What Do We Do When Social Justice Language is Weaponized in the Service of our Oppressors?
Language is malleable, yes—but we cannot allow social justice language, particularly the type of language specifically invented to empower victims of abuse, to work against us, to re-silence us, again and again.
[TW- Mention of sexual assault]
A couple of weeks ago, when the #MeToo campaign was making its way across the social media landscape, I finally decided to out my rapist publicly. We had been friends for many years, romantically involved off and on—and then, about a year ago, I cut off contact with him completely. It wasn’t just one time that it happened, the rape. It was multiple times. But the most egregious and horrifying one, the one that eventually lead me to cut off contact with him completely, had stayed lodged within me like a splinter, unprocessed, unmoving.
Few people in our circles knew what had actually happened between us. Although I had admitted to being sexually assaulted on multiple occasions, I never stated his name out loud, much less publicly. It felt too vulnerable, and I didn’t feel ready for the onslaught of emotions that would inevitably accompany such an outing. But the #MeToo campaign struck a nerve. As woman after woman on my feed posted #MeToo, my only thought was: why are we the ones who have to make ourselves vulnerable, again, while our rapists sit there cloaked in silence—in the complacent comfort of non-confrontation?
I understand that there can be catharsis, even a feeling of solidarity, in seeing huge numbers of women in your community speak up publicly about the fact that they were sexually assaulted. But it didn’t feel like enough for me. If I was going to admit that I was raped in a public forum, I thought, folks better be damn sure I’m also going to name the person who raped me. If I have to make myself uncomfortable, then folks better be damn sure I’m going to make him uncomfortable too. I wasn’t about to re-victimize myself in the process of outing my oppressor.
My worry was that the #MeToo campaign was starting to render the idea of rape into something abstract—one of those things “every woman has experienced,” while, in the meantime, the actual, concrete people that raped them remain safely anonymous.
— sandra song (@sndrsng) October 17, 2017
Part of the reason why I was so intent on outing him was that I knew other women had already reported him as a rapist to powerful institutions—such as Yale University, where he is currently a graduate student—only to have their requests ignored and silenced. Granted, Yale (along with, let’s face it, most institutions of higher learning) has a terrible track record of bringing justice to victims of sexual assault. But to see it happen so close to home just enraged me further. No institution would ever hold my rapist accountable—I knew this, and I know it now.
Given that, it seemed to me that the only real form of accountability available to me—to us—was social accountability. I needed my community to know what he had done—to me, and to many, many other women. The consequences of social outing for a rapist can be numerous, but here are some of the outcomes I hoped for in outing him publicly: first, mutual friends severing their ties with him; second, a sense of shock for my community—particularly my male friends who had been close friends with him for many years—that yes, they too, had been complicit. They, too, had been harboring and protecting rapists in their close friendships for many years without thinking twice about what that looked like to me and the numerous other women he had raped.
And third, to not be afraid anymore. To know that a community had my back, was invested in my healing and safety over his comfort. So I was not entirely surprised when one of our mutual friends—someone I was not particularly close to, but who knew both of us—unfriended me immediately after I outed my rapist. Curious why someone (who adamantly claims to be a radical socialist who supports “women of color”) would have such a negative reaction to me (a woman of color) choosing to hold my rapist accountable, I messaged him: “Did you unfriend me because I outed my rapist?” His response: “I unfriended you because of your carceral mode of dealing with people.”
Imagine my surprise. This supposedly progressive gay white man was making the argument that I was reenacting the carceral logics of the prison industrial complex by demanding justice for a rape, of which I was the victim. Although I didn’t continue the conversation with this person after his response, my guess is that he would have preferred for me to deal with my rapist in a “nicer,” allegedly less “carceral” way. To confront him gently. To hold his hand. To beg for forgiveness that I was causing him a degree of social discomfort by demanding justice. Although he didn’t say it explicitly, I knew what his response implied: that in dealing with the consequences of my rape, I should have used a framework rooted in “restorative justice.”
First of all, letting your community know who raped you is not the same as putting someone in prison. The power dynamics embedded in the act of rape work by silencing and shaming the victim, forcing them to internalize the violence enacted upon them by blaming themselves. The only way to disrupt that power dynamic is to break the silence, and that, in my opinion, involves letting your community know who harmed you—both for their own safety, as well as your own. Breaking the silence means that the person who made you feel unsafe in your own skin gets to not feel safe anymore. Gets to know that he cannot a harm a person in his community and not expect consequences from that community.
One basic facet of language is that its meaning is malleable and highly dependent on context. Phrases like “restorative justice,” I feel, are one of those social justice phrases that are interpreted to mean basically anything that anyone wants. To me, restorative justice is an alternative to the prison industrial complex. Rather than locking someone up because they caused harm, we confront that person ourselves, collectively, as a community, engage in a public process of negotiation around how to hold that person accountable for their actions, and ask the very difficult question: how do we restore a sense of peace and safety to the victim? What does the victim need from the perpetrator in order to regain some sense of what was lost for her?
However we interpret the true meaning and spirit of restorative justice—and it is inevitably a multifaceted, messy process—it cannot, in my opinion, re-center and re-prioritize the perpetrator. For that is exactly what the prison industrial complex does. When harm is done in a community, the prison industrial complex focuses 100% of its attention on the perpetrator, and how he should be punished, and 0% on the victim and her needs. Language is malleable, yes—but we cannot allow social justice language, particularly the type of language specifically invented to empower victims of abuse, to work against us, to re-silence us, again and again.