“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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A friend of mine was recently iced out of our queer-activist social group because someone decided they must be “held accountable” for past abusive behaviours. The thing is, I have witnessed my friend go through a lot of growth since they realized they were hurting people, and I strongly believe they have genuinely changed into a trustworthy person. It’s really hard to watch someone claim to be spearheading an “accountability process” without consulting the feelings or needs of anybody involved — either the victim or perpetrator! Is there anything that I can do? How can I support my friend?
Disillusioned Queer Activist
Thank you for listening to your instincts and writing in with this question! To be honest, in my personal experience, a great many attempts at “accountability processes” in queer and social justice communities are organized without integrity. That is to say, the people facilitating these processes often do not have the training, skills or the motivation necessary to conduct them safely or ethically.
Sometimes, it feels like people want to run accountability processes primarily because it gives them power over the community and other people’s lives. This is particularly clear when they aren’t actually connected to the initial situation in which harm or abuse occurred — and most of all when the survivors are not being consulted.
One very important distinction we should consider is the difference between an accountability process that is survivor-led and one that is survivor-centred. I’ve seen cases where folks seemed to be stuck on the idea that survivors should get to lead their own accountability processes. They try to do whatever the named survivor asks, even if those things are extreme actions that everyone might regret later. Over time, I have come to believe that the notion of survivor-led accountability processes can not only cause more harm than they can repair, but can also be really unfair to survivors. Intentionally or not, it dumps the responsibility for running a process into the laps of those who are already suffering and are trying to recover. At worst, this approach becomes a way for the community to relinquish the responsibility of maintaining strong boundaries and doing the hard work of thinking critically about the justice they are setting out to obtain.
I would invite us instead to consider a survivor-centred approach — one that centres the needs and desires of the survivor, while also placing the responsibility of the process into the hands of the community. Depending on what they want, this allows the survivor to either engage or disengage completely from the process while creating space for community members with the necessary skills and experience to step forward and facilitate the process.
When it comes to community accountability, activist and author of Emergent Strategy adrienne maree brown writes,: “You have the right to tell your story [emphasis added] . . . You do not have the right to traumatize abusive people, to attack them publicly or to sabotage anyone else’s health.” When someone appears to be leading a very public effort to punish, isolate or shun someone by using a story that does not belong to them, I would question that very strongly.
It’s important to remember that in queer- and social justice-oriented communities, we give accountability processes an enormous amount of power, largely because the traditional methods of accessing justice — namely, calling the police and putting faith in the court systems — so often fail, and even directly harm us. We demand that people who are named as perpetrators of harm participate fully. Sometimes, we demand that perpetrators submit to a prescribed course of action that may be life-changing. For example, I’ve seen named perpetrators be asked to resign from their jobs or make public admissions of their guilt.
While all of this can be a necessary part of the accountability process, it also means that people who are trying in good faith to be accountable are in a position of great vulnerability. We must remember that whenever there is vulnerability, there may be people who are — either knowingly or unknowingly — drawn to exploit it.
I feel compelled to tell you a story here, Disillusioned. There was once a small group of people in my community who presented themselves as the go-to experts when it came to running accountability processes. The group was headed by a charismatic leader, a well-known activist in Toronto, and publicized their services through a website. Community members could use an online form to contact them for help facilitating accountability processes in situations of abuse.
Yet the inner workings of this group were vague and mysterious to outsiders — most of the members remained anonymous to the public and to the communities they claimed to be helping. Some members even remained anonymous to the survivors and perpetrators who participated in the group’s accountability processes, even though those members made important decisions and had access to sensitive information, such as the details of incidents of intimate partner violence. The group had no clear model for the processes they ran, no publicly available code of ethics or values and no way for communities to give them feedback in a transparent way.
In other words, this group of “accountability experts” had put themselves in a position of power without ensuring accountability for themselves.
The group engaged in several extremely intense processes involving people I knew, some of which dragged on for years without any clear goals beyond the vague idea of “helping survivors heal.” (How the healing was supposed to take place, or how anyone would know it had happened, was unclear.) Both the survivors and perpetrators were affected, sometimes in very serious ways. In one case, a woman accused of abuse was driven out of the community and into a psychotic state that has lasted years. On more than one occasion, the accountability process trailed off and was abandoned without clear communication to the survivors, perpetrators or the community.
I am telling you this because I want to illustrate the importance of clarity and integrity when pursuing community justice. Without integrity, ethics, good boundaries and a clear plan of action, an accountability process runs the risk of becoming abusive. People who wish to facilitate accountability processes for others must carefully evaluate their own impulse to control or punish others, to acquire social capital and to work out their own past demons. Cultural somatics therapist and educator Tada Hozumi calls the misuse of accountability processes “accountability abuse.” It is a phenomenon that I believe we need to start talking about seriously if we are to create effective transformative justice systems.
A truly transformative justice process is one that is transparent and grounded in safety and dignity for all involved. It is not coercive or punitive; no one is forced to participate against their will. The person who is named as a perpetrator has access to a network of support, as does the person who is named as a survivor. The facilitators do not bring in their personal agendas.
Disillusioned, your friend has a right to be treated ethically and with dignity, regardless of what they have done in the past or because of who they are now — this is something we all deserve. Getting bullied by people who haven’t even consulted the person (or people) your friend hurt is not ethical, nor does it constitute a true accountability process grounded in integrity and transformative intention. It’s important to remember that ostracizing an abuser doesn’t actually turn them into a better, or less harmful, person — it only discourages them from trying to form positive relationships and pushes them into other communities where they might actually repeat the abuse. (A note here that this doesn’t mean that a survivor has to keep interacting with their abuser in any way — holding boundaries and taking space doesn’t count as ostracization!)
If your friend has really grown and changed, they will need friends to help them maintain that growth, and to let them know when they might have slipped back into old patterns. You’ll know if your friend has really changed simply by the way they treat you and the others around them, and by the length of time they go without harming anyone else.
Integrity-based accountability processes have goals and measures of success. These vary depending on the context, but are ideally something that the survivor, perpetrator and the affected community can agree upon. That is to say, it should be possible to tell when the process is over, bearing in mind that the outcome of justice rarely involves participants suddenly being happy and friendly again. A good accountability process reflects on the culpability and responsibility of the community as a whole in causing and preventing harm.
An example of a transformative justice-based goal could be that a person who has perpetrated intimate partner violence acknowledges the harm they have done and takes steps to prevent future violent behaviour. Measures of success could include this person making a statement of apology to the person they harmed, undertaking a program of self-study and personal work (such as therapy or getting support from a community group). A transformative justice approach would likely also involve the surrounding community — for example, members could provide the funds for both survivor and perpetrator to seek counseling or therapy, or designate support people to make sure that the survivor feels safe attending community events that the perpetrator might also attend. The perpetrator might also agree to give up attending events that are particularly important to the survivor.
My suggestion is that you talk to your friend about this, Disillusioned, and also with anyone else who might be feeling bothered by the way your friend is being treated. The clearer your friend group is about what does and does not constitute accountability/transformative justice, the more likely it is that group norms will shift to prevent these processes from being misused. Having conversations about this will make it harder for one person to sway the group into mob justice or bullying.
That said, it’s also important to remember that, as you say, people do have a right to feel however they want to feel about your friend’s abusive past. No one has to be friends with them, invite them to gatherings or give them the benefit of the doubt (while I hope they do, this is simply not something that we can or should try to control). And, Disillusioned, if you’re wondering whether or not you are safe around your friend, personally, it could be a good idea to check-in from time to time with a counsellor, support person or other people you trust. Do you feel like you are being manipulated? Has your friend ever made you feel frightened, abused or exploited? Or are they treating you well by being trustworthy and honest?
If your friend really has grown and become a more trustworthy person, then perhaps the best thing that they can do is to continue to show that part of themselves to the world — and one of the best ways you can help is to believe in and encourage them. Others will see this, and some will open their hearts and minds to the possibility that people can indeed change.
Regaining the trust of community after perpetrating abuse is often difficult — this is a natural consequence of causing harm. Yet I believe that people who have been abusive need access to unconditional love and support more than anything else — from people other than their victims — in order to be able to shift toxic patterns of behaviour and come into accountability. This is precisely why I believe in transformative justice.
Punishment cannot force someone to be a better person; at best, it can only make them fearful and obedient. Punishment cannot make someone better at loving. Only love can do that.