It has been a year, or in some cases less, but they are back: Louis CK, Jian Ghomeshi, John Hockenberry, and other men who left their jobs or retreated from public view following allegations (and outright admissions) of sexual abuse and harassment.
And as though they are all following a version of the same script, these men have refused to honestly account for the harm they caused or simply erased it altogether. Louis CK described the professional fallout of his predation as being “off for a while” because “everyone needs a break.” Hockenberry, who was forced to resign after multiple women of color accused him of harassment and bullying behavior, called the last year “exile.” Ghomeshi framed the public response to allegations that he physically abused multiple women as a grotesque example of internet mob culture and groupthink.
What these Condemned Men narratives leave out are the people they hurt, and what that harm has meant for their victims’ personal and professional lives. (In fact, Hockenberry and Ghomeshi obscure and minimize their own behaviors throughout their respective redemption pieces, as though there was really no harm, only misunderstanding, to begin with.) While they may differ in tone and approach—Hockenberry rageful, Ghomeshi clinical, Louis CK hapless—they each share a profound lack of curiosity or interest in what accounting for their behavior might look like, or what making actual amends might require.
But models of repair do exist, and people have spent decades practicing them. So I reached out to Alisa Bierria, whose work with the women of color-led grassroots organizing project Communities Against Rape and Abuse was my first introduction to the principles of community accountability, to talk about harm, consequence, and repair. Bierra is now a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and founder and coordinator of the Feminist Anti-Carceral Policy & Research Initiative. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: We have recently seen several powerful men return to their respective fields with what seems like a shared expectation that going away for some period of time was a fair trade-off for whatever harm they did. What has been striking in these cases is how little these men seem to have publicly engaged with the kind of long shadow of their actions, or with what it means to work your way back from that. Can you talk a little about what repair might begin to look like?
ALISA BIERRIA: It’s so context dependent, right? People have different communities, and different survivors have different needs. One of the great things about #MeToo is that it’s created a survivor relationality—a recognition about difference. You have to be careful not to take that relationality and make it uniform as if there is a homogenous survivor experience.
If we’re talking about celebrities, Louis CK or those kinds of guys, I think that part of the problem is that the celebrity—the public relationship the person had in this broad way—was the context in which the violence happened. I think that what that kind of person would have to do, if survivors are willing and consenting, would be to get feedback from those survivors about what they would like to see happen from here on out. Things are happening off the radar of media so you have to be patient and learn what you learn, but I wish that the survivors of some of these folks had the opportunity to articulate what it is they would want to see happen.
I wonder, given the fact that most survivors understand that this is a broader structural and institutional problem, what it is they would like to see now? I don’t know if people are asking them that question or giving them the opportunity to talk about that.
I’m really interested in what you said about celebrity being the context in which the violence happened. I have thought a lot about the men in my own field who have abused or harassed women, and how some of the men who have faced consequences are now coming back into media. I guess I am thinking about Jian Ghomeshi and John Hockenberry here. And the narrative they are producing about themselves is that their time off the job or away from their celebrity was about punishment or “exile,” when really it strikes me as so obviously about safety. Like, a person has to be, at least for a time, removed from whatever position had given them such access to and power over others. Not only because, they need to face a consequence but because the harm has to stop.
Sometimes removing people from that context is interpreted as punitive; I’ve seen people call it “disposing” of a person. It’s not about disposing, and I don’t even think it’s necessarily about punishment. It’s about consequences. It’s about the fact that you’ve misused your power, and now you are not going to be trusted anymore. In some of these examples, we have seen people get fired and in others, we have seen people walk away from the situation. But when people in the media are pushing back against #MeToo, as if it’s disappearing all these people, the point is not so much about punishment. It’s about consequence. So to believe that there shouldn’t be a consequence after people have said that you’ve harmed them is kind of ridiculous.
I’ve had this happen to me before, when talking about community accountability, someone saying, “This just seems like you’re bringing the police into the community.” And I said, well, I think the accountability strategy, the principles and the politics of it have to be really well-considered. And we try to avoid carceral culture in accountability strategies, but you can’t say that because there are any consequences then it’s like we are the police. There have to be consequences for, first and foremost, safety, but also if there is going to be any transformation or repair it can’t just be business as usual.
In these high-profile cases—and again we can’t know or see everything that has happened—but I have not seen that piece of the work you described. The part that is these men taking guidance from their victims about what needs to happen in order for them to come back into whatever professional or other space they might share. But I wonder if there are successful models of this, even if they’re a smaller scale, that come to mind when you think about this?
There is an article written by Ana Clarissa Rojas Durazo, who was teaching a class on gender violence. In that context, one of the students disclosed that he had sexually assaulted someone. But then he took himself off the hook—like, But now I know it’s all about transformative justice and I am not a bad person. He kind of exploited the lesson to avoid accountability. So what happened is that the class proceeded into a long process of accountability that was integrated into the class itself. What that meant was, a couple of people in the class were friends with the person the man had assaulted. So they were able to, with her permission, speak to what that done to her. So if he is just saying his thing, you usually don’t get that other dimension of the story. And I doubt that he was ever put in a position to hear the traumatic impact his actions had had on this person. So just being able to hear that testimony was, I think, one important thing. Then the class did something really interesting: they came up with some things he had to do.
It became part of the class that he had to check in and talk about his progress through these things, all under the supervision of Clarissa and in conversation with the survivor herself. It’s an interesting thing because the guy knew he had done something wrong. He was feeling a certain sense of self-loathing about it. He wanted to take himself out of the self-loathing, but he wasn’t prepared to really do the work that you have to do in order to meaningfully account. It was only through the context of these other young people and his teachers that he was able to find the pathway to accountability.
That’s one of those things where lots of things come together, almost accidentally, and end up having a pretty good result.
It seems like in a context like celebrity or elite professional spaces, there’s an incentive to perform remorse and the possibility that you might be able to fake it. A little like the student you mentioned, the idea that saying you are remorseful is the extent of the work. You hear a lot of language about “listening” and “learning” from some of these men, but not much else. So I wonder if there’s a way to walk through some different paths to accountability to get a sense of what this work looks like when it’s happening. In a way, I am thinking about Dan Harmon’s public apology for harassing Megan Ganz, and how that process was very much led by Ganz.
I like that you’re trying to name the different elements of accountability. Different ways or avenues to pursue. There’s the issue of being witness to the survivor’s testimony. There’s the issue of saying what one did. If more people did that, I think that is really productive. In a similar category, we have apologizing. But another thing can be more public repair. Whether that repair is the kind of conversation you’re describing with Dan Harmon, or repair in the form of an actual reparation: the survivor helping to direct how actual resources get directed to do good. Including to the survivor herself. Surviving domestic and sexual violence has consequences for your entire life, including your professional life and your ability to get the resources you need to live. I think about that a lot. This isn’t to buy yourself out, but it’s to redistribute wealth in a context where we acknowledge that a wrong was done that has had an economic consequence.
And because these things can be hard to articulate in the moment, having more examples and models of what repair can look like would probably be really helpful to survivors trying to figure these things out for themselves. Like, what do I feel I need here?
None of these things are universal answers, but I think that the trick is to explore what people have come up with. Talk to the survivors, really see if that person has the capacity to get to the bottom of what they want to see happen. Sometimes people are so pissed off or traumatized or whatever, they don’t want to talk about what’s next or talk about repair. If they are in a situation where they can articulate that, I think it would be really helpful.
The last thing I want to ask you about is this question that has been stuck in my head a lot about how, even if some kind of repair can be reached and the survivor feels comfortable with the terms of this person’s reemergence into professional or public space, things may still never be the same for that person.
When you read the essays that Hockenberry and Ghomeshi wrote, it seemed like their rage wasn’t at legitimate exile—they were not driven out of their homes, they have families and other relationships still intact—it was about being deprived of a kind of celebrity or adoration that they may never get back. They may write again or host again, but they maybe can’t get themselves back to this place of fame and accolade that it seems like they feel they’re still owed. I feel like those are just the breaks, and that’s what consequences can look like, but I wonder what you think about that.
Well, two things. I agree with you, I think the fact that if you’re a public person and the thing you did has a public consequence, then that’s just how it is. You stay grounded in the principles as best as you can while in the process of being accountable. That being said, I think that the warning, or the thing that I want people to make sure we hold onto is how common this shit is. I think there’s this way in which when we know that someone specifically, with a [famous] name, did something to specific people, then we can take all of the rage and fear and the pervasiveness of sexual violence in general and push it to this one person we have a name for.
I think the only danger is we lose sight of the pervasiveness of the problem. I don’t want us to believe that people who assault others are special. It turns out that they are less special than frankly, I would like them to be. It’s just too common. People say rape culture, and that’s fine. But I actually think it’s bigger than that. Even rape culture makes it seem as though the problem of sexual violence is about rape specifically and it’s bigger than that. I don’t have the right language, but I don’t want us to operate as if this person is especially bad because they did this thing. When, in fact, what’s going to happen is your best friend did the thing too and are you ready to say this person has to go through the same thing? And if you’re not, then that’s information about the bigger work we have to do.