The Hammer in our Hamlets: Patriarchy on the Left Part 3 of 4

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by Eve Mitchell[1]

This is the third in a four-part series on Patriarchy on the Left.  This series is organized from the universal to the particular; it looks at large questions like “what is patriarchy?” in the first part and ends by discussing micro-level questions:  How do we deal with particular instances of patriarchy in our everyday organizing and political milieus?  What tools do we have to combat patriarchy on the left?  The first two pieces, looking at the totality of patriarchy, and the particular expressions of sexism within left communities, were co-written with Jocelyn Cohn, another member of Unity and Struggle.  This piece and the fourth installment of this project (written by Jocelyn Cohn individually) will look at specific methods for dealing with patriarchy on the left with some critiques and comments.

Links to associated articles:

No Lamps, No Candles, No More Light:  Patriarchy on the Left Part 1

No Safehouses: Patriarchy on the Left Part 2

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Image Credit: Lita Box

The classic image of a woman with a feminist “hammer” intent on “smashing patriarchy” is telling.  Many of us tend to view patriarchy as something tangible, almost an object, and with our trusty feminist tools, we can overcome it. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case.  As parts one and two of this series argue, patriarchy and sexism are social relations that the left cannot hope to overcome in isolation from a broader class struggle.  Further, our “tools” for dealing with patriarchy and sexism are limited by the working class we are a part of.  If the class does not provide us with the proper tools, developed through struggle, we are stuck using the tools of the past and therefore unable to move forward.  We are living in a world that is growing increasingly hostile toward women and queers.  Our President Elect has been accused of sexual assault and gloats about pussy grabbing.  The Alt Right holds rallies to belittle rape survivors.  White boys on college campuses organize defense campaigns to protect their “right” to force themselves on women’s bodies.  Transwomen, mostly black, continue to be murdered in the streets, attacked in bathrooms, and are sent to prison for defending themselves.  These attacks must be countered by a mass of people, led by women and queers who make it possible for us all to make leaps and create new directions.  

But unfortunately, we are not there yet.  And in the face of these challenges, the U.S. left is in desperate need of a healthy dose of realism.  We are not special.  There is no magical hammer that will smash the sexism we face in our left communities.  Many will find this explanation of sexism on the left frustrating and defeatist.  However, coming to terms with the fact that we cannot magically absolve ourselves from the race and gender contradictions around us does not mean there is nothing we can do to deal with these problems.  Revolution will reshape the fundamental social relations that make up society, liberating gender and abolishing patriarchy as we know it.  In the meantime, short of this goal, there are two approaches we must take:  prevention and management.

Methods to Prevent Sexism on the Left.

“The Negro is a toy in the white man’s hands; so, in order to shatter the hellish cycle, he explodes.”

–Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks.

The left generally does not take up questions of preventing sexism on the left, though it is our strongest and most realistic method for dealing with gender contradictions. In short, prevention is our hammer.  However, I will proceed with the caveat that there is no one-size-fits all approach, whether we are preventing or managing gendered contradictions on the left.   Instead there are tactics they can adapt and apply depending on the specific gender dynamic operating in the leadership structure, division of labor, and interpersonal dynamics of that group/milieu at that moment in time.

Build women and queer agency.

It is only through the self-activity of working class women and queers that we can achieve gender liberation.  Concretely, this means a range of things including the following:

  • Building women and queer only groupings (on both a long and short term basis)
  • Developing organizing projects or campaigns that take up working class women and queers’ demands
  • Prioritizing women and queers
  • Consciously building a culture that is welcoming to feminized and queer people

Some of these ideas may seem obvious, but practically very few projects on the left intentionally take up this work.

On the question of women and queer only spaces, I am in agreement with Selma James when she wrote, “we have learnt by bitter experience that nothing unified and revolutionary will be formed until each section of the exploited will have made its own autonomous power felt.”  Autonomous struggles formed, led, and developed by working class women and queers makes the struggle for communism stronger.  These spaces oftentimes allow breathing room, something qualitatively different, where people have the chance to rebuild themselves, identify role models and build community.  They learn to assert their subjectivity, unmediated by men.  These are essential aspects in the development of women’s and queers’ self-identity and self-activity.  As FLOC writes in Lies vol. II:

“We come into this already splintered, already cut off and alienated, especially in this tendency we call “feminism.” Gender oppression often works in ways that are private. All too often one’s life is shut up and contained — stuck moving between the isolation of work, the isolation of home, the isolation of romantic love, the isolation of gender dysphoria, the isolation of fear, the isolation of Pavlovian responses for self-preservation. Seemingly minor interpersonal dynamics become a political hurdle, especially when they become sedimented and entrenched. Gender oppression leaves us in the middle of nowhere, in no place, and with no one with whom to speak. Autonomy from cis men can act against that. It means no time wasted in dealing with the old boy’s club, and the chance to work things out without fear of offending cis male comrades, friends, or lovers. It removes one force that drains our energy and shuts us up, a force of social segregation that isolates the recipients of patriarchal violence from one another. That’s where we see the potential” (69).

However, there are many limitations to gender- and sexuality-based spaces.  Many of these are dissected and debated by FLOC, including race contradictions and creeping gender essentialism.  I would add one-sidedness.  Our revolutionary aim should include as much of the working class as possible, and so we should strive to build the most “universal” groupings as possible in this moment.  Our groups and our struggle will necessarily reflect all the diverse race and gender compositions of the working class, and we should aim to work out gender and race contradictions (in sometimes extremely painful ways) through our fight against the ruling class.  Moments of mass rupture will have the most significant impact on our collective consciousness, and therefore the consciousness of individuals, cismale or otherwise.  It is for these reasons that I find it best to approach the question of women and queer only spaces in tactical terms, rather than as a static form.  We should ask ourselves a series of questions to determine the tactical necessity of a women and queer space.  Is a space culturally alienating (in sometimes unexplainable ways) to women and queers?  Is there something happening in the milieu that warrants a healing and building space?  Are there particular people who need mentorship and development by women and queers?

Identity politics, and intersectionality theory, grew out of the real antagonisms queer women of color were faced with against other sectors of the class in the US in the 60s and 70s.

Similarly, concrete campaign and organizing work can take up women’s and queers’ demands in a way that is organic and drawn from the real experiences of the working class people involved. I do not believe that every project must take up every contradiction within the working class.  For example, it is not appropriate to demand that people who come together around Black Lives Matter should abstractly take up women’s and queers’ issues, by, for example, tacking them onto the end of a speech or statement.  However, when these issues come up organically and practically, like for example when a transwoman is assaulted or murdered, or when Black Nationalists argue that queerness is a white thing, the organizing will take up these questions.  This approach differs from both intersectional activism that imposes an intellectual understanding of gender that is not materially rooted in practical work, and reductionist politics that overlook concrete gender contradictions as they present themselves.  Instead, this approach encourages concrete expressions of women’s and queers’ demands that are already bubbling beneath the surface.  In other words, we should not simply tack on a point of unity on gender and sexuality, or abstractly pluck a campaign idea out of thin air.  Instead, we should pull analysis and organizing directives directly from the content of the struggle.

In mixed gender spaces, we should prioritize women and queer people in authentic and organic ways.  Organizing often takes social skills, like public speaking, cold calling and contact work, and it often requires that people have strong writing and reading skills.  Since many oppressed people have historically been denied or discouraged from developing these skills, it is important for us to notice where people are at and work with them to develop them.  Women and queers may need extra support and patience.  They may be quiet and insecure.  They may be angry and demanding.  They may defer to the louder (cismale) voices, or they may rail against them.  We must notice the quiet people and be supportive of their process.  We must be comfortable with the painful process of development.  We must recognize the value of bringing around women and queers in particular and do the extra work to make sure they feel supported, included, rebuilt and encouraged.[2]  At times, this may mean turning to other groups or circles to support women’s and queers’ development, for example seeking out self-defense programs can be a huge confidence booster.

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Image credit: Lita Box

In addition to building the participation and leadership of women and queers, this approach gives feminized people the skills to withstand, and potentially avoid, trauma.  In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman describes the characteristics of people who are most able to bounce back from a traumatic experience:

“[S]tress-resistant individuals appear to be those with high sociability, a thoughtful and active coping style, and a strong perception of their ability to control their destiny … During stressful events, highly resilient people are able to make use of any opportunity for purposeful action in concert with others, while ordinary people are easily isolated or paralyzed by terror.  The capacity to preserve social connection and active coping strategies, even in the face of extremity, seems to protect people from some degree against the later development of post-traumatic stress syndromes” (42).  

Later, Herman identifies the most resilient Vietnam war veterans as those who were able to construct a sense of purpose, cooperate with others, felt responsible for and accountable to others, and were engaged in thoughtful problem solving in a dangerous situation.  Similarly, sexual assault survivors who “remained calm, used many active strategies, and fought to the best of their ability were not only more likely to be successful in thwarting the rape attempt but were also less likely to suffer severe distress symptoms even if their efforts ultimately failed” (42).  Herman is not describing a set of personality characteristics that are “naturally” inherent in some people; she is describing a set of skills that we can learn through struggle.  We face off with cops in the streets and are terrified but must remain calm and work with others to push on the edges of our collective militant, risky, confrontational sensibilities.  We need to be able to assess the moments we find ourselves in and help decide when to push forward and when to retreat.  We must work well with others and learn to solve our problems through collective action, instead of isolated management.  These are the skills that people who are the most likely to face traumatic situations, feminized people, desperately need to develop.

In the same way that we should be conscious about how we orient toward women and queers, we should be conscious of the kinds of cismen that we invite to participate.  This will look different based on the situation.  Many women and queers have no problem telling a cisman to shut the fuck up if he is talking over them.  Many others struggle with that type of confrontation.  Sometimes, in the interest of developing women and queer agency, it is best to just not invite those kinds of mactivists/manarchists/brocialists around.  Other times, it is best to encourage those women and queers to stand up to those dudes.  We must look at the different people we are bringing around, why we are bringing them around, and how to build a culture that is welcoming to women and queers.

Furthermore, culture building is different than simply reversing the roles or tasks typically viewed as “feminine” and “masculine.”  Many on the left approach building a “feminist organization” as creating  checklist of acts they can take up to counter feminized peoples’ oppressive experience.  For example, some may see that women often get stuck with the reproductive work in a collective, so in negating that experience, cismen will start to do the dishes, offer to do childcare, make sure the group starts on time, etc.  This is all well and good but the negation of an oppressed person’s experience is not what makes a feminist organization.  As Carol S. Vance reflected, feminism must increase women’s pleasure and joy, not just decrease our misery.[3]  A feminist organization will have a positive, qualitative aesthetic that makes women and queers comfortable, excited, and welcome.  Cis and hetero people, especially cis hetero men, may find it hard to understand what all of this looks like concretely.  At times it is best to follow the lead of the women and queers and periodically take pause in intentional reflection around what it is we are building together.  For example, intentionally build a culture where it is ok to raise questions or concerns about someone around race and gender issues, even if it is only speculative or based on a misunderstanding.  We could borrow from a harm reduction model around this:  we should not judge others for bringing up allegations of gendered or racialized behavior, we should acknowledge their feelings and explore them.

Femministe

Finally, I am currently of the opinion that body politics will play a large role in a group’s ability to build spaces that are welcoming to women and queer people; groups that start off majority cismale will remain majority cismale.  Part of this is objective; women and queer people have a lifetime of experiences that teach them to be suspicious (and sometimes hostile) toward cismen and hetero people.  On the flipside, some of the behaviors and practices that can help build a feminist space are learned instinctively or not-fully-consciously by feminized people in the course of their daily survival, while they are unlearned in the same way by cismen.  These instincts will shape a group culture in innumerable ways beyond what we can identify and build with organizational rules and policies.  Since we cannot control this dynamic, we must do our best to work with it.  We should be intentional about who we recruit to an organization and why, who is involved in a project and why, what sorts of people they bring around, how they carry themselves around non-men, etc.

Effectively navigate the personal and political.

Second wave feminism brought us the contradictory belief that “the personal is political.”  The positive side of this slogan is that it challenged the separation between the isolated, private, domestic, reproductive sphere of our activity and the public, collectivized, socialized sphere of our activity under capitalism.  Theorists from this era helped us clarify the ways in which this reproductive/productive split bolsters the gendering process itself under capitalism.[4]  Practically, this meant that women could bring their experiences of sexual assault, emotional and physical abuse, male chauvinism, etc., out from the shadows.  In socializing those experiences, women started to realize that they were not alone.  Similarly, queers and other “sexual deviants” found community and strength in the possibility of opening up the private sphere of life.

In political spaces, “the personal is political” allows us to bring to light any adverse informal or private dynamics within a group.  Many political spaces carry some unspoken, beneath-the-surface dynamics that are also informed by the broader gender dynamics of society.  Jo Freeman gives the example of an inner circle friend group (a potential “boy’s club”) that will wield power in a formally nonhierarchical space by making decisions in non-meeting spaces, intimidating others, or unintentionally falling into groupthink.  Informal and hidden relationships based on things as subjective as personality styles and whether people gel can have huge influence over our political milieus.  We must “socialize,” or make public, these private feelings, experiences and dynamics with our comrades as much as possible.  This does not have to mean using group meeting time to discuss an argument you had with a comrade but it can mean something like encouraging public and social interactions like group hangouts instead of one-on-one meetups (people are less likely to treat each other poorly if there are others around), or setting up clear spaces for brainstorming and bouncing ideas off of each other (versus decision making spaces).  In general, the more we socialize our interactions with our comrades, the less space we will allow for potentially negative, and gendered, private interactions.

Similarly, it is essential to formalize our relationships and group structure as much as possible without becoming rigid, static or hierarchical.  Informal relationships tend to be confusing, especially for women and queer people, who, by definition, are gendered to perform additional, informal care labor for others.  Informal relationships can easily slide into messy intimate relationships.  We should formalize our relationships, by setting up mentorship structures, for example.  Jo Freeman also argued for this formalization process, acknowledging that no matter how hard people try to build “structureless” groups, there is materially no such thing.  There are always informal structures bubbling beneath the surface and oftentimes they form harmful elite groups based on friendships, class, race, gender, educational backgrounds, and other group forming characteristics informed by the world around us.  Freeman argues that formalizing structures is the only way to combat this phenomenon.  For example, by rotating leadership positions and tasks such as agenda setting, note taking, and speechifying; equally dividing contact work, etc., we can safeguard against these informal structures’ potential harms.

On the other hand, “the personal is political” attempted to ideologically forge a unity between two materially separate spheres of life.  While we can identify the ever-changing relationship between the private and public spheres, we can see that these spheres still exist, and there is a disunity between them under capitalism.  For example, the home is a separate area of life, where we potentially behave differently than in the public sphere.  We may dress or talk differently in the “comfort” of our homes; we may communicate with our families or housemates differently than with our co-workers, or strangers on the bus; sex acts, sex organs, bodily functions, body modifications, etc. are still largely hidden from public view in our daily lives; there is a qualitative difference between a platonic friendship and a romantic-sexual relationship, despite our wishes to freely express the spectrum of emotion and affectionate acts.  Despite this material reality, many on the left ideologically collapse the public and private, as if they could unify the two just by speaking and acting as if this were already the case.  This has led to a widespread political culture that cannot decouple itself from personal relationships: people come to organizing spaces to find sex and romance; people expect political projects to drop everything and mediate personal conflicts; people organize only with their friends, family, partners, and roommates; people approach milieus as one-way service organizations—they shop around for the political milieu that will provide the most emotional support. This leads to cliquish and subcultural scenes that are not welcoming to the heterogeneous working class, and tend to magnify the racialized, sexualized, gendered, aged and abled hierarchies in the world around them.

In particular, this conflation of the personal and political has deeply gendered consequences.  Many women and queers are now expected to work doubly hard, providing emotional care and sexual/romantic labor both in political spaces and in the personal spaces that inevitably still exist.  On the flip side, people who don’t put themselves out there as much sexually, oftentimes don’t get invited to do political work.  Many feminized people come to politics through their partners, and many can relate to Barucha Peller’s words in her unpublished text: “If I do decide to sleep with a male comrade, let alone enter into a relationship with him, I worry about the affects of my life and organizing should we break up.”  Yet, instead of questioning whether dating is a good recruitment strategy, the left assumes we are all always sexually, romantically and emotionally available for our “comrades;” our milieus are stuck in the position of forever managing (instead of preventing) the problems that inevitably arise.

Similarly, in conflating the personal and the political, we lose our sense of purpose in the projects we build.  If we stop to mediate all personal conflicts, if we lose some of our organizers (usually a femme person) when a romantic relationship ends, if our political milieu is disrupted every time two people aren’t getting along, we are no longer putting our political work first.  We degenerate into a friend circle, a sex club, or a support group.  These types of groupings are not necessarily better or worse than a political project, but they are simply not the same thing.

As an alternative, our first foot forward should be political in nature.  We should then be able to prevent the toxic tangled personal situations that much gendered contradictions arise from.  If, when we start an organizing project, we draw clear lines around what is acceptable, “professional” behavior, we can be on the lookout for ANY behavior that inhibits our ability to organize together.  Such behavior needs to be corrected on that basis, be it gendered, racialized, or some other form of damaging interpersonal dynamic.

But I find myself balancing another tension here, between an approach that conflates the personal and political on the one hand, and an approach that severs the two and ignores the personal.  A major reason that “the personal is political” was developed is because many pre-1960s revolutionary Parties, championed by Vladimir Lenin, attempted to build “professional revolutionaries” who, like robots or soldiers, were encouraged to suppress their humanity, desires and creativity.[5]  This form of organization, commonly referred to as the “Old Left” was, correctly, sharply critiqued in the 1960s by feminists, black organizers, and New Lefters.

However, I am not arguing for a return to the old Party forms, but for an entirely different approach:  we should develop methods that move back and forth between the personal and the political in deliberate ways, neither collapsing nor decoupling the two completely, but weighing personal experience in political decisions, as well as highlighting the political impacts of personal dynamics and building on personal affinities to address them.  This will take training and practice, and we should allow room for experimentation, discovery and error.  People will become close to their comrades, others will appear cold and withdrawn.  We should not police these activities but learn to tease out what are political questions and areas of work and whether our personal relationships are enriching that work or potentially restraining it, making intentional, social decisions based on those assessments.  Part of this includes how people individually reflecting on their interpersonal relationships and challenging themselves in their own private lives to work on themselves and their relationships in ways that allow the political work to continue. This will involve a lot of personal and emotional challenges and growth.  While “the personal is political” advocates that hard work, a more intentional and social approach will go beyond simply turning personal feelings and dynamics into the main area of intervention of the group as a whole.

Practice a healthy security culture.

As Courtney Desiree Morris mentioned in her groundbreaking article, “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants,” people who act in a sexist manner are doing the work of the state, whether they are actually agents or not.  Milieus should be proactive against individuals who raise red flags by sexually harassing people, using physical or mental prowess as a weapon to demean others, dismissing feminized people, etc. This doesn’t have to mean wait until these people start coming around to deal with them.  Again, agree on standards of conduct when a grouping comes together to work on a project that does not tolerate any activity that inhibits your ability to work together.  Build in consequences if someone violates this agreement.  Follow through and stick to it.

Yet another tension exists here.  Security culture must also be reasonable.  At times, femme people are excluded from organizing spaces just because they were not part of the scene or did not use a particular radical style of language.  At times we need to weigh out the potential positive and negative consequences of trusting someone; security culture does not mean taking no risks in trusting people.

Offensively study gender, race and queer theory.

We need to prioritize reading about gender, race and queer theory offensively, including looking at particular aspects, like gendered violence.  We cannot wait for something to blow up in our faces to give it the attention it deserves.  If we are weak on gender, we must pick up a book and start working on it.  While theory will not solve all our problems, taking gender, race and queer theory seriously is the only thing that will keep our political relationships afloat when shit (inevitably) goes down.  For every high period of struggle in the U.S. since the 1960s, we have seen an emergence of gender contradictions that rips apart projects and entire communities.  We can trace this history from Civil Rights and Black Power and the development of trans woman and sex worker exclusionary radical feminism to more contemporary struggles like Occupy and the Black Lives Matter movement.  While I maintain that the working class will ultimately need to figure out the practical methods for dealing with these contradictions, we can still prepare ourselves theoretically.  By reading these histories and understanding the contradictions, we may be better positioned to weather the storm.

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Concluding thoughts on prevention.

I am tempted to end this article here so people will know that I am serious that prevention is the BEST tool we have to realistically combat sexism on the left in this moment.  As Jocelyn and I laid out in part two of this project, our left groups and subcultures do not prefigure the new society.  We are not as special as we would like to think we are.  However, I will risk being sucked down a rabbithole of critiques and debates by laying out some ideas about the current approaches in managing sexism on the left.

Methods for Managing Sexism on the Left.[6]

“First men will fear.  Then they will learn because capital will fear.”  

–Nicole Cox and Silvia Federici, Counter Planning from the Kitchen

We can trace methods for dealing with sexism historically, even just looking back a few decades, and carve out a spectrum of methods from state-based justice to accountability processes to vigilante revenge.  In response to 1970s-1980s liberal feminists who relied on expanding the criminal justice system for dealing with gendered violence, 1990s and 2000s feminists developed accountability strategies, relying on restorative justice methods and mediation, that sought to reform the abuser/perpetrator and provide healing for the survivor.  However, this method oftentimes did not work, or proved more laborious than fruitful.  Beginning in 2010, some feminists threw out the accountability approach, swinging the hammer in the opposite direction; they turned to vigilante revenge.[7]  This approach shook the U.S. left to its core and surfaced several contradictions.

TheRevolutionStartsAtHome

In effort to provide an alternative approach to the practical question of dealing with gendered violence on the left, I will elaborate on an array of tactics.  Like all political questions, taking on any one of them should be thought through with a set of criteria that a group develops.  We should take them into consideration based on the specific circumstances, and weigh them against each other.  Finally, this list is meant to open a conversation.  I do not claim to have any answers; I am attempting to gather information, offer some thoughts on when certain tactics are most appropriate, and open dialogue.  This list will need updating.  As movements develop, the working class will create new and better tools for dealing with its contradictions.

State-based justice.

One current method of dealing with sexism within the left is state-based justice. As many who analyze the current moment in the U.S. have pointed out, there is no such thing as “community.”  We are atomized, fractured, isolated individuals, characterized by our lack of strong social bonds.  We no longer work in stable, centralized jobs for decades at a time.  We are not able to purchase homes and build generational roots in a single neighborhood.  In our political groupings and milieus, many times the only things that keep us together are a shared political perspective or cultural interests.  So unfortunately, we are left with very few options for dealing with gendered violence; most of these options will be harmful to ourselves or others.  We must seriously consider the fact that if our communities cannot effectively deal with gendered violence, turning to the police or other forms of state justice is one in a long list of shitty decisions we have to make.  

There are obvious downsides to this approach that many have discussed, including most notably INCITE!’s race and gender analysis: cops are likely to arrest and jail men of color and they may assault the women they are supposed to be “protecting.”  Additionally, most people on the left should know that it is never a good idea to talk to police, as they will use any open investigation as an opportunity to break up our political work.

Abstention.

Real talk.  If your group or milieu is dealing with an instance of gendered violence, your group is probably going to fall apart, people will get hurt, and some (mostly likely the survivor and their supporters) will be isolated.  The fallout from this issue could be made worse, or perhaps minimized, by doing nothing.  In fact, this is the default mode of militants of many tendencies today.  This is borne out of the correct assessment that gendered violence happens within the left and the left has inadequately handled it.  Furthermore, a group may decide to do nothing out of a strategic consideration––in the long term, our movements will be powerful enough to take on pimps, drug pushers and anti-social gang members in our communities, but we may not have the people and skills to wage that attack in this moment. The same could be said for acts of gendered violence.

However, this approach attempts to brush things under the rug that will likely pop back up.  By refusing to deal with an issue head-on, groups and milieus are simply delaying the inevitable, oftentimes pushing out valuable feminized organizers in the process.

Accountability Processes, Restorative/Transformative Justice.

Groups like Alternatives to Violence Project, CARA, INCITE!, Philly Stands Up! and Philly’s Pissed offer services, accountability toolkits and restorative/transformative justice programming.[8]  These groups argue that accountability processes are a positive alternative to relying on the state, encouraging us to take responsibility for our own communities, and helping the left develop the skills it needs to effectively mediate conflict.  They claim accountability processes have the potential to rectify harm by allowing survivors the space to confront their abuser, feel heard and supported, and participate in changed behaviors.  The groups who employ accountability approaches have done work to think through the various steps and resources necessary for these processes, and have identified a series of tensions that inevitably come up.  These all center around the tension between the individual survivor’s needs and the “community’s” needs:

  • Defining abuse: in many milieus, there are not explicit definitions of abuse, so at times a survivor’s experience of abuse may differ from what a group or milieu constitutes as abuse.  There may be more appropriate approaches for non-abusive harmful acts.
  • Investigation: given the fact that many women are not believed, there is oftentimes a knee-jerk reaction that will argue against investigating claims of abuse.  Furthermore, some argue against investigation processes in order to avoid re-traumatizing the survivor.  On the other hand, there must be some form of democratic “due process” in order to avoid witch hunts.
  • Confidentiality: it is unclear how public the details of a harmful interaction should be, especially when those directly involved demand privacy.
  • Goals: oftentimes, the survivor’s goals may be unrealistic, or may not align with the group’s or milieu’s goals (for example, the survivor may demand punitive goals that the community politically disagrees with).

The Crimethinc zine “Accounting for Ourselves: Breaking the Impasse Around Assault and Abuse in Anarchist Scenes” does a good job of describing the pitfalls of accountability processes:

  • There is no clear sense of when it’s over, or what constitutes success or failure.
  • Standards for success are unrealistic.
  • We lack the collective ability to realize many demands.
  • We lack skills in counseling, mediation, and conflict resolution.
  • This stuff depresses people and burns them out.
  • Accountability processes suck up disproportionate time and energy.
  • Subcultural bonds are weak enough that people just drop out.
  • Collective norms encourage and excuse unaccountable behavior.
  • The residue of the adversarial justice system taints our application of community accountability models.
  • Sexual assault accountability language and methods are used in situations for which they were not intended, like applying a sexual assault method to a chronic “mansplainer,” or focusing solely on the needs of a survivor (rather than also considering the group, the community, or even the perpetrator).

In addition to these limitations, it is important to note that research indicates that abusers are not likely to change, even with a supportive community and access to “rehabilitative” programming.  Ultimately, abusers are making a choice to abuse others, and no amount of shifting the objective world around them will change that fact, short of a mass movement that forces these contradictions to the fore. [9]

Given all of this, is it best to employ an accountability process when it is extremely clear that the survivor favors this approach; the abuser is open to change; and the resources, energy and skills are in place to carry out a long, draining and complicated process.

Exposure.

Since most acts of abuse occur in the private sphere, it may be appropriate to move the situation into the public eye.  A survivor or community can do this by simply choosing to publically share their story; historically this tactic has been employed on various scales by revealing very little information, or at times, exhaustive details.  It is generally best to share more information, barring any serious confidentiality or security concerns, because the more concrete a situation becomes, the more we can stay away from muddied call-outs that point the finger toward “rapists” and “rape apologists” without a shared understanding of what these terms mean, and what objectively occurred.  Limited information combined with call-outs will remain abstract and vague, denying a group or milieu the material to weigh their orientation toward the perpetrator, while putting power fully in the hands of call-outers.  The milieu then has no choice but to rely on a moral choice or to follow personal relationships, rather than make an objective assessment of what needs to be done.[10]

Exposure has been done during and after many accountability processes, and is considered a potential “goal” or “consequence” by accountability process advocates.  However, storytelling can be seen as a tactic in and of itself.  The perpetrator should be given space to share their side of the story as well, in a non-silencing way.  This creates space for the facts to be debated openly and freely, provides a pole for other survivors to rally around, and generates a record that can be referred to if the perpetrator harms someone again.

Similarly, in the case of ongoing emotional abuse, the group or milieu can force the situation into the open by forcing all interactions between the survivor and the perpetrator to occur in public, thereby being subject to group review and real time intervention.

One potential pitfall of this approach will be the confidentiality tension described above.  Another will be a group’s inability to actually identify abuse, because in some situations the abuser is able to continue harming the survivor with a simple voice inflection, or facial expression, that will go unnoticed by others.[11]

Excommunication.

Another completely legitimate option is to kick the perpetrator out of a group or community.  This may require some level of exposure as well.  This approach will take seriously the fact that our left milieus are not “prefiguring” the new society––since we are not able to will away the contradictions of the shitty world we live in, the best thing we can do is keep the worst expressions of those contradictions away from us.

Of course, the downside of this approach is that the person will go somewhere else and likely repeat their behaviors.

Vigilante Revenge.

Accounting for Ourselves” describes the positive contributions of this approach: it sets realistic goals, is immediate, builds community among non-men, draws a line in the sand around abuse within communities, and it is a direct response without mediation from the state, the perpetrator’s friends, or other community members.  Additionally, the approach avoids subjugating the survivor’s desires in the interests of a vague “community,” or an organization, and it is generally faster than drawn-out processes.

On the other hand, many of us are not physically prepared for these kinds of attacks; many battered women are killed by their abusers.  Vigilante revenge risks retaliation and legal consequences (as Crimethinc notes, a cop is more likely to bring charges to a group of vigilante survivors than someone who “allegedly” assaulted someone).  And, as Aqua Marine notes, in a recent interview, choosing vigilante tactics may lock you out of other tactical options, though it is a completely legitimate choice to make.  Additionally, this approach is not above the tensions that come up for accountability processes; the same tensions around confidentiality, who is on whose side, who is “deserving” of a retributive act, etc. will arise.   And the stakes will be even higher for participants who engage in acts of vigilante revenge, given the approach’s militancy.  Finally, there is a question about the kind of change we are creating––are we seeking to coerce and force change within individuals who have harmed others or build a more genuine, self-driven, reform from within?  The answer to this question must depend on the particular situation.

Hanging up the Hammer.

I have avoided unfolding sweeping analyses of the various tactics used to manage sexism on the left for two reasons.  The first is to reiterate my conclusion, once again, that prevention is our sharpest tool.  The second is to encourage experimentation.  We have to recognize that this shit is hard.  People are going to get hurt.  Some will get physically hurt.  Some will drop off from politics.  Some will grow bitter, isolated and withdrawn.  But we must, above all, recognize that the unfolding communist process is bigger than us.  Our subjective roles and choices are insignificant in the face of this objective process.  We do not have the answers, we have a best guess and a small crew of people willing to try something out.  We must keep this in mind as we navigate sticky and painful questions like sexism on the left.  In a world that is increasingly hostile to women and queers, we must learn from the class’s activity in confronting patriarchal relations.  This means we must not be afraid to experiment and explore the wide range of the tactics available to us and we must not employ moralistic judgements about which is the most correct, but learn to objectively assess the potential gains and losses, outcomes, risks, etc., involved in dealing with hard issues.

Endnotes.

[1] Thanks to Jocelyn Cohn; Chinito Mayday; the NYC Revolutionary Feminism Study Group; and the small group of Unity and Struggle and We’re Hir We’re Queer members who did a long, painful study on abuse, for helping me think through a lot of what is laid out here.  And thanks to the many people who read and edited drafts and drafts and drafts of this text.

[2]

Note that there is a tension here.  Many groups in our moment fall into nonprofit-inspired “service model” organizing, where they offer services, like developing people as organizers and theoreticians, without receiving anything in return.  Mentorships and recruitment needs to be a nuanced two-way street, and must not tokenize feminized people.  Ultimately, we are building groups that organize, not social scenes with the most street cred based on identity categories.  In other words, there is a tension between prioritizing women and queers and prioritizing people who do the work; we should strive to do both well.

[3] See Carole S. Vance, “Pleasure and Danger: Toward a Politics of Sexuality,” in Pleasure & Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, 1984, pp. 1-27.

[4] For simplicity’s sake, I will collapse these terms while acknowledging that recent literature points to the problems in conflating concrete terms like “private” and “domestic” with Marx’s more abstract “reproduction” category.  See Endnotes, “The Logic of Gender,” for a strong argument on this.

[5] Note that there are alternative understandings of Lenin’s conception of the Party but here I am dealing with popular conceptions.

[6]  I am assuming a survivor-centered approach here, meaning an approach that primarily considers the needs and desires of a violence survivor.  Research shows that in a patriarchal power structure, a survivor is very unlikely to lie about surviving gendered violence, and they are likely to be a feminized person, even if there is a surface level appearance of “mutual abuse.”  This is why it is best to bend the stick toward believing and supporting survivors, even at the expense of a single, potentially alienated, man.  Practically, survivor-centric approaches can take on a variety of tactics, including those listed in this section.

[7] Formed out of the justified frustration with the ineffectiveness of accountability processes as a blanket approach to gendered violence, the current, dominant tendency that uses vigilante violence has faced its own limitations.  It has conflated tactics with an all-encompassing strategy or political orientation, one that should be used in any circumstance of male violence.  This is the definition of sectarianism––to hold a particular method or set of tactics above all others and to be inflexible and dogmatic in this approach.  While I should be clear and state that I am not opposed to these tactics, and in fact, I find them rather exciting, my point here is that they are tactics.  In the same way that it does not make sense to dogmatically call for occupations (Ferguson for example, leapt beyond occupying public space into riots, road blockades, and open insurrection), we should not call for a blanket tactical approach to gendered violence on the left.

[8] Note that there are differences between accountability processes, restorative justice and transformative justice.  For simplicity’s sake, I am lumping them together as a general tactical approach.

[9] For more on this, see a book that every femme person should read in their lifetime, Lundy Bancroft’s, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.

[10] An objective assessment must also include information about how certain acts made others feel, and can potentially disregard intentions.  This is important because in particularly sticky cases of abuse, for example, an abuser will have positive intentions, truly believing that he is helping a woman become a better person by ridiculing her, but the objective act of ridicule triggers an objective feeling and response.  To reiterate the points in “Accounting for Ourselves,” it will be difficult to wade through these various layers without the proper tools to do so.

[11] For more on this, see Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, especially Bancroft’s “Water Torturer” and “Mr. Sensitive” abuser types (pp. 85-85 and pp. 88-91).

 

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