What socialists can learn from #MeToo

March 20, 2019

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field looks at how the global discussion of sexual harassment and assault over the past two years has shaped ISO members’ understanding of a mishandled sexual assault case from 2013.

SINCE THE devastating revelation that members of our national leadership — including our then-national organizer — grossly mishandled an accusation of sexual assault, our organization has been reeling.

We are furious and heartsick, and the newly elected leadership from our recent convention has taken a number of immediate steps, including expulsions and suspensions that are referred to last week in the letter to ISO members from the Steering Committee.

We are in the process of forming a national #MeToo commission (established at the convention) to seek out stories from our members, former members, and movement allies to understand where our culture and processes need to change. (I’m one of the people who proposed this commission and I’m part of the group setting it up now.)

And we formed a survivors’ caucus of members and former members that is leading our response to this crisis alongside our newly elected leadership.

Reflections on our crisis

These immediate responses are only the very beginning of understanding how we allowed this to happen, what it means about how socialist organizations need to operate to root out rape culture inside our organizations, and what it would look like to create a socialist movement that centers survivors.

These are questions for the left as a whole and need to be answered in dialogue with other organizations and traditions. But we have a responsibility to actively initiate and pursue that dialogue.

This article is meant to begin one strand of that dialogue. I believe that one way to understand the worst of what our organization did in 2013 and the best of how we have responded in 2019 — and how to never again repeat the former and build on the latter — is through articulating the lessons of the #MeToo movement.

A note on language: Because I believe the accusation and am writing from my own perspective, I am going to use straightforward rather than legalistic language: rape rather than alleged rape, survivor rather than complainant, and rapist rather than respondent.

A personal note on 2013

In 2013, I lived in the same city as the rapist — Madison, Wisconsin — and we were good friends until the day our ISO branch learned of the rape accusation. I believed the accusation immediately.

I felt sick for the survivor and for having so misjudged my friend. I also felt personally afraid because I believed the rapist had a key to my house and I feared that after we expelled him, as I assumed we would, he might seek retaliation.

I never read either party’s statement (which were confidential), but I didn’t feel that was necessary in order to believe the allegation. Only months earlier we had watched the British Socialist Workers Party begin to fall apart because they had covered up a rape; my comrades and I had watched in horror and committed to ourselves and each other: We will do better than that.

Yet although I immediately assumed the accusation was true, over a period of several months, I was uneasily convinced by our process that it must not have been. Our leadership core used a pretense of confidentiality and protection for the survivor (whose interests it’s now obvious they never cared about) to hide key information from us, including that the comrades we had elected to determine what had happened had unanimously voted to expel the rapist.

At the end of our process I believed that about fifteen of my comrades, including female comrades who I had worked closely with on feminist initiatives, had seen both parties’ statements and had each, in five separate groupings that didn’t confer with each other, concluded that we did not have sufficient grounds to expel the rapist. I now know that wasn’t true.

In reality, our national disciplinary committee was browbeaten into reversing, on procedural grounds, the vote we were never informed of; our national appeals committee had been given instructions designed to produce a conclusion of insufficient evidence; our members in Madison, including the supposed advocate for the survivor, believed myths about what real rape stories look like; and our national organizer cared more about making this disappear than getting it right.

I spent six years simultaneously feeling guilty that I had apparently wronged my comrade — he was my friend and I had assumed he was guilty without ever even asking him for his side — and continually coming back to the question, but didn’t I have the right response? Isn’t that how I would want to respond again?

I never understood how to put those two thoughts together and that conflict has haunted me for six years, until just over a week ago, when I received the whistleblower’s document, saw the pieces that had been hidden from me, and knew immediately and irrevocably that the accusation was true all along.

That is part of this story: how our processes served to make many of us doubt our own judgment and things we knew to be true.

Believe survivors

I believe that many strands of bad politics were woven together in the process that resulted in burying the rape accusation in 2013 despite the deep alarm of many of us who were aware of it. The first strand we must begin to unravel is rape culture.

The former member who I believe is a rapist wrote a striking email to some of our members when this emerged last week.

The email (which we in the ISO aren’t circulating further to avoid causing any additional harm to the survivor) seemed to me to be designed to draw credibility from a number of widespread ideas about rape: that rape is always violent in an obvious way; that it is never committed by people who are charismatic and profess to value women; that taking advantage of intoxication is different from other ways of violating consent; that women make up rape claims in response to anger following consensual sex. All of these ideas are lies.

Tragically, and infuriatingly, I believe that the response of some former members of the ISO branch in Madison echoed rape myths and this influenced the way they evaluated the plausibility of the rapists’ and survivors’ accounts.

Due to conversations in the last week between people who were in the Madison ISO in 2013 — conversations we were prevented from having at the time — I now know that some then-members who were central to the ISO’s process of determining what had happened were strongly influenced by the erroneous assumption that rape survivors immediately recognize what has happened to them and understand it in the same way over time.

The #MeToo movement has brought into public discussion the experiences of survivors, and those experiences make it plain that that assumption simply isn’t the case.

Survivors have many reasons for shielding themselves from a full accounting of what was done to them, including sometimes in further interactions with their rapists. Sometimes positive emotions they have about their rapists (many survivors, after all, were raped by people they liked or loved), and sometimes fear of future harm, make it difficult to acknowledge the extent of their rapists’ actions.

Sometimes whatever meanings we attach to what it means to be a survivor of rape are baggage that we resist incorporating into our conception of ourselves. (Research backs up what we know from the testimony of so many survivors.)

We have to unlearn so much of what we are taught about rape, rapists and rape survivors, and learn from what survivors are telling us instead.

Full respect for survivors’ privacy but no concessions to secrecy

One of my deepest beliefs is that all of us own our own stories. #MeToo has brought into relief how the particular ways that institutions respond to sexual violence can force us to violate basic principles like that one.

I have personal experience of this: the filthiest I have ever felt is when, in my capacity as a professor, I recently filled out a form to report to my university’s office that handles Title IX violations the sexual assault of a student in my class who had disclosed it to me but not consented to having it disclosed further.

My university’s position is that failing to report students’ assaults violates their civil rights (and so university employees can lose our jobs if we don’t submit these reports); many feminists disagree. I believe that when someone has had control over their body and life taken from them, it is imperative that they retain control over their own narrative.

In the 2013 investigation in Madison, this respect for privacy was used against us. Of course, we were right to respect the confidentiality of the survivor. But our respect for that right was perverted by our leadership core to prevent us from talking with one another about the accusation in the name of protecting the survivor.

In conversations in the last week, it has become obvious to me that if those of us in the rapist’s city who instinctively believed the accusation had been able to find and talk with one another or the members of the disciplinary committee and appeals committee that investigated it, it would have become clear to many of us what was happening.

Yet I am left with many questions about what it means to protect survivors’ stories, to keep them held by as few people as possible when that is what the survivor wants, without making room for a handful of people to act without any real check on their actions, and for those who might disagree to be kept in the dark with only fragments of information that only make sense when they can be fitted together.

So much of the #MeToo movement has been about saying out loud what before was only ever whispered, and people acting together, inspired by each other and in solidarity with one another, who can only do so because stories have finally been brought into the light. I’m thinking in particular of the many survivors who have come forward out of a sense of solidarity with other survivors who had already accused the same offender. That sense of solidarity, usually between strangers, has for me been one of the most inspiring aspects of #MeToo.

In the #MeToo commission that we are setting up, one thing we’re exploring — learning from discussions in campus campaigns against sexual assault that many of us in the ISO have been part of — is ways to give survivors and those who’ve experienced sexist behavior more control over their stories.

Many of us have the experience of brushing aside what seem like small offenses by people we assume were well-intentioned, but would feel differently about if we knew that what we experienced was part of a broad pattern of behavior.

The #MeToo commission expects to hear a lot of experiences for which the person reporting them may not be seeking any particular restitution but wants to register the experience as something that should not have happened.

What if, when comrades report these experiences, they could indicate whether they want to be contacted if someone else reports a related experience with the same offender, and given the option to be put in touch? What if all of those comrades could then decide together whether the offense still seems small, and how it should be addressed?

Start from truth and harm, not rules and procedures

One reading of where we erred is that our process was obsessed with procedure rather than with truth and mitigating harm.

Rules are important: they can temper our worst impulses. Rules tell us what features of a situation are relevant and what response they should trigger. Believe survivors is a rule that tells us that our judgment about individual situations is likely to be distorted by rape myths, personal loyalties, and what we wish were true, but that we can try to override those impulses.

Our ISO rule that, whenever a severe accusation is made against a member, we suspend the immediately until we know what has happened, is a good rule (one that I now believe we have not always followed). Whatever else we change, let’s keep that one.

But our fidelity isn’t to rules; it’s to truth. Our highest principle should be to seek the truth in any ways consistent with our principles. So, for example, our MeToo commission shouldn’t approach people for stories in ways that might traumatize them or violate their privacy — violating the principles of don’t do further harm to survivors and respect that everyone owns their own story — but we should make every avenue available for hearing stories that are hard to hear.

When we honestly believe that our rules are a barrier to discovering the truth, then fuck the rules.

But the approach taken by our National Organizer in 2013, and through her the approach taken by the Steering Committee representative to the disciplinary committee and by the entire appeals committee, was precisely to privilege rules above truth.

At one point, that organizer sent a letter to the disciplinary committee outlining the body’s supposed mistakes, as a justification for taking the determination of what to do away from the comrades who (we now know) had already voted to expel the rapist and giving authority instead to a new body (the appeals committee) who would operate with a radically narrowed remit.

This letter reads like a Monty Python sketch — particularly a part giving a Bill Clinton-esque parsing of the meanings of past and future to argue that the disciplinary committee was wrong to try to learn from comrades in Madison whether the person accused of rape also had a history of predatorily using his position in the ISO to find sexual partners.

The instructions given by that organizer to the appeals committee made much of the survivor’s having declined to participate in the ISO’s process beyond giving us her story — as though we couldn’t evaluate the obvious plausibility of her claims without also hearing her say “No, he’s lying” about the lies her rapist told about her in his own account. (Expecting this of her, of course, is monstrous.)

So one reading is that aspects of our process were so tunnel-vision-focused on following a bizarrely legalistic process (drafted and carried out by people with no actual legal knowledge) that they lost sight of the task before us, which was to decide if we have good reason to think that this person should no longer be allowed to participate in our group.

This reading of what went wrong gets something right, but it gets something wrong, too. Because we have not always been obsessed with rules.

For many years, that same National Organizer who intervened to overturn the judgment of the disciplinary committee in this case also used her own individual judgment, with no process (or accountability) whatsoever, to adjudicate any allegation that rose to the attention of our national office.

In fact, her interventions in this 2013 case were themselves violations of our rules, since the entire point of the new national disciplinary body was to be independent of our Steering Committee.

To paraphrase a comrade of mine in a recent conversation about this paradox, we always talk as though what defines a bureaucracy is its obsession with procedures at the expense of what’s sensible or right. But aren’t bureaucracies really often defined by exactly this selective enforcement of rules — inflexible when it serves the interests of their authorities, but much more flexible when it suits authorities for them to be so?

What I believe the rules really did was provide a veneer of legitimacy to our organizers’ interest in burying the case and protecting the organization from losses: a loss of legitimacy, of an energetic member, and perhaps of others in our leadership who supported him vociferously.

The rules gave a way, as they so often do, to change the conversation. Everything we were told about how the case was proceeding was organized around the question of whether the disciplinary committee had followed its own procedures. What was lost was the question of whether our member had raped someone.

This, too, is familiar in the wider #MeToo moment. As survivor after survivor has come forward we have watched the conversation be changed to procedural questions: Why didn’t you report this earlier? How can we believe you if we haven’t had a legal process? And we have learned to resist this obfuscation, too.

This is one form of doublethink at the heart of the problem we’ve had in the ISO: we’re just following our process — except when we aren’t. I think it’s closely related to a second doublethink that the #MeToo movement has brilliantly exposed: we can’t afford to lose valuable people — except that we never stop to think about those we are losing because of them.

Everyone matters and no one is indispensable

THE PEOPLE I hold most responsible for abetting this rape and other abuse in the ISO are people who formed our longstanding leadership core (a phrase I use to identify the small group of people that ran our organization for decades even as others moved in and out of various leadership roles.)

While much was hidden from us, all of us had seen one or more them behave in ways that should have made us profoundly distrustful of their leadership. Yet, speaking for myself, I really trusted them. Why?

One hard lesson of this failure is seeing clearly how we treated a handful of people as indispensable.

I believe that there is a general tendency for organizations to treat people who are powerful within their ranks that way; I also believe that there are things specific to our organization, and our understanding of the specific ways we would contribute to the broader Left and working-class movement, that badly exacerbated this general tendency.

I think that sorting out what is specific to us (and should no longer be part of how we understand our contribution) is going to take a long process of thinking, reading, engagement with political traditions far-flung from ours, looking at our own tradition’s history with new eyes and paying close attention while we work in the new movements taking shape around us.

But for now, we can at least try to take stock of this second paradox: that at the same time that some of our leaders were treated as indispensable, we were discouraged from asking too many questions about why so many longstanding members didn’t stick around. We were discouraged from seeing the true costs of our “indispensable comrades,” in human terms, certainly, but also in terms of our own project.

This, too, is a lesson of the #MeToo movement. Being an organization that tolerates abuse means losing the contributions of those who are abused.

Every time a powerful and successful man, a creator of beloved products, loses some of his status as a result of his violence or abuse, our culture feels so keenly the loss of his work. We are invited to mourn the loss to politics (in the socialist movement or in Congress) or to art (film, comedy, books) and to decide that the loss is too great to bear.

Yet #MeToo reminds us that our true losses are so much greater than we can envision. We don’t know what the survivors would have made. We can’t even imagine what we have lost.

The paradox should run the other way around: every comrade is indispensable in the sense that everyone committing to our struggle is precious. Our members in struggle, along with our political vision and principles, are our two indispensable resources; they are everything we have and are. They matter. But no one is so indispensable that they shouldn’t be accountable for their actions, even when that means they can’t be part of our struggle any longer.

This extends beyond individuals to organizations. An organization that protects itself, rather than the interests of our movements, isn’t worth protecting. Nor is an organization that needs to be protected in that way, by hiding its faults.

The thing that has given me hope in the last awful week has been the willingness of my comrades to stop protecting our organization and hold its failures up to the light, so we can understand them, so we can change them.

My comrade Nikki Williams, one of the founders of the survivors’ caucus, shared the perfect place to start. It comes from James Baldwin, who wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed — but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Our chief concerns are survivors, not offenders

An observation made by so many in our survivors’ caucus is that our existing disciplinary processes have been aimed at addressing a series of questions about offenders or purported offenders. Are they guilty? What does that mean they deserve?

It does matter to expel rapists. It is, among other things, a way of trying to keep each other safe, and trying to make recruiting to our organizations and our movements something that gives people something beautiful, rather than placing them in danger. It is one way of being very clear that survivors matter.

And yet it is not the only way. As so many of my comrades in the survivors’ caucus have pointed out this past week, why aren’t our processes focused on what survivors need instead of what offenders deserve?

This is a lesson that, in fact, we have learned in the struggle against sexual assault and sexual harassment in colleges and universities.

Even as we have fought for consequences for rapists, we have also fought for real attempts at redress. Maybe a survivor needs a new dorm room. Maybe she needs paid research time and intensive mentoring once she can’t work any longer with the advisor who harassed her. Maybe she needs something we would never have thought of until we asked her.

I said before that we need to prioritize seeking the truth. And yet, to quote my comrade Maryam Abidi:

“Due process” is often about forcing all allegations up against a series of bureaucratic rules designed by those in power under the guise of “truth seeking,” or more accurately: the process of figuring out exact what rule was broken and the exact actor that broke the rule, nothing more. Any socialist response would instead place at the center truth and healing — or more accurately: finding out what harm occurred, what are needs/obligations/responsibilities of all affected parties, how do we collectively meet those needs/fulfill those responsibilities to the best of our ability?

There are a lot of conversations I want to have about due process, which should mean something different in the criminal justice system, a workplace, a campus and a political organization.

Everyone has a right to respond to accusations against them, although the form that right takes depends on the context: the harms that a state can impose in a criminal justice proceeding, and that interests that it has, are fundamentally different from a voluntary organization determining who its members should be.

But Maryam’s point that it isn’t just a matter of seeking the truth, but which truths we think matter most, matters. We are all for due process. But one of the main messages of #MeToo is that due process has been denied on a mass scale to, for example, women who have lost their jobs because they tried to resist harassment. We certainly offered no fair process to the survivor in Madison.

If we are for due process, and we are, it needs to be an expansive due process that protects everyone. And even the best on-paper procedure will never really be fair when the people carrying it out believe myths and lies about rape. There is no procedural reform without cultural reforms at the same time.

These are lessons to carry forward as we address what accountability looks like for our members who have failed. We can distinguish failures of values from failures of judgment: both matter, both harm, but they have different implications for what is needed to rebuild trust.

We can consider what people say now about what they did then and what they do to try to redress it. There are people who I trusted deeply who I will never trust again. It matters to know that. But it is not the biggest or the most important question.

What is the political process that we are trying to create that centers survivors? Our survivors’ caucus is leading us through this crisis, and yet we are only at the very earliest start of figuring that out. That is, perhaps, the biggest question.

Learning from #MeToo and more

EMERGING FROM these autopsy notes is a collection of principles that we violated in 2013 and are trying to live up to in 2019: believe survivors; everyone owns their story; prize privacy but never secrecy; our allegiance is to the truth; all of us and none of us are indispensable; an organization that needs to be protected by hiding its faults isn’t worth protecting; start with who has been harmed.

What do we do with those principles? How do we fight for them in the world at large, a world that is hostile to them, and run by institutions that are systematically hostile to the very idea that all of us matter? How do we at the same time fight for them inside our own organizations that exist in this world, and fight to embody them ourselves?

The answer to that will not come from any single group or any tradition. It has to come from so many of us fighting in our separate spaces coming into dialogue and collaboration with one another.

We in an organization that has gotten this so abysmally wrong have a special obligation to pursue that dialogue, to learn from everyone we can.

Every socialist movement has had to learn from the struggles around it, or has died because it could not. Marx learned from Indian workers’ struggles against colonialism, as much as from the workers’ uprisings in Europe. The American socialist movement learned from Black struggles and, thanks to the intervention of Black socialists and communists, from rebellions against colonialism around the world and a vision of a revolutionary socialist movement united with them.

Socialist organizations one after another have failed to live up to the political vision of equality for women and other oppressed gender identities, the right of everyone to control their own body, and the fact that none of us are a means to somebody else’s end.

The way that the ISO’s core leadership in 2013 manipulated our process to protect one member from being exposed as a rapist was an utter betrayal of what we who have given so much of ourselves to build this organization believed we were fighting for.

Three weeks before this crisis emerged, the ISO elected a new leadership because our members overwhelmingly wanted to both democratize our organization and integrate our socialist politics more fully with all of the struggles happening around us.

Those tasks are connected; we saw that it is our broad swath of members who have been most deeply immersed in those struggles who have a compelling vision for the socialist movement now, not the ossified leadership that tried to insulate itself from critique.

The weeks following have shown that this was even truer than we knew. Our old leadership and the organizing model that supported them for so long were deeply rotten, and it is a long task ahead of us to sort out what from our model we want to keep and what must be discarded. Some of us will do this in an organization together and some not, but all of us will have to do it.

And at the same time, our new leadership — both the formally elected leadership bodies and the many comrades who have stepped forward to lead us in this crisis, through the survivors’ caucus and other bodies — acted immediately and decisively to face up honestly to our failures.

I believe that it is because of the effect of the #MeToo movement and other struggles on us that we understood immediately that this was the only possible response.

And I know (because it was the very first sentence of her letter to us) that our new leadership, and the #MeToo commission specifically, are why the whistleblower finally felt safe to come to us now. We are only at the very beginning of collecting the stories that will provide the texture and detail to let our principles come to life.

To me, the socialist movement in the United States today feels behind the curve in catching up to the lessons of #MeToo, as well as #blacklivesmatter and the other anti-racist struggles of the last seven years in particular.

Yet at the same time it is obvious that those struggles have shaped us profoundly as people, in our aspirations and in what we expect of our movements and ourselves, and are as much a part of the widespread understanding that capitalism is failing us as the economic crisis and rampant inequality are.

For those of us from the ISO, whether we have remained members or not, whatever path we take forward from here has to head toward bringing everything that we possibly can from #MeToo and the other movements around us into the socialist movement.

The whole Left needs to learn this, and we have something to offer, in great humility, from understanding how our organization failed us and failed the survivor who trusted us.