″But, if we kick them out, then they will just cause harm somewhere else.″
This is probably the first argument you ever heard for transformative justice: that the ostracism of abusers and other harm-doers does not actually provide long-term safety. If you think about it globally, it just ″displaces the danger″. If not healed, the rejected abusers will just go somewhere else and harm other people. They might even be more dangerous, since they will land somewhere where their past misdeeds are not known.
Let's take some time to explain why this argument, while pertinent and effective, is also dangerous and deeply dehumanizing. Although, I'm not really sure I need so much time to explain that. It seems obvious, once said.
We should not talk about human beings as ″the danger″. We are not some radioactive waste, and you are not the brave radiation workers having to manage our toxicity to protect the future generations.
It is true, though, that this is a good counter-argument to the ostracizer's discourse. One might argue that, even if we were ought to be treated as nothing but a danger, to throw us out would not be a good way to manage it. But that's a big ″if″.
Yes, i's not nice for the neighbors to just throw your garbage by the windows. And if everyone does the same, then we will all walk knee-deep in shit before long. But we are no shit. We are no garbage. We are people. And we should not forget it.
We should not forget that, to make this point about ″displacing the danger″, we first have to accept some part of the ostracizer's discourse: the dehumanization of the people whom we discuss the fate. And this is why, as an argument, it is effective – because you can make this point without challenging the whole framework behind punitive justice: that there are good people and bad people, and that the former have the right to be abusive to the latter if it helps them be, or feel, safe.
You don't have to challenge that when you argue against ostracism by saying it ″just displaces the danger″, because your point then is: ″this specific kind of abuse will not make you safe″. Therefore, you do not risk being accused of ″siding with the abusers″: you do not ask for them to be treated with humanity for their own sake (oh god no!), but for the sake of all their future victims. Because, albeit potential, their existence will be considered worthy to be defended, whereas defending the abuser’s existence will be taken as an insult to its victim’s suffering.
And that’s why this might be the first argument for transformative justice who worked on you. That’s why you know this is the first argument you have to make when talking with an ostracizer.
So that's an effective argument. But where does it leads us ? Let’s take a look at an otherwise good take on the topic: a Twitter thread by queer anarcho-feminist game designer Avery Alder advocating for transformative justice.
If you think a person should be killed for their actions, says so, because that’s where we have to start the conversation. […]
Wanting a person to leave and go to a different community, where nobody is aware of their behavior patterns, displaces and amplifies risk. Wanting a person to have no community or connections, and to be isolated in their sense of shameful grief, is functionally the same thing as wanting them to be killed for their actions. People die under these conditions. […]
The call for everyone to band together and exile someone, without accountability possible, causing maximum distress, shame, and grief to the exit, ultimately work toward one of a few realities:
- They are dead.
- They are as good as dead.
- They are harming people elsewhere.
Now, I'm sure that Adler's heart is at the right place here, and I hate to highlight what I don't like in a thread I otherwise thank her for. (Also, I'm a huge fan of her work.) But her conclusion is both false and dangerous.
I was imposed such an exile, ″without accountability possible, causing maximum distress, shame, and grief to the exit″. And I survived. I am nor dead, nor as good as dead. But I am not ″harming people elsewhere″. I am living somewhere else.
Of course, I do sometimes harm other people. Nerver harming anyone would be a pretty impossible standard to live with. But, most of the time, I don't. I make other people laugh. I listen to other people's worries, I support their growth. I tell them stories. I make them food. I teach them what I know. I drink beers with them, and we watch TV shows together. I make art. I make love. I give parties. I fight for what I believe in, or, at least, I'm doing my part. Sometimes I'm a burden, sometimes I'm a gift. Like people are. I have… you know… a life. And it should not be reduced to ″harming people″.
Adler has a point when she says that, if you take the ostracizers' logic and bring it all the way to its end, then they're basically saying we should die. She's right to point out that calling for our exile of all communities is the coward's alternative to calling for our death – since this is functionally the same, except that ostracizers don't want to put us to death themselves, because they want to pretend their hands are clean of our blood.
But, while she makes this point, she also agrees to say that we are exactly what the ostracizers say we are – that, short for being killed or cured, we will roam the earth to abuse the honest citizens. She agrees to reduce us to the harm we've done and the harm we might do. She's condemning us to abuse again; denying our agency in the matter and assuming that we are incapable or unwilling to stop our harmful ways without an outside intervention of saner people to ″cure″ us. She agrees to operate in a framework where our existence has no value in itself – negative value, even – but the vague potential we may possess to be turned somehow into normal, non-dangerous people again. She agrees to say we are human trash, so that she can say we should be put in the yellow bin of transformative justice.
For her defense, I don't think she is aware that she's doing it. Adler even discloses, in the same thread, that she herself hurted people and was subsequently subjected to what she's calling ″scorched earth tactics″. And I'm pretty sure she doesn't find ″harming people elsewhere″ a fair account of what she's doing now with her life. If anything, it speaks about how deep the dehumanization of abusers is entrenched – how it is easy to inadvertently reproduce it at the very moment we try to challenge it.
The framework in which we are harm-on-legs and will continue to be so until we are killed or ″cured″ is the ostracizer's one. And, at the end of the day, it's as much an incentive to kill us than it is one to try and ″cure″ us. If those are the two options on the table, I understand why the more virilists claim-makers might opt out for killing us as the better one. Even among anarchists, there are people out there which seem on board for that, and who actually argue that we cannot be ″cured″ and that attempting to do so would be nothing but a waste of time and energy.
Once again, this does not mean ″they will harm other people…″ is a bad argument in itself. And there's a lot of people who opened their eyes to the failures of ostracism as a tactic through this argument. But we have to go past it at some point. And here's another reason why.
If the primary motivation for someone to maintain a social relationship with me is that they believe they have to do so or I will harm other people again, then we both should break it. For both our sake, actually. And we should definitely not enter a restorative or transformative justice process together and allow ourselves to be vulnerable from each other.
I might do this work for people who want to heal their relationship with me because they have some love left for me despite what I've done; or because they want us to be able to share the same spaces; or because they want to feel at peace about what happened. If this is because they value what I might bring to their life or their community; or because they want justice served, but in a way that is not abusive towards me; or because they want to model the way they would like others to react to their own misdeeds; or because they care for someone who care for me and do this for their sake, then I'll probably sign.
If they are here because they are committed to respect my value as a human being while adressing the harm I've done, the abuse I perpetrated or the bad choices I've made, then there are possibilities for healing here.
Even if they are here because they're worried about what lessons I learned, and whether or not I took seriously the harm they've claimed I've done, I might be inclined to enter such a process with them – provided we're all clear that it's about them trying to achieve peace of mind by witnessing where I am now, and that it is not the same thing than attempting to ″cure″ me.
But if their only emotional drive is guilt, because they're convinced I will harm other people without their guidance and it's somehow their responsability to prevent me to do so, then we're both at risk of being badly hurt there. They are clearly overextending and taking up responsibilites they should not, and I am clearly disrespected, infantilized and not valued here. This is a recipe for disaster. This will be disappointing at best. I cannot see how such a badly motivated process might lead to something healing for anyone.
My existence has value. And I'm way better with people who recognize it, honor it and love me, while also confronting me when I fuck up and hurt people, than with people who don't. I deserve real friends, real lovers and real comrades. Not people that reluctantly agree to hang out with me because they hope to cure me from something. Please, don't do that. For your sake and for mine, don't do that.
I remember the words of Kai Cheng Thom about ostracism in activist circles: « Just as my father once held open the door to our house and demanded that I leave because he didn’t know how to reconcile his love for me with my gender identity, we denounced each other and burned bridges because we didn’t know how [to] reconcile our social ideals with the fact that our loved ones don’t always live up to them ».
So, piece of advice for you, if you're tempted by a restorative or transformative justice process: if you are not here to attempt to reconcile your social ideals with the fact that someone you love didn't live up to them (even with a really far-stretched, spiritual or communautarist definition of love), but to attempt to turn a monster back into a human because you're afraid of what they could do in the wild, then you're not in the right mindset for that. Please, go do something else and leave the poor soul alone.
In the meantime, take care. And thanks for reading me.