Dangerous Questions: Politics Beyond "Denunciation"

An open letter

May Day, 2014

Dear Kristian,

I was dismayed by your article, "The Politics of Denunciation." Dismayed because the story it tells leaves little political room to move towards our shared intention: stronger cultures of accountability that more effectively reduce sexual assault and intimate wounding.

Your article was widely propagated, and in some cases misused. But I assume that many readers resonated with it because they are frustrated by the tearing asunder of radical communities into camps that seem not to be able to speak to each other.

I write to you, and to those readers, to describe what I think it will take to talk across that divide: empathy made practical. I argue that the most effective way to engage the practice of a politics beyond denunciation, is not by demanding that survivors and their allies humanize those that hurt them, but by growing political contexts in which we're able to trust each other enough to ask dangerous questions.

I was dismayed by your article, because I share many of your concerns and desires. I have worked in this letter not so much to refute your arguments, as to open a doorway of mutual understanding. My hope is that you and others will read it, share it, and respond to it in kind.

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Framing for others reading over our shoulders

This letter is a response to Kristian Williams' "The Politics of Denunciation", available here.

His article responded, in turn, to the statement by the organizers of the 'Patriarchy and the Movement' event in Portland in February last year, available here.

Both pieces focus on the uproar at the event when Eleanor presented a written statement she and Geoff wrote in response to criticism of the behavior of a prominent local and national organizer, Pete. The full statement is available here.

During the event, Pete's behavior was described as undermining survivors involved in an accountability process. Pete, Geoff and Eleanor have all affirmed that Pete made mistakes. I do not know the details of the process Pete was involved in, and this letter does not speak to them. Rather, it examines the impact of how they were represented during the event, the fallout since then, and what it would take to discuss accountability differently. In effect, "Pete" is being used as a stand-in for a generic powerful man who has made mistakes dealing with accountability. I think the framework and suggestions I outline are appropriate regardless of what a person like Pete did or didn't do, regardless of the accuracy or intentions of any of his critics.

I consider myself friends and comrades with all of those named, and at least one of the organizers, as well as many others impacted by the fallout over the last year. I am using names when they're already all over the web, to emphasize that among other things this is a circle of living relationships. I appreciate the conversations that have already happened, and intend that by making part of it visible, others may join us in finding a way forward.

Caveats and confessions

I write as someone who has been working to facilitate feminist transformation in radical communities -- and specifically accountability processes -- for almost 15 years in Portland. I write as someone who has been called out for causing wounds in close personal relationships, and participated in an accountability process connected to my patriarchal behaviors and my fuckups. I write as someone who has been a co-facilitator over the last year and a half of an accountability process that connects some of the people near the core of the conflicts described here (though none of those named).

I write as someone radicalized as a feminist, for whom the wounds of patriarchy are visceral and at the heart of my antagonism to the empire. I write from my experience and assessment that unless we get much better at growing organizing cultures that transform patriarchal attitudes and behaviors -- that proactively heal wounds among us as well as "out there" -- we will be ineffective at most other things. I write with male privilege: not to debate what women and survivors should or shouldn't say, but to stoke a conversation about what allies can do to be most effective.

I could not attend the 'Patriarchy and the Movement' event, though I was excited about it. I have not kept up on the Facebook wars or many of the other online disputes, though friends have told me stories. I do not pretend to represent the event organizers; I will not even represent myself perfectly. I have been confused about what to think and how to respond, as have many others. In working with and through that confusion, I'll take some risks; but because confusion is also an appropriate response to this murky and wrought antagonism, I'll stay open to learning and changing. I ask that you help, as readers, by investing in generosity.

Context matters

I begin by looking in more detail at our understanding of the moment with which "Denunciation" begins: Eleanor reading the questions in the statement, and the response of the audience.

The article launches its political argument by excerpting an extended post from the organizers of the event, available here. The selection is interpreted as follows: "[T]he 'Patriarchy and the Movement' organizers declare certain questions off-limits... These questions cannot be asked because, it is assumed, there is only one answer, and the answer is already known. The answer is, in practice, whatever the survivor says that it is."

Immediately before the excerpt, however, the organizers say: "The “questions” within the pre-written statement did not appear to actually be questions for discussion; rather, these were the type of “questions” which in of themselves asserted a conclusion, and a certain line... The conclusions, or political lines, that these “questions” asserted are lines that are classically used by perpetrators and/or those supporting [them.] ... [T]his “political disagreement” was asserted in a specific context of responding to X being called out... as a way to shield [him]." The post elaborates in detail the way that hearing the statement by Eleanor and Geoff, in that context, was triggering for some in the room and deeply unsettling for many. "The room seemed to fall apart in this moment."

The way I read this, they are not arguing that any specific issues are out of bounds for political discussion. Rather, they are explaining why they think the context turned the political effect of the statement into something hurtful. This is important, because it offers another way to understand the organizers, and the way forward: rather than excluding conversations about accountability, choosing appropriate contexts for them.

Context matters. Most of us will agree that political arguments do not exist in an abstract vacuum; they have meaning as part of a material process of evolving relationships. The same words "mean" different things depending on when and how they're spoken. The organizers are saying that, regardless of the intentions of the questioners, the effect was to undermine the legitimacy of those that were calling out patriarchal behaviors. I think their assessment of the effect on the bulk of the room is clear and persuasive, and lines up with what I've heard from others that were there, as well as the text of the statement that was read.

The statement was read in a large room of people, many of whom didn't have a strong personal or political relationship with Pete, Geoff, or Eleanor. Many had gathered based on a common experience of sexual violence in radical communities, and were opening up to each other in a vulnerable way. Just prior to Eleanor's reading, people had expressed personal stories of how they'd participated in or witnessed survivors being undermined, making such issues explicit in public. So when the statement says, "We do not consider a public forum to be a space where it makes sense to report our findings ... We are interested in moving away from personalized attacks on comrades and toward more general political lessons...," we can see how it was interpreted as deflecting attention from specifics about Pete and towards abstractions. This then colored the questions that followed, about survivors' role in accountability. It is to be expected the people in the room would hear them as undermining those most harmed.

I know Geoff and Eleanor, and believe that they are honestly committed to improving our ability in radical community to change patriarchal dynamics. In fact, I think they model admirable courage and humility in their public apology, where they repeat the basic point: "We can see how [reading the statement] was interpreted as an attempt to shield an individual and felt silencing." It was not their intention to do so, but "good intentions are not enough for good practice." (See this link.)

"Denunciation" starts with the argument that the audience at the event illegitimately shut down a reasonable set of questions, and that the organizers defended the shutdown based on a politics that pre-empts debate. It does not acknowledge that the audience was reasonable in interpreting Geoff and Eleanor's questions, in context, as undermining survivors.

I think this is crucial, if we are trying to understand how to change the overall pattern. I think this is the key moment to leverage change: the context in which we ask such dangerous questions.

Otherwise? Polarization is revealed and deepened, with reason.

Whose side are you on?

Why is it that the relatively interconnected political networks in Portland have felt so polarized to so many over the last year? For me, it's a familiar experience in the context of sexual assault and accountability. I think it's something we need to move beyond, but in order to do that I think we first need to understand more about why it happens.

"Denunciation" argues that the organizers of the event were in practice propagating a theory of dealing with accountability for sexual assault, in which a political community is duty-bound to enact sanctions demanded by survivors, without question. It implies that in general, this pattern means that when perpetrators are called out, the complexity of their humanity (and others) is reduced to a simple, comforting dualism; patriarchy as a system of oppression becomes depersonalized into roles, with a narrative of "right" and "wrong" that forces people to line up and denounce.

In my experience, this is not a theory or practice universally shared among those outraged and hurt at the event. Indeed, I think the "politics of denunciation" is out of touch with what the organizers actually argue. Everyone I know personally who's been doing sexual assault accountability work for more than a year or two, is far more nuanced and thoughtful than the article's caricature. Its oversimplification occludes this complexity, which is politically counterproductive.

But I also want say that there's truth in the story, too. Some people practice such a politics, at some times. More to the point, I've done it myself. What you narrate is real, some of the time.

I want us to understand why people might do this. (There are many reasons; these are some.)

I'll take it as uncontroversial that we live in a society that structurally reproduces intimate wounds -- both through specific acts of violence, and through general patterns and collective scars. All of us experience this; those socialized as women tend to be hurt in ways that reinforce powerlessness, victimhood, voicelessness, isolation, and fear. Despite lip service, this continues in radical circles. Often, this takes the form of prominent men being granted the structural benefit of the doubt, and women relegated to tending wounds in private, or among each other, as "personal matters". This is the primary polarization, the source of the ensuing tensions.

So far, so good. Sounds like a zine we've all read a dozen times. Yawn

But do we get it? Words, especially abstract political language, feel insufficient to really get at the gutwrenching wounds caused by the interplay between intimate violence and patriarchal dominance of groups and process.

So here's an experiment.

Dear reader, if you're willing, please stop for a moment, close your eyes, and reflect on how damaging all this intimate wounding is. Use whatever personal experiences are relevant. Let it settle. Feel your feelings, in your body.


If you're like me, you'll get really sad, really angry, maybe scared, maybe fierce. This goes to the heart of the thing. To oversimplify, I think that at some level, I'll trust you if I can sense that you're outraged, too. That this feeling is central to how you respond to others' experiences of sexual violence. That you notice it, and won't sideline it, even if it's not as all-consuming for you as it can be for those most affected. This, I think, is what I and maybe others mean by "getting it".

When I "get it", I want to disrupt and overthrow that patriarchal pattern, by any means necessary. I want to support people that have been silenced and sidelined, by organizing in solidarity, by joining our voices together in clarity about what's not OK, and standing firm when the patterns of delegitimization emerge. If my comrades "get it", I expect them to join me. During times of "business as usual", they all agreed on general feminist principles; so I expect they'll respond in ways that I can recognize as supportive when the shit hits the fan.

If they don't, I feel betrayed, confused. Many with more personally traumatic wounds, feel profoundly unsafe. Still others never trusted the mostly male-assigned comrades that agreed on the theory, but didn't embody the empathy, and find this distrust confirmed. In this kind of environment -- the environment that many people experienced at 'Patriarchy and the Movement', and afterward -- the primary polarization is made visible.

If the response to this visibility isn't empathetic and open, there's a danger -- I've seen it many times -- of a drawn-out political impasse, exhaustion, and potentially the conclusion by many of those with most to lose that maybe it's better to just stay quiet. This, to me, is the worst outcome, an outcome that silences those whose voices we need to amplify most of all.

To avoid this outcome is why many people choose to defend themselves from those they don't trust.

If the choice has to be this: between depersonalizing and denouncing someone with power who repeatedly doesn't "get it" when the chips are down, vs. breaking solidarity with those who've faced their fears and stood up in outrage against patterns perpetuating patriarchy -- if that's the choice, the choice is simple. Denounce!

Asking questions

But I think we need to find a way beyond the two options above, beyond that desperate choice.

My hope: if you readers of this letter who resonated with "Denunciation", see that demonstrating practical empathy may create a context in which important questions can be asked, you may open to understanding your own responsibility in creating those conditions. Then, perhaps, self-defense on the part of survivors will be less necessary.

So, a risk. The organizers of the 'Patriarchy and the Movement' event were spot on: questions like those Eleanor and Geoff raised are often used as tools to destabilize feminist solidarity. And yet, I've had deep and heart-wrenching conversations with my closest accountability-process allies over just such ambiguities. I've been uncomfortable raising them publicly, because I don't want them to be misused against vulnerable allies.

But now I am. This is an exercise in experimental trust.

It goes back to context. If participants in a conversation can trust that the others "get it", then we can talk about questions in a profoundly different way.

On the one hand: answering the questions Eleanor and Geoff asked, as determined by the context they asked in, the event organizers wrote a well-argued set of answers that I encourage folks to read on their blog.

Now, on the other hand, I want to ask and answer questions that take the same form, but in what I hope can be a profoundly different context. In which you sense that I "get it". Where you trust that I am passionately committed to being survivor-centered. (By which I mean: prioritizing the experiences and needs of survivors, and the fabric of people, mostly women, who have been most wounded by patriarchy.)

Addressing survivors' needs starts with direct, tangible actions. But once the groundwork is done to sustainably meet those needs, I think the process can expand to include transforming those whose actions cause wounding. Creating such a culture involves working with complex, dangerous questions. Like these:

  • Why have the forms of accountability processes that we’ve seen in radical subcultures so regularly failed?

I have been part of ostracizing 'men who assaulted' in political community. Years later, rooted in many conversations with survivors, I have concerns about what we did. It did not result in the changes we wanted -- changes in the 'perpetrator', changes in our movements. And it contributed to effects we didn't want -- retraumatization of the survivor, and splits within radical communities that resulted in more 'rape-friendly' spaces that amplified patriarchal behaviors. This is far from the only way that processes "fail" -- and many "succeed" -- but it's part of the story.

  • Should we ostracize comrades who fuck up?

I think that statically defining some people as 'perpetrators', and then treating them as damaged goods (ie. 'demonization'), can be counterproductive to the kinds of change we need, because it creates an unrealistically simple image that there are good guys and bad guys. I think most of us are damaged, and cause wounds through patriarchy on a broad spectrum. More of us should be called out, more often, more easily. If we make the key criterion not whether people 'are fucked up' in a static sense, but whether they're willing to invest in good faith in listening to those who have feedback ('calling out'), to being open to change, and to doing the work needed to rebuild trust -- then I think we have a much better chance of actually transforming our radical cultures. With better, more effective ways to reduce harm, enforce change, and rebuild trust, ostracism can become a rare final recourse.

  • Is there a tension between supporting a survivor’s healing and holding perpetrators accountable? Should survivors be in charge of the entirety of both such processes?

Rooted in some of the groups of a decade ago (esp. Philly's Pissed & Philly Stands Up), and many conversations with allied accountability-oriented feminists, I think that it can often be dangerous and unfair to survivors to lay primary responsibility for accountability on them. It should be on 'the community'. If at all possible, I think it is much better to have a group separate from the survivor support that is oriented to working with the 'perpetrator'/'assaulter'/'aggressor'/'person whose actions did harm' to help them heal the wounds with the community -- while, of course, being responsive to the needs of the survivor. This works best if both teams trust each other, and there's a larger political fabric that is experienced as supportive of feminist transformation.

If my risk pays off, then this is a different way of asking these questions. It gives them a contrasting political meaning: instead of, "It's not fair to attack Pete!", they say, "We can support survivors in ways that are resilient to mistakes by people like Pete." They say, "We can support Pete, in holding him accountable in ways everyone can see." Perhaps they even say, "Pete can be part of the solution!"

The only way these questions can be heard this way by survivors and allies, and changes can really happen in how we're accountable, is if we can build trust that we are actually centering survivors and the needs of those systematically oppressed by patriarchy. If readers use my vulnerable sharing above to undermine survivors, then you make it very hard to justify anything other than shouting you down. But if you use them as a doorway to understanding, then I welcome the questions we can ask, and answer, while walking together.

Taking actions

So to reprise: What does it take to build the trust we need? When it comes to working with intimate wounding, I think the questions are: Do you really 'get it'? Am I safe opening up to you -- as speaker, and listener? Are you going to hold my heart -- yes, with a strong political understanding of how patriarchy works -- but also in a way that takes my complexity and frailty generously, that is strong enough to stay there even when I'm off the wall, when I lose it, when my pain gets the better of me?

It's hard. I screw this up -- in my personal relationships, and my political ones. Maybe I'm screwing it up right now. But I keep trying.

I hope we can all keep trying. Especially those -- mostly silent -- who've been in the complex betweens, connected to all sides.

What does trying look like in practice? Some possibilities:

  • Action: Pete's comarades assess the context of the 'Patriarchy & the Movement' event better, and do not read the prepared statement, instead sharing how they empathize with the wounds of those that have spoken. Pete's allies listen carefully, and ask tangible questions about others' experiences, not abstract ones.

  • Action: The groups that have investigated the situation involving Pete share appropriate details, especially what mistakes Pete has made, what changes he has committed to, and how he's accountable to those changes.

  • Action: Allies who share a desire for a deep self-examination about accountability, work to build a discursive space in which more people wounded by patriarchy feel relatively safe having the conversation.

  • Action: Kristian and other skilled writers craft complex, nuanced depictions of the issues, demonstrating openness to learning, curiosity about where others are coming from, and empathy for those most harmed.

  • Action: I and other accountability workers get together early and often to find ways to make publicly visible the complex, dangerous work we've done, the doubts and confusions we have, and the passion we share for being responsible to bequeath healthier relationships to those that come after.

I do not focus on actions that could be taken by people most harmed, because I do not see building trust as primarily their responsibility -- nor is it my role to say what they should do. I'd encourage others with relative privilege around intimate wounds to focus on what we can do, rather than others. If "owning our shit" means anything, surely it means this.

Doing our part to rebuild trust.

Let's move our politics beyond denunciation. It's going to take work to get there; if you're willing. I'd like to do some of that work with you, growing a radical public conversation better rooted in mutual understanding and respect.

In solidarity and struggle, your friend and companer@, .brush