Can we all just take a deep breath and acknowledge that we are human? I’ve been writing about criminal justice reform, but I think it’s time to zoom out and look at the logic (or lack thereof) that undergirds our understanding of punishment and justice. To create a system of justice that works for all of us, we must relinquish our addiction to punishment and move toward accountability, restoration, and healing.
The #MeToo movement touches a sore spot for many. But since the world is difficult and complex we cannot hope to solve problems if we only debate what is easy and simplistic. The emergence of #MeToo demonstrates that our interpretation of justice as retribution is far-reaching. Our thirst for punishment has power inside and outside of the criminal justice system. My experience with the criminal justice system as an advocate, a service provider, and a person with a conviction history has made it clear to me that our criminal justice system is not designed for public safety. It is designed for punishment of the accused and vengeance for the accuser. I propose that true justice implores us to focus on repairing harm rather than exacting revenge.
Why are we addicted to punishment? Punishment provides temporary relief to hurt people who want to feel the rush of getting even. But we are never even. We are always either evolving toward restoration or regressing into cycles of harm. The rush of retaliation is quickly dissipated and, in the process, no one is restored, only harmed. The initial act of punishment gives quick relief to sufferers and then the wind shifts and the suffering ensues again driving us back to the well of anger and pain where we soothe ourselves by reliving the punitive response.
The recent outbreak of punitive activity in response to allegations of sexual assault demonstrates that harsh punishment is to the masses as blood is to sharks in the water. Tarana Burke, who is leading the #MeToo movement, amplifies the voices of women who have been sexual assaulted, harassed, and experienced any form of sexual violence. To be sure, the movement rightly exposes the pervasiveness of sexual violence in our culture and creates space for those harmed to be heard and healed. That space, by the way, must be made available to male and gender non-conforming survivors as well. However, this exposure has been met with resistance from some. Why is this so? And is there a way to ease resistance so that a healing dialogue is possible?
Accused men in the public eye who are under the weight of overwhelming evidence often won’t own their behavior. They won’t stop running for office. They refuse to back down gracefully. They don’t reflect long enough to thoughtfully address the accusations. They are supported by their peers, who denounce those who speak out for “ruining careers.” This week, we learned that these patterns of behavior are not limited to men. Avital Ronell, “a world-renowned female professor of German and Comparative Literature at New York University … was found responsible for sexually harassing a former male graduate student, Nimrod Reitman.” An open letter signed by other female scholars supported Ronell and minimized the severity of her behavior, focusing instead on potential damage to Reitman’s reputation. Ronell, a woman who misused her position of power over a student, followed the same script that men have performed. This points to the commonality of reactions by the accused and their supporters in cases that expose a deeply rooted culture of sexual aggression. Both men and women are prone to denial of the harm caused, and refusal to proactively move towards accountability.
We, as a culture, must begin to open the door to the process of restorative justice and healing. Public apologies short of sincere engagement with harmed parties are not sufficient. A truly restorative process moves beyond settlements and non-disclosure agreements which only exacerbate the harm. At best, we admit that sexual violence is pervasive, then throw up our hands as if to ask, “But what are we to do?” At worst, we deny that sexual violence is a problem, and instead say, “Those who accuse others of sexual assault are liars and career ruiners.” Few public figures have taken the high road, as did Matt Lauer who apologized and disappeared to work on his own healing and the healing of those he allegedly harmed including his friends and family. He has yet to reemerge. Matt’s path is a model: the most logical to take. After a person causes harm, they should take time to reevaluate and reemerge only when they have done significant healing and when the person or people they have harmed have also had time to heal.
Valeria Chuba, a licensed clinical intimacy coach, writes that defensiveness, disbelief, and lack of empathy have been common responses to the blitz of accusations. The prevailing trend in our society is to punish so severely that there is no room to reconcile. We cannot expect that those accused would be forthcoming, truth-seeking, or empathetic under these conditions. Negative, or non-empathetic reactions to #MeToo and the real harm that the movement identifies are exacerbated by fear of overreaching punishment that includes loss of livelihood and public shaming. Too often this fear drives the accused to the self-preservation tools of defensiveness, disbelief, and disregard and derails them from the path of repairing harm.
How then, might we deal with the harms we cause one another? There is a body of work called Restorative Justice. It is not new, but it is practiced far too irregularly. Restorative Justice seeks to undo the injuriousness and abuse that permeates many sexual relationships. It also offers tools to respond to breaches in the rule of law through mediation and reconciliation. This work is necessary and long overdue. Part of this work includes addressing how we deal with each other when we step out of the bounds of the societal norms or the rule of law. It requires that we see behaviors as malleable and that we invest resources and energy into the process of repairing harm that is done. This includes harm that may cause someone to react by harming others, and harm that is done as a result of persistent structural violence against women and other disenfranchised populations. To be sure, individuals who have caused harm should stand up and take responsibility. But blame needn’t turn into lifelong shame. The investment in restoration cannot be placed upon the individual alone. We as a society must create an environment where healing is possible and exile is not the only response to harm.
The opportunity to create a candid dialogue about sexual violence in this country should not be wasted on the impulse to punish. While retribution may be emotionally satisfying in the short-term, in the long-term, it only serves to nurture a culture where these transgressions are still couched in a culture of silence and shame.
There is a greater goal and a grander prize. Can we teach the next generation the dangers that stem from structural sexism, classism, xenophobia, and all the distinctions that fuel “othering”? “Othering,” the fallacy that groups outside of our own are so different from us that we have no instincts or behavior in common, is what tricks the human mind into affecting the destruction of other human beings. In our personal relationships, and in our criminal justice system, punishment perpetuates harm and destroys human connection. To secure a future free from rampant violence and hatred, we must prioritize justice as repairing the breach. Justice as restoration is a reflection of the power of forgiveness and redemption. Without compassion there can be no redemption. Keeping people in cages solely as punishment in the name of justice is not compassionate. Destroying careers as the only solution to harm is not compassionate and therefore not justice. If I were to make my point in one sentence it would be this: Human fallibility is not a vice — It’s a fact©. Alas, someone has already beaten me to it. My entire argument is captured in one precise line by an 18th Century English poet: “To err is human, to forgive divine” (Alexander Pope).
Vivian D. Nixon is the Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship (CCF), a nonprofit committed to helping formerly incarcerated women earn their college degrees. An alumna of CCF’s program, Nixon advocates nationally for the return of college-level education to our nation's prisons and is an advocate for formerly incarcerated individuals impacted by mass incarceration. She is a Columbia University Community Scholar and a recipient of the John Jay Medal for Justice, the Ascend Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, and the Soros Justice Fellowship. Nixon received her B.S. from the State University of New York and is currently a creative non-fiction MFA candidate at Columbia University. Vivian Nixon has written articles for Vice, HuffPost, and Boston Globe among other outlets. She has appeared on several MSNBC news shows and is a regular speaker on criminal justice reform panels. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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