I once had a mentor define forgiveness as offering someone else the opportunity to make amends. Her definition opened a window in my mind; up to that point, I had mostly heard forgiveness discussed as forgiving and forgetting. That felt neither healing nor possible. I was young, pissed and not so interested in "letting go of the past" in order to make folks who'd traumatized me more comfortable.
The idea of offering someone else the opportunity to make amends centers their accountability in the process. I will forgive you when you show up. It offers the option of rebuilding trust, not compartmentalizing and pretending. It invites relationship rather than rupture.
It takes a lot of love.
Mending relationships has been on my mind because a dear friend and collaborator caused significant harm to folks we both care about, and it's been catching up with him. Much of it happened years ago, when we were younger and less aware of the impact of our actions. Some was more recent. Among other things, the harm involved sketchy boundaries with women and coworkers, and instances of shielding other men who were causing harm to women. Some has been resolved through public and personal accountability processes, and some still lingers and festers under years of avoidance, shame and selective memory. Figuring out how to help my community hold this person accountable while staying connected to him as someone I deeply love has been quite the conundrum. Understanding my role is daunting. Where have I been complicit or conflict-avoidant? Where do I need to step up and be brave? How can I support this process and where do I need to step back 'cause I'm too close to it?
One of the places I've been turning recently for inspiration and resources is the transformative justice (TJ) movement. Transformative justice goes a step beyond restorative justice to not only look at how we can reconcile harm and foster community accountability, but how we can do this outside the criminal justice system, and while working towards transformation of the social conditions that lead to harm in the first place. TJ is brilliant, messy and demanding. I am a newbie to this work, and I am so grateful to the folks, largely BIPOC women and queers, who have been developing this theory and praxis for decades.
An awesome anthology of TJ strategies and stories came out this year called Beyond Survival. In an essay titled "What to Do When You've Been Abusive," by Kai Cheng Thom, the author asserts that "if we are ever to see the dream of transformative justice become a widespread reality, we must collectively resist the culture of disposability that says that people who have done harm are no longer people, they are 'trash,' that they must be 'canceled.'"
Within the social justice and activist circles I'm part of, cancellation is not unusual. Folks can be loving and visionary but also surprisingly harsh, punitive and ostracizing. High standards for behavior are the norm. It's easy to fuck up and it's easy to be cast out. But getting "canceled" is not just something that happens among organizers and lefties—cancel culture has been all over the public radar lately. From JK Rowling, who's received a lot of heat for being an unapologetic transphobe, to the various men being brought down by the #MeToo movement, folks are demanding accountability and attempting to cancel some big names.
Closer to home, there are plenty of folks who want to cancel my friend. It sucks, and I understand where they're coming from. Giving someone second and third chances requires relationship, commitment and, most of all, it requires the person who caused harm to fully take responsibility for the impact of their choices, and to fundamentally change their behavior.
My friend is taking change seriously—he's working with a therapist around issues of accountability and boundaries, repairing individual relationships when possible, and making moves in his work life to not repeat the same mistakes going forward. This is why I've felt like I can keep collaborating with him and being chosen family together. But shame and guilt have also made him intermittently evasive and shut-down, and I recently discovered some places he has been avoiding accountability. When I tried to journal about the situation I found myself writing him a letter, asking questions like "Why couldn't you stop? Why couldn't you have better boundaries and more self-control? I want you to step up and be brave and honest. I want you to apologize to everyone involved. To really, deeply apologize, and never do these things again. I want you to get it. I want you to stop blaming other people."
More than anything, I want to feel like I, and others who have been harmed, can heal. I want my friend to fully earn our trust back through his actions. I don't want him canceled. I want him clear and honest and humble. I want profound transformation of the social conditions that too often lead men to harm and folks from marginalized groups to be harmed. I have offered him the opportunity to make amends. He's working on it.