The New Self-Help

Punishment Is Never Justice

There’s a better way to heal from harm

This story is part of The New Self-Help: 21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century.

I have seen people doxed and stalked, both online and in person. I have been stalked, by someone I had never met or spoken to, because they perceived me to be “abusing” them by not responding to a Facebook friend request. I have seen my friends spread rumors about others in my extended community, advocating for shunning and ostraciza­tion over allowing ideological disagreements. On rare occasions, I have seen activists encourage the physical beating of abusive people among us.

As a whole, we as human beings have a tendency to escalate rather than de-escalate conflict. In our (rightful) desire to ensure that harm is not minimized or ignored, we use inflammatory language, binary concepts of right and wrong, and oversimplified narratives that, more often than not, increase tension and heighten rage and shame.

We do not ask the questions that are central to transformative justice: Why has harm occurred? Who is responsible (beyond the individual perpetrator — as in, how is community implicated)? How can this harm be prevented in the future?

There are distinctions to be made between punishment, justice, and healing.

Punishment is a gratifying process of enacting revenge that also perpetuates cycles of violence. Justice is a slow process of naming and transforming violence into growth and repair; it is also frustrating and elusive — and rarely ends in good feelings. Healing is the process of restoration for those who have been hurt, and although justice can aid this process, my own experience is that healing is an individual journey that is almost entirely separate from those who have caused me harm. No apology, or amount of money or punishment, can give me back the person I was, the body and spirit I possessed, before I was violated. Only I can do that.

I do not, therefore, have much faith in justice. But I have no choice but to believe in it.

To disbelieve in the possibility of justice is nihilism — total lack of faith in humanity — which I reject. We must reject nihilism because that way lies fascism. We must also reject despair if we are to embrace healing, slow and imperfect though it may be. We must turn, instead, to love — love strong enough to live without faith.

So if we must do the work of justice, I suggest that we begin by redefining justice. Rather than a lens of punishment, consequence, or even accountabil­ity, we might try understanding justice through an ethic of love.

Concrete steps toward building this love-based justice might look like the following:

  • We must create flexible, working, practical definitions of justice so that we understand what we are doing and what values we share. There might need to be different definitions of justice for different contexts, but I believe that justice is the naming of harm and the transformation of the people as well as the conditions that perpetuated the harm.
  • We must be open to the notion that survivors of harm can also be perpetrators of harm. Survival is not a badge of purity, nor a shield from accountability.
  • We must invest deeply and fervently in the dignity of human life. We must not give in to the urge to do harm, even in justice’s name. We must recognize, name, and transform the instinct to humiliate, harm, and coerce those we see as bad or as wrongdoers. No one is disposable.
  • We must accept that we cannot force others to change their thinking or their beliefs. We can, however, set boundaries on violent behavior, and we can enforce those boundaries.
  • The practice of facilitating justice work demands complex skills and experience, and it requires great integrity. The facilitator of a justice process must operate honestly, transparently, and with an awareness of their own capacity for abusing the power of their role. As with any position of power, the facilitation of social justice may attract those more interested in that power than in the work itself, or it may present facilitators with the temptation to use that power unwisely. There must be guidelines and strategies to moderate the power of facilitators and to prevent its misuse.
  • Justice may not always be successful at making everyone, or anyone, feel good. We do not all have to like each other or be friends or share personal space. Justice should work toward reducing future harm through de-escalation, as well as ensuring that everyone has the basic resources they need to live, heal, and enjoy life — yes! We have the right to enjoy our lives.
  • Everyone has the right to access support while the work of justice is happening. Many seasoned practitioners of transformative justice suggest the use of “pods,” or small groups of community, to create agile networks of support.
  • The community must accept its own responsibility for producing, condoning, and reproducing violence. We cannot spend years — decades — in community spaces watching people act badly and hurt each other, and making excuses for them, and then suddenly turn around and act shocked when an individual names that violence. We cannot pretend that we had no hand in covering up, minimizing, and even encouraging violence. We cannot, for example, have parties where everyone is deeply intoxicated, and physical, sexual, and verbal boundary-pushing is encouraged, and then act as though “abusers” are all sociopathic monsters who have infiltrated our otherwise perfect communities.
  • We must love ourselves. We must encourage love — love that is radical, love that digs deep. Love that asks the hard questions, that is ready to listen to the whole story and keep loving anyway. Love for the survivors, love for the perpetrators, love for the survivors who have perpetrated and the perpetrators who have survived. Love for the community that has failed us all. We live in poison. The planet is dying. We can choose to consume each other, or we can choose love.

Even in the midst of despair, there is always a choice. I hope we choose love.

I Hope We Choose Love: Notes on the Application of Justice” from the book I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World by Kai Cheng Thom (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission from the publisher. Edited from original.

Writer & healer. Lasagna lover. Wicked Witch. Author of Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, a place called No Homeland, and other books.

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