them out instantly.

There are certainly behaviours that would warrant expulsion from the Labour Party, but that tool, the one of exile, should be used sparingly and as a last resort. There will many cases where it is not the level of transgression that is in questions, but the very idea that someone transgressed at all. In these cases, discipline becomes not a question of doing what is right, but of how internal machinations and social capital are wielded.

What could “doing more” mean from a critical pedagogy or Freirian perspective? Instead of seeing anti semitism as a discrete and objective particle of thought/behaviour, let us see it as a phenomenon that is relative to the speaker and the viewer. Is it valid point to speak of the influence of the Israeli embassy? Sure, that is pretty much the entire point of embassies. But if someone is specifically singling out the Israeli embassy or the state of Israel for criticism, then perhaps there is something problematic about that pattern. Even if we accept that every single accusation of people holding anti semitic views is a valid accusation, then how is society changed by expelling them? Who does this satisfy except the hierarchy, which sees these acts as validations of itself? What if the “action” against this anti semitism could be education?

We have seen this in the recent video from Michael Walker and Momentum which outlines the anti semitic Rothschilds tropes. Walker’s tone is not a scolding one or one that calls for punitive methods to be taken against those who use the tropes, but an informative one that assumes good faith and that people who stray in anti semitic territory do so not because of hate, but a lack of clear information.  Many have set this problem up as one that requires us to pick a side among the competing epistemologies. Yet the real choice is between continual splintering and dialogue,  real empathetic dialogue in the Freirian sense, where we listen as hard as we preach.  It is in this sense that Labour need to do more, not just with anti semitism but with all issues.  Leadership and members must dialogue and educate each other and the rest of society if there is any hope for hoped for revolution to occur.

Hierachy and punitive reactions prevent dialogue and the lack of dialogue itself is a contributing factor towards the perpetuation of anti democratic systems.  If being expelled or ostracised is the endgame, then conversation ceases to be dialogical and becomes combative. Why offer your good faith or your honesty, if the end result could be punishment?

The key idea that emerges from Freire’s work is that you cannot tell people what to think (and therefore act). You must learn with them, even if you are a teacher. Even if you truly believe that you have the truth, you have nothing to lose and a world to gain, by listening.