Why Are We Talking So Much To Them?

Punk Transformative Justice Rant II

There are some books, out there, against cancel culture and the ostracism of abusers and harm-doers in queer communities and leftist activism. And… Well… Don’t be mistaken, I’m really glad those books exist. Nothing in what I will say should be taken as an attack against these books or their authors. I found a lot of good stuff in it, and I advise you to read them. But, once again, I would like to call attention to what the trend currently is, and these books are representative of something broader I would like to point out.

Just look at their titles: “I Hope We Choose Love” by Kai Cheng Thom, “Fuck the Police Means We Don’t Act Like Cops to Each Other” by Clementine Morrigan, “We Will Not Cancel Us” by adrienne maree brown. Didn’t you notice something? Because I did, and I would like to ask a question.

Who is “We”?

Who is this “We” they’re talking about? Those who should not cancel, should not act like cops, should choose love instead of hate? This is a rhetoric question. Let’s get straight to the point: these books are adressed to the insiders, those who might ostracize, to tell them “don’t do that” or “stop doing that”. And that’s okay. That’s definitively something we should be telling them. But… I don’t think I’m this “We”. Am I?

Let me rephrase the question:

Why are we talking so much to the ostracizers and never to the ostracized?

Why are we talking so much to the punishers and never to the punished, to the cancellers and never to the cancelled? That’s an honest question, not an attack. I don’t want to blame anyone – what I want is change. And trying to understand why things are the way they are is one of the ways I’m in service of change. So I want to ask this question seriously.

Of course, there’s an obvious answer: we’re talking to the ostracizers, the punishers, the cancellers, because they are currently in power. Their ideology is hegemonic in our circles, their tactics are widely used, they are closer to the mainstream than we are. They have the power to use violence and they have no problem using it and abusing it. They even have the moral high ground and we have way more compassion for what they feel, and respect for what they are, than what they display towards us. So, it is perfectly understandable for us to appeal to their humanity, to ask for their compassion, to try and move them towards a place of better understanding, of peace and emotional growth.

But – and there’s a but – this is all part of ostracism.

I’ve been ostracized for being “an abuser”. And one of the most damaging, dehumanizing and traumatizing thing, when you become “an abuser” in the eyes of your friends, is how fast you stop being a political subject and are downgraded to the rank of topic of discussion. Everyone talks about you (and everyone has so much to say), but nobody talks to you, let alone with you. Nobody has nothing to tell you, except to send you guidelines of behavior you are expected to follow, and nobody is ready to listen to anything you’d have to say, except when looking for proofs that you’re not really sorry for what you did, or not really trying to be accountable.

At its core, being ostracized as “an abuser” is not about being barred from some spaces, or losing friends, or anything like that. It’s about being called, even by your anarchist ex-comrades, too morally damaged or immature for having any right to participate in the discussion about your fate. It’s about being unacknowledged as a person because a lot of people suddenly find more comfortable to think of you as a monster. Any attempt to participate in the discussion about who you are and how should you be treated, any attempt to challenge the narrative they develop about you will be branded as an agression in itself and will only make the case against you heavier, until you get bullied into disappearance for good.

The worse of it is that even the people who defend you and talk for you forget that they can talk to you. Some people in my ex-circles are uncomfortable with the way I have been mistreated. I know it, because either they told it to some close friends I still have, or they timidly opened about it in semi-public spaces. But the idea of telling it to me somehow never occured to them. That’s another reason why we talk so much to the ostracizers, and never to the ostracized, in the very litterature against ostracism: we somehow forgot that was something we could do.

Why are we waiting for the ostracizers to change their ways?

It’s okay to tell them that what they’re doing is bad and abusive. It really is. But we shouldn’t wait for them to fully realize it, let alone take responsibility for it, or change their behavior or make amends. We can start breaking the ostracism now. We don’t need their permission for that. Let them congratulate themselves for their brave and glorious fight against abuse and let’s talk together. They don’t want to understand that fighting abuse and fighting abusers are not the same thing, so why are we trying so hard? Let them reign over their sandbox and let’s go play together somewhere else.

If queer activism taught me something, it’s that we don’t fight queerphobia by telling the straight that they should be accepting and open-minded. I mean, that’s not a bad message to send, of course, but that’s not even remotely sufficient. Likewise, we won’t end ostracism only by telling ostracizers that they should not ostracize. Because, and that’s the worst of it: most of them already know that.

Ostracism is not so much an ideology as it is a practice.

In Capitalism Realism, Mark Fisher explains that capitalism mainly reproduces itself by the actions of people who don’t really believe in it. They only have to follow the stream. I believe the same is true about leftist ostracism: sure, there are True Believers, like William Gillis, but everybody find them weird. Most of the time, ostracizers don’t really believe that ostracism is a good thing to do.

Most of the people who decided, organized and carried out my ostracism where close friends and lovers. I spent days and nights with some of them talking about how frustrated we were about the violence and the ruthlessness of the left. We once said that ostracizing abusers was not the solution, that our circles should grow away from it. And yet. Once I’ve accepted the stigma of being an abuser, hoping naively that I would be treated with humanity if I did so, they used and abused the power I gave them over me by admitting my wrongs without a flinch of doubt. They didn’t pause to reflect on how they participate in a system they see as broken, because they were in a deeply disregulated state and one does not say no to power, even corrupted power, when they feel threatened.

Worse even, the more anti-ostracism they were in theory, the more they had to justify it in practice. This led them to more character assassination, essentialism and distortion of truth. At some point, ostracizing me was the path of least resistance, and the cognitive dissonance they had to solve to do so made them more violent, more abusive, more dangerous and traumatizing, not less. Those who were the most vocals about their anti-ostracism tendencies went the hardest against me, because they needed to explain why I had to be The Exception that proves the rule, why I was the kind of very bad guy for which those tactics exist in the first place. Or they explained that it was actually not ostracism, not punitive, or not even violent. I’m not innocent from that either: all these conversations we had about how ostracism is a broken tactic, we had them while I was participating in the ostracism of someone who once were one of my best friends. I, too, explained why they had to be The Exception.

So I don’t believe we will go very far if we stop at saying them they shouldn’t ostracize.

They know it. They agree, kind of. They do it anyway.

Punished and punishers, victims and perpetrators, are not different species of people.

They are different roles, and we take turn playing them. The “perp” of an abuse is the “survivor” of another one, and vice versa. We all did harm, we all were harmed. From a drama to another, the places are reversed. Sometimes, in the same unhealthy dynamic, both parties are abusive to each other. Not everybody has been branded “an abuser”, not everybody has been ostracized, but still. Everyone in the anarcho-queer scene has participated in the cancelling of someone, and everyone has done enough to be cancelled thrice. Talking to the ostracized, the punished, the cancelled, does not has to mean “talk to different people”, but “talk to people differently”.

In my previous rant, I asked:

What if, instead of saying “You do not have the right to traumatize abusive people”, we said “We won’t let you…”?

So, let’s try something else: what if, instead of saying “We won’t let you traumatize abusive people”, we were saying “We won’t let you be traumatized, even if you have been abusive? We will intervene if you harm people, but we won’t let it done in a dehumanizing way?”. Isn’t that what “safe” should mean? Aren’t we all wanting to live in communities where we all are confident that we will be treated with respect, and care, and love, even when we fail to act in accordance with our values and cause harm?

Or maybe that’s not what you would say. I don’t know. I’m curious, though.
If you spoke to the ostracized, what would you say?

Who you talk to shapes what you say.

If you speak to the ostracizers, then you have to convince them to stop doing that. You have to argue that it is bad, ineffective and messy. That’s not without interest. But you know what? I know that already. Everything you say about how punitive justice creates trauma instead of bringing healing, I live it. The trauma is in my flesh. The stigma is everywhere I go. I don’t need to be convinced. I don’t need you to advertise transformative justice (the current preferred alternative to ostracism) the same way you advertise them.

When you write for them, transformative justice looks like something hard, demanding, frightening and sometimes painful, but ultimately rewarding because, on the long run, it is healthy for them and the ecosystem. Basically, you’re talking about transformative justice like you would be talking them into going vegan (except that nobody gets offended when one says that animals deserve compassion). Or into sorting waste, and we are human waste.

But for me, transformative justice is the necessary condition of a dignified existence. The stakes are just not the same. We’re all on the same boat, but we’re not scrubbing the same deck. So I need us to stop imploring ostracizers to stop being abusive so much, to take a break from trying to sell them transformative justice as something good for their karma, and to start thinking politically about the situation we are in. I would like us to ask ourselves what we could have to say to each other, how we want to change the state of things, and what is in our power to do without waiting for any bullies’ epiphany.

It’s also about healing from ostracism too.

Ostracizers robs us of our humanity and our sense of internal value in a way that makes us think that the key to our healing is in their hands. Because our hurt is about being unlistened to, unheard, unacknowledged by them, we feel the need for them to hear us, to listen, to acknowledge our existence and the harm they’ve done to us. If only I could reach to them! If only they could read what I’m writing right now, that would change everything and I would finally feel at peace!

Ostracism creates a traumatic dependency to people who refuse to interact with you anymore. And, as I’m writing this, I am neck-deep in it. I think of the people who did that to me all the time. I fantasize about the day where we’ll finally be able to sort this out from the moment I woke up in the morning to the time I crash in my bed. I talk to them all the time in my head.

“Why are we talking to them so much?”. Well… Maybe because we feel like we need them to listen so we can heal. Maybe what I can’t help myself from doing obsessively in my head, we do it collectively, with books and blog posts and podcasts. Maybe we are telling ourselves what we would need them to listen because we cannot truly face the fact that they won’t.

But they don’t have the keys to our humanity.

Those, we have to find by ourselves.