In Defence of Telling the Truth

This article was originally published on Slaney Street on 28th October 2014. It was removed a few hours later. I hope that it is put back up eventually but for the meantime I have put it here as a matter of record.

The 46-strong NUS National Executive Council (NEC) all support action in solidarity with Kurdistan, yet have voted to do nothing about it. A motion with the line “no confidence in US intervention” has been condemned as pro-intervention. Daniel Cooper, who was not so long ago hounded by the right-wing press, is now accused of being their stooge. It is difficult to make sense of it all.

The story

It all began in June when Daniel Cooper, member of NCAFC, AWL and the NUS NEC, wrote a motion condemning ISIS and expressing solidarity with the Kurds. It was submitted to the July NEC. Boycotting Israel dominated that meeting’s agenda, so the Kurdish motion was not heard. A new version was resubmitted, this time in collaboration with Roza Salih, the Kurdish Vice President of Strathclyde Students’ Association, to the September NEC. No amendments were submitted.

On the day of the meeting, the International Students Officer, Shreya Paudel, introduced the motion. The Black Students Officer, Malia Bouattia, opposed it on the grounds that it is Islamophobic and that it supports US military intervention. By this point it was too late for amendments but parts could still have been taken (where a member proposes that sections of the motion are deleted). However, no one did this and the motion was straightforwardly voted down.

So far, no public controversy. There are some gleeful NEC members celebrating on Twitter that they have defeated the motion, but the matter soon fades out of public view. The drama breaks into public view three weeks later when Cooper publishes a report of the meeting, including an account of the Kurdish motion debate. The right-wing press cover the story, condemning Bouattia and NUS for refusing to condemn ISIS. Twitter explodes and the far-right begin to attack Bouattia. Many in the student movement viciously blame Cooper. (I should be clear – the attacks on Bouattia are much more serious than the criticisms of Cooper).

There is now a lot of panic and confusion. From this it is important to draw out, and explain, the three important outcomes from the episode. The first is that Bouattia has been subject to racist and sexist attacks which are totally unacceptable. The second is that NUS NEC has not voted to support the Kurds. The third is that everyone is – for lack of a better phrase – being really mean to each other. Cooper bears almost no responsibility for any of this.

Attacks on Bouattia

First, the attacks on Bouattia. These are utterly unacceptable and it is right that they have been unequivocally condemned by all in the student movement. However, some have taken a further, completely unfair leap and blamed Cooper. I disagree.

Cooper’s report was subjective and never pretended otherwise. It was intended to be not only an account of the meeting, but a polemic against his political opponents. It is absolutely his right to do this, and more NEC members should be in the habit.

However, whatever you might think about his political views, the article was accurate in its portrayal of the facts. This is the critical factor, as it was on the basis of the facts – not his opinions – that the article was picked up. It is significant that Cooper’s more contentious assertions, for instance that Bouattia’s international politics are influenced by Stalinism, were completely ignored by the press.

In fact, the core narrative of the articles in the mainstream press is true: Bouattia spoke against a motion condemning ISIS on the grounds that it was Islamophobic. For the mainstream press, the story’s value was that it fit into the popular themes that ‘Muslims are dangerous’ and that ‘political correctness has gone mad’. The right-wing press distorted the actually-occurring event, which Cooper reported accurately, to further its own narrative, and the far right followed suit.

It is unreasonable to blame Cooper for the actions of the right-wing press, and then the far right. In another world, NUS might have released concise objective minutes shortly after the NEC meeting. If they had done so, with no political comment, it would have said that the motion was voted down, who spoke against it, and their key arguments. The result could have easily been the same. Would we have condemned the NEC minute-taker for doing their job?

(Some have argued that Cooper’s report should have mentioned that Bouattia intends to submit another motion to the next NEC. I do not think that this would have quelled the venom: the Daily Mail included the fact, which they must have found elsewhere, and it did nothing to temper their highly critical article.)

No solidarity with the Kurds

The second outcome of this episode is that NUS NEC has not resolved to do anything to support the Kurdish resistance. An outside observer might find this perplexing: everyone on the NEC claims to support the Kurds, two motions to that effect were submitted in July and September, but nonetheless nothing will happen until at least December. This is almost half a year after the motion was first submitted.

This inaction is the fault of the NEC-majority who did not support the motion. Even if we take their criticisms of the motion – that it is Islamophobic and pro-intervention – at face-value, they are still culpable. Faced with an apparently problematic motion they could have written their own, submitted an amendment (which could ‘delete all’), or taken parts on the day. Normally they would have over a week to read the motion and submit an amendment. In this particular case, thanks to it being submitted twice before being heard, they had over two months.

The lack of solidarity displayed so far by the NEC is 100% the responsibility of those who did not support the motion. This is not solely because they voted it down but because they did not support an alternative. At best they were negligent and irresponsible for not reading their emails properly for months. At worst, they chose to prioritise factional point-scoring over meaningful solidarity with oppressed people. In all probability it was a combination of the two.

A hostile environment

The third outcome, that people are being mean to one another, has three key causes. All reflect damaging trends in the student movement. The first is the dominance of the idea that if an oppressed individual identifies something as oppressive (i.e. a woman saying something is sexist) that should be immediately and unquestionably accepted. For many this idea is synonymous with ‘good liberation politics’. So much so the case that when Cooper disagrees with Bouattia’s diagnosis, people react as though this suggestion itself is Islamophobic.

This idea is as wrong as it is dangerous. The strongest argument against is the simple hypothetical scenario where two women disagree as to whether something is sexist. How does the man choose which woman to agree with if not by weighing up the arguments himself? For this episode, however, the scenario is not hypothetical: both the writer and key opponent of the motion – Roza Salih and Malia Bouattia – are Muslim-background women and they disagree as to whether it is Islamophobic. I suspect that this is the reason that Salih has largely been ignored in most discussion of the motion: her existence challenges one of the key arguments fuelling the attacks on Cooper.

The second cause of this hostile environment is the focus on good and bad people over strong and weak ideas. Before the motions were even submitted Bouattia had been labelled as basically good and Cooper as basically bad. Everything that either party has done has been understood through these two frames. The result is that instead of arguing that Resolves 5 (see motion below) has unintended consequences that could be damaging to Muslim students, it was seen as a hostile and intentional attack from Cooper on Muslims everywhere. This meant that denunciations took the place of constructive debate.

The third, and probably most unavoidable, cause is the feeling of powerlessness created by the episode. When the right-wing press decide to whip up anger towards a popular student officer, and the far right respond in even more vicious terms, the student movement can do little to prevent them. However, if instead we see this as a result of Cooper’s actions then the challenge seems less insurmountable: pressure can be put on to prevent him from doing this again. Sadly, these efforts are futile. The right-wing press and the far right will continue to exploit the truth for their own ends. Unfair attacks on Cooper will not prevent this and will only poison the atmosphere and weaken the movement.

In defence of telling the truth

The attacks on Bouattia are the sole responsibility of those doing the attacking. The majority of the NEC is responsible for the lack of solidarity with the Kurds. The responsibility for creating such a hostile environment is shared amongst many, but can be traced to the dominance of a set of damaging ideas about how to conduct disagreement.

I do not believe Cooper to be responsible for any of this. Specifically, I do not think that the content of either the motion or report is particularly relevant for understanding these three crucial outcomes. Cooper’s views on Stalinism, ISIS, Kurdistan, and ‘identity politics’ did not lead to right-wing attacks on Bouattia. Similarly, the content of Cooper and Salih’s motion did not prevent the rest of the NEC from doing anything to demonstrate solidarity with the Kurds.

Overall the deciding factor in all of this is truth. Whether or not you agree with everything in the motion or every line in the report, he has certainly been honest in his reporting, his opinions, and his actions. The NEC report was truthful: the account of the event is correct, and the opinions expressed are sincerely believed. The motion was genuinely motivated by a desire to support the Kurds.

The criticisms levied at Cooper, for the most part, amount to demands for deceit. He is being asked to censor his own opinions and not report on actually-occurring events. There may be short-term ‘tactical’ advantages to untruthful statements but ultimately the strategy is self-defeating.

This article was originally published on Slaney Street on 28th October 2014.

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