For various reasons, I’ve decided to stop this blog. Thanks to all who’ve commented here, read my posts, emailed me etc over the years :)
This is the text of a talk given at Occupy Wellington on 27 October, 2011.
Kia ora kotou, thanks everyone for coming. Firstly, a brief run-down of how this workshop will work: first, I’m going to give a brief talk, followed by an open discussion which anyone can contribute to. I also want to make it clear that I’m not here today to debunk or debate any specific conspiracy theory. I’ve got no interest in doing that, I don’t think its particularly productive. What I want to be doing is talking about the title of the workshop is – why our activism must be based in reality. So we’ll be talking about the whole conspiracy world-view, we’ll be talking about what I think is a much better alternative to that, but I’m not going to sit here and argue with you over whether the Government is secretly poisoning us from the skies, or whether shape-shifting reptilian lizards are controlling our lives, or whether or not you can cure cancer with baking soda.
First up, who am I? For those of you who don’t know me my name is Asher, I’m born and bred in Wellington, though I have also spent a few years recently living in Christchurch. I’ve been involved in activism and radical politics for around about 7 years, in a variety of different campaigns and struggles.
If we’re going to talk about conspiracy theories, the first important question is obvious: what is a conspiracy theory?
Now, if you go by a dictionary definition, a conspiracy is just a group of people who get together to plan something, and don’t tell others about it. If I’m organising a surprise birthday party for my friend, then I am conspiring with others. But that’s not a particularly useful definition for the purposes of a discussion like this.
So, for this discussion, the way I’m defining a conspiracy theory is thus: a conspiracy theory is a theory based in supposition, one that flies in the face of evidence or science, often one that claims its correctness can be shown by the paucity of evidence in favour of it, in the sense that ‘this conspiracy goes so far that they’ve even buried all the evidence that proves it!’ Conspiracy theories often encourages an ‘us few enlightened folk versus everyone else’ world view. This creates an atmosphere where conspiracy theorists look down on people, or sheeple as they are often called, and ignores the fact that people, by and large, are actually pretty intelligent. In and of itself this world-view is hugely problematic for as I will discuss later, mass social change requires the participation of the masses and therefore, we have to have faith in the ability of people to decide things for themselves, to come to correct conclusions and ultimately to change the world.
Why am I interested in conspiracy theories, or at least arguing against them? Firstly, because I’m passionate about science and rationality, and I find it fascinating how and when these things are ignored.
Secondly, because I’m Jewish, and many conspiracy theories are antisemitic – whether directly and obviously (eg: Jews run the world, or the media, or the banks). Sometimes its more subtle – people might not talk about Jews explicitly but they may use Zionist as a code word, or talk about the Rothschilds, or an elite cabal of shadowy bankers who all coincidentally have Jewish surnames.
Lastly, I’m interested in conspiracy theories because I want radical social change, and to have radical social change, we need to have an understanding of how society actually works.
We are here at Occupy because we want to see change. What we want differs: some want new regulations on the financial sector, others want to change taxes or the minimum wage, while others still want to destroy capitalism and bring in a new form of production and distribution. Regardless of which of these boxes you fit in, if you fit in any of them at all, we all want change.
We’re also here because we know we can’t simply rely on Government to benevolently grant us the changes we desire. If we believed that, we’d sit at home and wait for the Government to give us these gifts. We’re here because we know that those with power won’t give it up lightly, and that it is only through our collective strength that we can win reforms, or create revolution.
But what do I mean when I say ‘our collective strength’? I think it’s important to clarify who is contained within the word ‘our’. While people involved in the Occupy movements around the globe frequently refer to it as the 99%, I actually think that’s a really imprecise term. So, instead, I refer to the working class. When they hear the term working class, some people think simply of male factory workers, but this is not what I mean. The working class is not limited to blue collar workers in factories, but instead it includes all of us who are forced to sell our labour power to survive. This includes people who are in paid employment, whether in a factory, office, café or retail store. It also includes those who are unable to find paid employment, or have chosen to refuse the drudgery of paid work in order to attempt to live on the meagre benefits supplied by the state, and who provide a vast potential pool of labour that enables the ruling class to further keep wages down. The working class includes stay at home parents, doing vital unpaid work to raise the next generation of human beings. It includes people who are too sick or unable to work for other reasons. In short, if you don´t own a business, if you aren’t part of the Government, if you aren’t independently wealthy (such as from an inheritance), then chances are you are a part of the working class that I’m talking about, this collective ‘our’.
If we agree that we can’t simply rely on Government to benevolently grant us gifts, and that we need to fight for it using our numbers and our power, then it becomes necessary to understand how society is structured and how capitalism actually functions, in order to know where our collective strength comes from, where we have the most power, and where we need to apply the metaphorical blowtorch.
So, why are conspiracy theories not helpful here? Why are conspiracy theories not useful for developing that understanding? There’s a variety of reasons.
Some conspiracy theories, such as those around 9/11, even if they were true, which I don’t believe they are, would only tell us “Governments do bad things”. That’s not actually news to anyone. We know that the British Crown & the New Zealand Government stole vast tracts of land from Maori. We know that the Crown and the Australian Government engaged in genocidal acts against Australian aborigines. We know that Governments the world over have repeatedly sent people overseas to fight, kill and die in wars. There’s so, so much more, but to cut a long story short, everybody knows that sometimes Governments do bad things. So theories that only serve to prove that, even if they were true, aren’t actually particularly useful.
Some conspiracy theories are simply bizarre and the logical conclusions from them, don’t fit with what their believers do. If you actually believed that the majority of people in power around the world was a blood-sucking shape-shifting reptilians from another solar system, then you wouldn’t limit your activity to promoting one guy’s book tours around the globe and chatting with other believers on the internet.
Conspiracy theories often feed on people’s mistrust and their fear. They claim to provide simple answers to complicated questions, but actually when you examine them in detail they’re highly complex themselves. For example, with 9/11, it seems like a simple solution to say ‘it was an inside job by the US Government’. But actually, when you look into what would be required for this to be true, the thousands upon thousands of people who would need to be lying, it becomes incredibly implausible.
Some conspiracy theories, such as many of the shadowy financial cabal conspiracies, only serve to mystify capitalism and falsely suggest a level of control that doesn’t actually exist. Additionally, they remove any sense of our own power, whether real or potential. A theory which suggests such overwhelming power and control over the entire way we live our lives is actually a catalyst for inaction – if a group has such a high level of control over everything, then there’s not really anything we can do about it. On the contrary, capitalism is not a static system, it is dynamic and changing and constantly adapts in response to threats. The threat of working class power has resulted in a number of changes to the functioning of capitalism over time, including the introduction of Keynesian and Neoliberal economics in the late 1930s and 1970s respectively.
Even if conspiracy theories can sometimes seem relatively harmless on the surface, they play a role of absorbing us into a fictional world, somewhat like a dungeons and dragons enthusiast. Once you are in this fictional world, it becomes really easy to get lost in it and to be defensive when challenged, even when challenged on a logical, rational basis.
I’ll quote British political blogger Jack Ray:
The trouble with conspiracy theories is that they’re all rendered pointless by one fundamental, unarguable element of capitalism. That it is, whatever else you have to say about, positive or negative, a system of elites. It has elitism coded into it´s DNA, from the smallest company, to the largest multinational, from the political system to the culture. It’s purpose is to promote elites. It does this legitimately within the logic of the system. It does this publicly, lording super-capitalists like Bill Gates or even for a time, Enron boss Ken Lay. It lays its theories of elitism out for all to see, in policy projects, in university research, through political theorists.
It has no interest in secret cabals, or conspiracies. It has no need for them. It is a system openly, and publicly, run by elites. They might go home at night and secretly dine with their illuminati, lizard-jew, Bilderberg Group friends, and laugh about how they’ve taken over the world. It doesn’t matter to me or you whether they do or not. They are the elite, and we can see who they are and how they live their lives. People know that we live in a system of elites, that acts in its own interests, according to the logic of the society they dominate. Everyone who looks around know this. We don’t need internet documentaries to tell us that we’re dominated, we just need to go to work, or walk through a posh neighbourhood or have a run-in with any politicians, big businessman or even a celebrity to know that. What we need are weapons, ways of challenging that domination, so maybe we don’t have to live under it forever.
So what is the alternative to this conspiracist world-view? For that, we need to look at history. The history of how social change comes about is not always easy to find. It suits those in power to downplay the role of mass movements, so the dominant narrative is often one that ignores the long term grassroots organising that has happened, and simply focuses on legislative change enacted by the Government of the day. But a people’s history is out there – often in the form of first hand accounts by those who took part in these movements, such as those for homosexual law reform, of the 1970s strike wave across New Zealand, of the movement against native forest logging and so on.
One thing, from looking at this history, is abundantly clear. Mass action is vital for mass change. If you look through history, time and time again, it is when large groups of people have got together and shown themselves to be a threat to those in power that concessions have been granted. This happens on a small scale as well as a big one – when all 10 employees at a small business go on strike and refuse to work until their boss gives them a pay rise, the boss is forced to listen.
From this example, it becomes obvious that it isn’t simply numbers alone that allow us to exercise power. It is also using those numbers strategically to hit those in power where it hurts. As workers, we create wealth for the bosses each and every day at our jobs. Some of this wealth is returned to us in the form of wages, but much is stolen. This stolen wealth is often called ¨surplus value¨. It is the accumulation of surplus value, stolen by our bosses, that forms the wealth of the ruling class. But because the goods and services that create this surplus value ultimately come from our hands and our brains, through collectively withdrawing our labour, we can force the bosses to give in to our demands.
So taking collective action the workplace is one way we can impose our power on the bosses to help us better meet our needs and desires. And if we extrapolate this to larger numbers of work-sites, to larger numbers of people both employed and unemployed, then we can begin to see how we can make changes to the functioning of society as a whole.
I don’t have all the answers, though I do have plenty more to say than I’ve had time to touch on in this talk. But I want to open things up to discussion soon, because I think that’s one thing that is really important about this Occupy Wellington space, that we can talk through things, together, to come to new ways of thinking and working politically.
To finish things off, I want to emphasise that while it is important to have an open mind, this must be tempered with a commitment to rationality and the examining of evidence. Or, to quote Australian sceptic and comedian Tim Minchin, “If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out”.
Download issue in .pdf format (0.5MB)
The 17th issue of Solidarity, free newssheet of the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement. Download the .pdf above, or click below to read the contents online.
- Vineyard Workers Go Wildcat
- What’s A Wildcat Strike?
- Send In Your Stories
- Real Life on the DPB
- Christchurch National Party Welcoming Committee
- Further Christchurch Community Rallies
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This post is a follow up to the Open Letter About Omar Hamed that I posted on this blog yesterday.
Omar had been living in Wellington in 2010, working for Unite! Union and being politically active in Socialist Aotearoa (SA). He had displayed a pattern of abusive behaviour throughout the year, and despite being challenged by a number of people, including friends of his, he had refused to even genuinely acknowledge that his behaviour was unacceptable, let alone change it.
At the end of the year, Omar moved back to Auckland, where he continued (and still continues) to work at Unite! and be a part of SA. A number of the people in Wellington who had worked to both challenge Omar’s behaviour and to ensure that people who interacted with him knew about it were extremely concerned that Omar would not simply be able to return to Auckland and continue the same pattern of behaviour that he exhibited in Wellington. In order to prevent that from happening, a small group of us in Wellington (including me) wrote the open letter back in February/March of this year.
On March 11, and in the days after, we sent the letter to a wide range of individuals and groups (mostly in Auckland, but also other parts of the country) who we knew or thought were likely to have interaction with Omar. We had a few responses, including from some Auckland people who said they would try to work with Omar to get him to sort his behaviour out. As far as I am aware, these people were forced to give up after Omar repeatedly refused to engage in any real sense with them.
A couple of days ago, Omar was prominent in the occupation at the University of Auckland (UoA). He spent much of the time controlling the megaphone, and was also shown and interviewed in the media reporting of the event. Several Auckland activists who knew of Omar’s abuse were understandably angry/upset/worried about this [For example, see the post Students; please learn]. In support of their efforts to get the We Are The University group (who organised the protest) to address the issue of a known abuser holding a prominent position in their activities, and in order to help ensure that people involved in the UoA struggle knew about Omar’s past, myself and another of the authors of the open letter decided for the first time to publish the letter publicly – on the 3 blogs that we are involved in – Anarchia, Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty and The Hand Mirror. We also posted links to the open letter in several Facebook discussion threads related to the issue.
In the 6 months between sending the letter out and posting it publicly, we recieved no formal response from either Unite! or SA, the two organisations Omar has the most involvement with. Informally, SA as an organisation has consistently shown itself to be interested in covering for and covering up Omar’s behaviour (some individuals within SA have tried to challenge Omar, and should be recognised for that). Even yesterday this continued – I posted a link to the open letter on the SA Facebook page, but this morning it was deleted and the page settings changed to disallow posting from all accounts except the official SA account.
The main reason I’m writing this post is to respond to a few of the most frequently heard things from this whole saga. Some come from when people were challenging Omar in Wellington, others are from responses to the open letter being made public. The thing they all have in common, however, is that they all miss the problem. So, to make it clear:
Abusive behaviour is the problem, not challenging it. The fault lies with those perpetrating abuse, not with those they abuse or those challenging their abuse. What is needed is for the person who engaged in abusive behaviour to a) stop, b) acknowledge what they have done, c) work to ensure it never happens again and d) respect the wishes of people who no longer feel safe/comfortable around them.
Fallacy #1: Making these issues public needlessly divides activist movements
See the first part of the paragraph above: “Abusive behaviour is the problem, not challenging it.” An activist movement that welcomes abusers is one that is already divided. Is it really unsurprising that many women (and others) won’t feel safe or welcome at an occupation when one of the most prominent people at that occupation has a history of sexual assault?
Challenging Omar’s behaviour does not distract us from the struggles that We Are The University exists to fight. Omar’s presence in these struggles prevents involvement in these struggles (to various extents) from a number of people.
In looking at issues of abusive behaviour, it is vital that we do not place blame on those who make us look at what may feel to some people like uncomfortable truths. It must always be remembered that what causes people to speak up about abusive behaviour is the existence of abusive behaviour. If you don’t want the former to happen, we need to work towards the elimination of the latter.
Fallacy #2: This issue is between Omar and the authors of the open letter
It has been suggested that this could all be “resolved” in a meeting between the authors of the open letter and Omar. This could not be further from the truth.
Firstly, the authors of the open letter all challenged Omar’s behaviour (in a variety of ways) while he was living in Wellington. His responses are detailed in the open letter, but suffice to say he refused to genuinely acknowledge that what he had done was wrong, or to commit to changing his behaviour to ensure it did not happen again.
Secondly, and more importantly, this fallacy implies that the issue is between the authors of the open letter (on one side) and Omar (on the other). It is not a personal squabble between people, but rather a small group of people challenging the behaviour of a person. This situation won’t be resolved by us making up with and forgiving Omar – it can only be resolved by Omar taking the steps I listed above: “a) stop, b) acknowledge what they have done, c) work to ensure it never happens again and d) respect the wishes of people who no longer feel safe/comfortable around them.”
Omar has repeatedly engaged in manipulative behaviour to attempt to avoid being challenged on his abusive behaviour. To some people who have challenged him, he has appeared apologetic, sometimes even pretending to acknowledge that what he has done was wrong. His continuing the same patterns of behaviour, and his abusive behaviour towards people who challenge him that he doesn’t feel able to manipulate, however, clearly show that any admissions of wrongdoing are not genuine, and only serve to further give him breathing room to continue in the same pattern of abuse.
Additionally, those who call for a meeting such as this assume that all those who wrote the open letter feel safe and/or comfortable around Omar. The last time I saw Omar, he was being physically ejected from a party he had been repeatedly told he wasn’t welcome at, after he had tried to physically attack me. He was screaming “The next time I see you, I’m going to kill you!” Now, as it happens, I’m not personally particularly afraid of him following through on his threat. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that I have very valid reasons for not wanting to be in the same space as him. Some of the other authors of the open letter may feel the same or similar, but I wouldn’t presume to speak for them without asking.
Fallacy #3: There is no reason to air these issues in public, it could all be resolved by private emails/phone calls/discussions
Some people have taken issue with the fact that the open letter has now been posted publicly. In response to that, I offer two words:
It has been six months since the letter was sent to you. Six months for you to respond. Six months for you to ensure Omar doesn’t have a prominent and public space in your organisation. Six months for you to challenge Omar’s behaviour. Six months for you to stop sheltering him. Six months for you to support other people challenging Omar. Six months, in short, for you to have done something. So don’t try to say it should have stayed private.
The best assurance of safety is for those who might interact with Omar to know about his behaviour. The best way to make Omar change his behaviour is to ensure he can’t go anywhere without being challenged on it. Both of these require the history of his behaviour to be made public.
Further, the lengthy period of time detailed in the open letter is unlikely to be the start or the end of Omar’s history of abusive behaviour. Publishing it may allow other women who have been abused by Omar to come forward and let it be known, or at least to know that they aren’t alone, and that there are people out there who support them, and are working towards ensuring that Omar isn’t able to hurt anyone else.
There is so much more I could say about this, but for now I will leave it here. My final thought on this is a massive outpouring of solidarity and support to those up in Auckland who have challenged, and continue to challenge, Omar’s behaviour since he moved back up there.
Omar Hamed is an organiser for Unite! Union, a member of Socialist Aotearoa, and until recently was a defendant in Operation 8. The following letter was written in March by several Wellington activists and sent to a number of individuals and activist groups in Auckland and around New Zealand. Omar Hamed played a prominent role in yesterday’s occupation at the UoA. Tove has written about feminist attempts to respond to him in Auckland. The letter is reproduced here to support those who are fighting for a left that takes sexual violence seriously.
In the last year , Omar Hamed has been living in Wellington. While here he has consistently behaved towards women in a misogynistic, disrespectful and sexually predatory way. Comrades from across the left have brought up problems with his behaviour and he has consistently failed to understand the importance of meaningful consent in sexual relationships.
A group of us concerned about Omar’s behaviour have come together to draft this document outlining what has happened while he has been in Wellington and what efforts we, and others, have made to challenge his behaviour. We have sent this e-mail to groups, and bcc’d it to individuals. We hope it will be useful for those who work with him when he returns to Auckland.
This statement is not confidential. We encourage people to forward this e-mail to anyone who has or will come into contact with Omar, or who is interested in this issue.
Omar’s pattern of behaviour
We don’t want to identify the women affected, so we haven’t gone into detail. It’s also important to understand that this is a pattern of behaviour on Omar’s behalf, and not isolated one-off incidents.
He does not take sexual consent seriously when his sexual partners are drunk. He has repeatedly ignored drunk women when they told him they were not interested in his sexual advances. He has repeatedly encouraged women who have rejected him to get drunker and then attempted to make a move on them when they were more incapacitated. Some women have had to physically fight him off. He has demonstrated that he is willing to have sex with someone who is too drunk to give meaningful consent.
We have focused on his most grotesque behaviour, but he has consistently talked to and about women in ways that make it clear that he does not respect them as comrades and human beings, but instead sees them as objects.
He went to a party at the flat of a person with whom he previously had a sexual relationship, even though she repeatedly told him not to come. He refused to leave when she asked. He tried to punch and threatened to kill a male she was talking to. This behaviour is typical of men trying to maintain power and control over their lovers and ex lovers.
Omar clearly has a problem with alcohol, and has used this to excuse his behaviour. But this problem with alcohol is not causing his misogynist and disrespectful behaviour, and neither abstaining, nor reducing his drinking will solve it. While sober he has defended his drunken behaviour. He has made it clear to those he was talking to that he either does not understand, or does not care about, meaningful consent.
Responses to Omar from Wellington
It’s important that people from other parts of the country understand that Omar has been challenged by groups and individuals from across the left. Basic ideas such as ‘meaningful consent’ and the impact that sexist behaviour has on women have been explained to him repeatedly. He is not operating out of ignorance.
He has responded to challenges from individuals in a variety of ways depending on who was doing the challenging:
- When he has thought he was among friends he has minimised the behaviour, often in a sexist way. He responded to a lesbian’s comrade’s criticism of his sexist behaviour: “why? are you worried I might steal your girlfriend”. When two men were criticising his behaviour and one left the room he said to the other: “But four women in two weeks that’s pretty good eh?”
- When these tactics haven’t worked he has got very upset, begged for forgiveness and promised that he would behave differently in the future. Despite his promises he has repeated his behaviour.
- When he has been challenged by those who he did not consider friends he has tried to silence and discredit them.
Wellington groups have also challenged his behaviour. AWSM banned him from their political events and outlined their problems with the way he was treating women. He has also been banned from the 128 social centre. Workers Party members collectively brought up these issues as did members of his own party.
What is to be done?
We understand that people will have different ideas about how to deal with Omar’s behaviour. Groups and individuals have to draw their own boundaries about when he’s welcome.
If Omar is willing to change the way he relates to women, then assisting him to do that is important political work. However, he has given no indications so far that he is willing to change, and if he does not recognise what he is doing is wrong then his comrades cannot make him change his behaviour.
The most important political action that people can take about Omar’s behaviour is to speak about it openly. Openness about the fact that he ignores people’s boundaries and does not take sexual consent seriously is the best protection we can offer women within activist communities. This can be really hard to do, because there are many different instincts that train people to be silent at times like these.
Here are some suggestions of what could be done to make environments and groups that Omar is welcome in safer spaces:
- Not allow him to take up positions of power.
- If people are organising events where there is alcohol, then a responsible person should keep an eye on him throughout the event.
- Consider that if Omar is welcome at an event, then some women who know of, or have experienced, his past behaviour may not feel safe attending.
- Undertake political education work around sex and consent more broadly, this could include distributing material or running workshops.
Finally, and we cannot stress this enough: the action that will make the most difference to women’s safety when Omar is around is to make sure that everyone there knows about his pattern of behaviour.
Fighting sexism, misogyny, and sexual abuse of any kind must be part of our revolutionary organising now. Omar’s behaviour is an issue that affects individuals, groups, communities, and the left as a whole. It hurts the people he assaults, their support network, organisations he’s in, and the revolutionary movement. To allow his behaviour to continue is to create a left which is actively hostile to women. A left which is actively hostile to women cannot bring about meaningful change.
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