Thursday, January 24, 2008

More thoughts on five activists and three wise monkeys

I promised – in response to comments from DM Andy on an earlier post – to discuss a little further the interesting debate which took place at the Lambeth UNISON Branch Annual General Meeting (and which has been continuing in the branch since) concerning what has come to be known as the “three wise monkeys” leaflet distributed at UNISON Conference, the subsequent formal disciplinary investigation by the Union into a number of activists and the “Defend the Five” campaign set up in response.

Since the background is fairly well reported online I shall summarise it briefly. Some UNISON branches in London agreed to prepare and circulate a leaflet at last year’s National Delegate Conference critical of the practice of the Standing Orders Committee in ruling out of order so many motions.

This leaflet appeared at Conference illustrated with a graphic of “three wise monkeys” (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) and some delegates felt that this graphic amounted to an offensive, even a racist attack upon the Chair of the Standing Orders Committee (who is a black man). These views were expressed forcefully on behalf of black members in particular.

This criticism was voiced at Conference but the authors of the leaflet were not able to respond formally as the matter had already by that stage been referred to an internal UNISON investigation (the eventual outcome of which is still awaited but which could lead to formal disciplinary action against the authors of the leaflet with outcomes up to and including expulsion).

There has been some criticism of the leaflet’s authors for the perceived inadequacy (if not downright absence) of a proper apology for any offence which was caused by the leaflet, although a comment on the earlier post on this blog rightly points out that the branches associated with the leaflet were not permitted to make any open statement (including any apology) at Conference once the matter was subject to investigation (although that does not mean that no apology could be given).

Supporters of the authors of the leaflet have set up a campaign, with a website and a Facebook group, in their defence. They perceive this matter from the perspective of a dispute between the rank and file left in the Union and the Union machine wishing to stifle critics. There continues however to be concern within the Black Members self-organised group at Regional and National level that the leaflet did cause genuine offence and that the campaign in defence of its authors does not appear to recognise this. This view was expressed eloquently at the Lambeth UNISON Branch AGM as follows “this is not about an attack on the left or an attack on the right, this is an attack on black people.”

The Lambeth Branch AGM had before it a motion agreed for submission by the Branch Committee the previous day which drew from the “Defend the Five” campaign. This attracted some criticism from comrades from the Black Workers Group who felt that the imagery of the “three wise monkeys” could indeed have been taken as an offensive racist attack upon the Chair of the Standing Orders Committee at National Delegate Conference.

Those who thought the leaflet might genuinely have been perceived as offensive did not argue that they thought this was the intention of the authors, nor did they support the action being taken against them. Those who thought that the priority was to defend activists who appeared to be facing a politically motivated attack did not take issue with the suggestion that the leaflet might genuinely have caused offence.

The end result of the discussion was that the motion was referred to the branch Black Workers Group for debate and subsequent further debate at the Branch Committee. The intention of all participants in the debate is to arrive at a consensus reflecting the considerable common ground between the views expressed at the Annual General Meeting.

Since then the debate has continued and I am indebted to one of our shop stewards who contributed the following to the debate;

“Below is a short history of the Three Wise Monkeys. I have highlighted the last point in the hope that it clarifies the issue.
Together they embody the proverbial principle to "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil". The three monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, who sees no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, who hears no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, who speaks no evil.
Sometimes there is a fourth monkey depicted with the three others; the last one, Shizaru, symbolizes the principle of "do no evil". He may be covering his abdomen or crotch, or just crossing his arms.
Meaning of the proverb
Just as there is disagreement about the origin of the phrase, there are differing explanations of the meaning of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."
In Japan the proverb is simply regarded as a Japanese Golden Rule
Some simply take the proverb as a reminder not to be snoopy, nosy and gossipy.
Early associations of the three monkeys with the fearsome six-armed deity Vajrakilaya link the proverb to the teaching of that cult that if we do not hear, see or talk evil, we ourselves shall be spared all evil. This may be considered similar to the English proverb "speak of the Devil - and the devil appears."
Others believe the message is that a person who is not exposed to evil (through sight or sound) will not reflect that evil in their own speech and actions.
Today "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" is commonly used to describe someone who doesn't want to be involved in a situation, or someone turning a wilfull blind eye to the immorality of an act in which they are involved.”

This corresponds with what you can read online.

Where does this take us?

Well, I don’t want to prejudge the discussions which I hope we will now have in Lambeth, but I don’t think that expressing my personal opinion as it is now will do that.

The criticism of the Standing Orders Committee which the authors intended was a legitimate criticism, the essence of which was shared by many at Conference. It would have been so much better done without the “three wise monkeys”!

Although I entirely accept that the authors of the leaflet had no intention of offending anyone with the slightest suggestion of racism – and the history of the imagery which they employed supports this – nevertheless I think that in all the circumstances the use of the “three wise monkeys” was unfortunate to say the least. On the face of it, it did offend some of those who saw it. I think that this has to be accepted, and that to accept it is in no sense to line up with any unwarranted attack upon the authors.

That this could not be resolved at Conference is a consequence of the speed with which the matter was turned into a complaint to be investigated rather than a concern to be resolved. Turning this issue into a complaint investigation created a momentum which is hardly helpful to the best interests of UNISON, and it is understandable that those who perceived themselves to be under attack have mounted a vigorous defence.

There are two dimensions to this question and both have to be taken into account. To see this simply as an issue about an attack upon leftwing activists writes out of the story the genuine sense of offence felt by some of those who saw the leaflet at Conference and perceived – and therefore experienced – it as racist. However, to see this as simply an issue about UNISON’s opposition to racism is to ignore the glaringly obvious political context. Neither approach deals with what is going on.

My view as things stand is that it is quite right to stand in solidarity with Glenn, Kaz, Brian, Matthew and Suzanne, and to make clear that a draconian response to criticism of the Conference leaflet will provoke a very serious dispute within the Union. However, in standing alongside these comrades we have also to say to the “Defend the Five” campaign that it is not good enough simply to say that no racism was intended or that the history of the “three wise monkeys” means that racism cannot have been perceived. Racism was perceived and the five activists can and should make more clear that they apologise unreservedly for the offence to which their leaflet unintentionally gave rise.

It is never a sign of weakness to apologise for a mistake. Indeed I note from a comment on the earlier post that a letter of apology was sent to the Standing Orders Committee and National Black Members Committee.

I think that the way forward should be to build upon this apology in order to address and respond to the offence that was caused – not to pursue formal disciplinary action in circumstances in which this will lead inexorably to a major avoidable confrontation.

Apologies for the length of this post (that’s the trouble with blogs, no one subedits my ramblings…) Apologies for the absence of hypertext links also (I am learning Linux and OpenOffice...)


Anonymous said...

I missed the AGM but have followed the email debate in Lambeth Branch. The use of the cartoon in relation to the SOC was insensitive and should not have been used but it does seem to have been an error of judgement. It was right that it was challenged.

But what I find incredible is that the UNISON bureaucracy seems to go into overdrive to have a pop at activists who make genuine mistakes yet somehow ignores its own officers when they may do similar things? I recently made a complaint to our Regional Secretary about a blatantly islamophobic email circulated to activists in our region by an experienced UNISON official via UNISON's email. I also emailed the officer twice asking why this had been circulated. To date I have had no response from the Regional Secretary and nothing like an expression of regret. Wonder if I ever will?

Anonymous said...

but no apology at coonference ???? that was the mistake ???? the leaflet the day after defended the cartoon....only when threatened with disaplinary action was an apology forthcomming

Thats where black members Group have a problem

Anonymous said...

so Glen if it was an apology
why did you reproduce it ???

thats what up set black members

bronstein said...


Your original accuasion was that we did not offer an apology at confernce and "thats what upset the black members", when i go onto to disprove your point you now say, "why did we reproduce it, thats what upset the black members".

Put aside that only one member complained and many black members supported us and therefore it is not correct to talk in such terms, i will deal with your new complaint which is "why did we reproduce it?"

My First responce is that at confernce we did NOT reporduce the cartoon. A leaflet challenging what was happening to us was produced which did not include the cartoon as everyone was already at the confernce.

Are you are talking about the campaign leaflet produced months after confernce ?

Given that the union were intent on escalating this matter into a formal disciplinary matter on us we were faced with a difficult situation. Only those union members who were at confernce would have seen the leaflet,

In order to take the issue to the wider membership those supporting us needed to explain what had happended to us.

If they had written to members and asked them to oppose the attack on us for producing a leaflet. It was beleived that many would have justly said that before deciding if they would back us or not they would want to see the leaflet to judge for themselves, that is why it had to be reproduced.


Anonymous said...

The offensive cartoon Glenn is still on your web site

Anonymous said...

I understand the people you refer to are now down to "four activists" - what happens next? Disciplinary.
I have been in a situation where someone I deal with on a unison committee made great efforts to bar me from being considered for a position (that I was legitimately enitiled to be considered for) - and his actions took place in an open forum, and were highly personal and highly offensive. The outcome of this was a letter to me from both national office and the member himself, by way of apology. In this case, though, once it becomes the SOC that find something offensive, no apology can ever be enough?
Its a bizarre situation - and will cost a fortune from our subs to run the disciplinaries. Money that could be spent on a new head office. Oops, sorry - on funding equal pay cases....

Anonymous said...

This was a shameful episode and I'm delighted that the courts have made some sense of this vile matter.

It is an insult to those suffering from genuine racist assaults to have see charges trumped up in this is fashion. The cartoon is, to anyone with half a brain who has actually seen it, is clearly a satirical comment and not a racist one. No apology was ever neccessary.

How are we expected to win the fight against racism when people with power who claim to know better use bogus accusations of racism as a blunt instrument to get their own way?

The members who led this withchunt should stand down immediately and be made to write out 10,000 times "I will never again insult the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King".