Why It’s Painful And Scary To Talk About Transformative Justice, and Why It’s Time.
When I found out that my abuser had tried to kill himself, I felt confused. I had assumed that learning that he was suffering would feel satisfying, vindicating, even healing. I had assumed that only one of us could feel okay in this world; if he was happy, then I could not be, and if he was punished, it would make me better.
I didn’t feel better.
I had assumed that I wanted him to suffer, so I hadn’t considered whether I wanted him to suffer. I had assumed that I wanted every terrible feeling to be visited upon him, for him to be tortured, for him to die. So how could I reconcile that with realizing, upon learning that he was trying to die, that I didn’t want him to be dead?
I remember that I was in Columbus Circle when I learned the news that he was trying to kill himself. It was a sunny fall day in 2015 and I sat on the edge of the fountain and stared at the water pouring over itself and wondered whether I could hold basic human compassion and this all-consuming rage in the same wounded heart.
Finding the place where compassion and rage overlap has been my work for the last two years. As I’ve been learning about that place for myself, I’ve been learning about it for my communities as well, and when that overlap is put into practice on a community-wide scale, it’s called transformative justice.
Transformative justice is an alternative justice system that rests on the idea that harm committed between members of a community is best addressed, not by exile or other punishment of the responsible party, but by sincere and supported work on the part of the responsible party towards accountability and transformation, not only of their own behavior, but of the community as a whole, to address the conditions that allowed the harm to occur and collectively move towards liberation and a world free from violence.
The communities that I run in in New York City are starting to seek ways of dealing with conflict and violence that prioritize the safety and needs of survivors and people subject to various axes of oppression. Part of this work involves tirelessly striving towards spaces of safety and healing for those who have experienced trauma; its crucial other arm is to engage with community members who have been responsible for harm.
A lot stands in the way of the second piece of the work of transformative justice, even for people who wholeheartedly participate in the first part. The engagement that I see with people responsible for harm is largely polarized; it involves either call-outs, blacklisting, and excommunication or uncritical papering-over of any harmful acts. That is to say: it involves either rage without compassion or compassion without rage.
Engaging with the responsibility to respond to bad acts with transformative work is a thorny and tangled endeavor both for those who have been responsible for harm and for other community members, and I believe it’s necessary to disentangle these obstacles in order to address them from a place of both compassion and rage.
The first reason that it’s painful and difficult to engage with transformative justice is the genuine and legitimate need for people who have experienced harm to speak their truth and try to protect themselves. Networks of communication among people who have suffered and are at risk for violence are crucial, longstanding, and deserving of support. Call-outs and blacklisting feel like a logical extension of that, and there’s real and important value in that.
The second reason is a deeply embedded carceral logic that runs through all of our enculturation. As a culture, we’ve been taught that harm is inseparable from malice, that malice necessarily implies fundamental villainy, and that the only possible reaction to such a villain is to punish them. We’re taught by our criminal justice system, by all the media we consume, by the Christian moralities that infuse our society, that if someone hurts you, they are Bad, and you won’t be healed until they are punished and hurt in turn. We learn from living under capitalism that some lives are necessarily worth more than others — that some are worthy of protection and others are disposable. And of course, American civil society needs us to buy into that logic wholeheartedly, because challenging it means challenging the criminal justice system, the prison-industrial complex, and the slave labor without which the American economy would collapse.
This means that when a person comes away from an interaction feeling hurt, everything they’ve learned in their life tells them that they will not find healing until the person that hurt them suffers, and that any punishment that can be inflicted upon that person is justified and righteous. This carceral logic is the very thing that transformative justice seeks to help us unlearn as a society.
This carceral logic is also impacted by the ways that trauma affects the brain. Trauma magnifies an experience known as “splitting” — the common human tendency to classify people as either “good” or “bad,” sorting the world into people that definitely will hurt you and people that definitely won’t. When our traumatized communities work to identify the “bad” people in order to dispose of them, it feels like that will keep our community members safe by ensuring that our communities contain only “good” people. This logic is appealing, because it implies the possibility of creating a truly perfect society simply by identifying and expelling all the “bad” people.
Here’s what this means. There’s incredibly valuable discourse happening, and there are also a lot of people who are reacting from a place of deep trauma and fear. When it feels like there are only “good people” and “bad people,” it makes a lot of sense to want to keep the “bad people” away from you so they won’t hurt you.
Being asked to give up those logics and substitute a more complex and compassionate model of transformative justice is painful and frightening, because it would mean giving up the fantasy that it’s possible to be truly safe and surrounded by only good people. Beyond that, it would mean giving up the fantasy of ourselves as “good people” and recognizing our own capacity for harm. Giving up these fantasies is painful. I had to grieve for them and I still feel that grief when I grapple with these delicate questions.
The third reason is the nature of social media and the way that the internet polarizes and escalates discourse. The hashtag campaigns and complex webs of private, semi-public, and public interaction mean that we’re playing a subculture-wide game of telephone about every issue at all times. This renders us uniquely incapable of holding nuance or complication — when someone shares their experience of pain, it goes through a hundred versions as it’s passed from person to person and usually just comes out the other end with no information other than a name for blacklists, regardless of the situation. This flattens the myriad harms that we are dealing with — everything from “failing to respond appropriately when being asked for help about a situation unrelated to one’s own actions” to “kidnapping” — and turns them all into an undifferentiated “BAD PERSON.”
What I see when I see these reactions of anger and protestation of “false accusations” from people who are being accused of harm is: “I am a good person who is being misclassified as a bad person, and I do not deserve the punishment that is being given to me, because I am not a bad person.”
This is the wrong approach for two reasons. It is the wrong approach because it prioritizes their experience of an interaction over the experience of their partner; when they believed an interaction was consensual and the other party to that action experienced it otherwise, both experiences are genuine and impactful. It is also the wrong approach because it accepts the logic of the criminal justice system in the workings of our community. It’s an approach that seeks to identify the objective truth — which is not a useful exercise in most of these circumstances — and mete out punishment accordingly — which affords no individual or community healing or true justice. It’s not fundamentally transformative and it does not work to remove the conditions that caused the harm in the first place.
With this work, we seek to challenge that logical framework from its base. I don’t want to say that they don’t deserve to be punished, excommunicated, deprived of work, by reason of the veracity or falsehood of the allegations against them. I want to say that they don’t deserve to be punished in those ways because nobody deserves to be punished in those ways, because the appropriate response to harm is not further harm; it’s healing, building, and growing.
Of course, this is not necessarily an argument that will move the people who are currently experiencing this punishment — it’s true, but it doesn’t necessarily change their situation. Here’s the other part of how this plays out for them.
The problem that they are experiencing is an accountability problem, but it’s also a public relations problem. When you exist in the world and interact with other people, you have no control over what other people say about you. That’s true for everyone, and it sucks for everyone, and it sucks an extra amount when it’s on the internet. We’re in a time right now where a lot of people are experiencing what it’s like to be a target of internet discourse, at varying levels of deservedness, from gamergate to the campaigns to get white supremacists fired.
The fact is, you can’t remove information from people’s understanding of you, no matter how false you think it is. There’s nothing you can do to make your community unknow what it’s been told.
All you can do is add information to their understanding. You can change how you act in from here on out to make it inescapable that you are invested in not hurting the people around you. Every time you say or do something that is demonstrative of your priorities towards ethical behavior, you are teaching your community that you prioritize ethical behavior. If you want people to know that you care about not hurting others, you have to show, not tell.
The logics that must be given up to embrace transformative justice are comforting poison. They are the logics of a frightened child who wants to be protected, but the time has come to grow up. Carceral logic is one of the ways that we let capitalism and oppression teach us how to live, and if we want to liberate our bodies from violence, we can start by liberating our minds from the orthodoxies of state violence. We do not need state violence to keep us safe if we bravely step forward towards a world where we keep each other safe — a world where we take care of each other not because we fear the punishment that will be inflicted on us if we transgress, but out of love and mutual care.
When the medium of your work is not punishment and suffering, but sincere engagement in work towards liberation, the terror of being accused dissipates a little. We all have the capacity to harm other people — those of us who are ourselves traumatized in particular, because hurt people hurt people — but that capacity feels less catastrophic when the consequence for hurting someone is not being thrown away by your community. Rather, the result in this framework is apologizing, doing what you can do make it right with that person, and redoubling your efforts to build a world without sexual violence, working side by side by side with a community of traumatized, complex, nuanced people who are neither “good” nor “bad,” but each individually finding the balance between compassion and rage in their own hearts, just like you.