Where I'm getting stuck here (and on your most recent piece touching on similar topics) is how much the goals and logic of "punishment" strikes me as incompatible with the principles behind why I am an abolitionist and an anarchist in the first place -- not believing in unjust, oppressive systems of power being erected or wielded against people. This is also why I believe in abolition of the family, in liberating children, and so many other anarchist projects -- I don't really believe that anyone should be so beholden to a power structure or group in such a way that they could receive "punishment." I don't think groups should have the power to "punish" -- to penalize past harm with additional harm for the sake of harming. Of course some consequences and accountability processes for harmful actions are painful and unpleasant. But that doesn't mean they were put in place specifically because they were unpleasant, or in order to give the harm-doer unpleasant feelings and experiences. But that is what punishment sets out to do.

As a psychologist I also am very mindful of the fact that nothing we conceptualize as punishment, in our present society, even works at all. Children do not respond well to punishment. Carceral systems do not "rehabilitate" people for a variety of structural, oppressive reasons -- but one of those reasons is that punishment is not a motivator for behavior change, and erodes the social connections and support systems necessary for a person to do hard inner work and alter their behavior. The risk of getting reprimanded at work doesn't make someone a better collaborator or worker.

All of these situations are, not coincidentally, situations where the person who is capable of being "punished" is the one oppressed by the structures of power around them. Being punished even with a more even-footed interpersonal relationship leaves a person feeling defensive, unsupported, anxious, insecure in the attachment -- all things that predict turning away from people in the future, hiding one's actions, mistrust, concealed bad behavior, resentment, intense physiological anxiety that makes judicious decision making harder, and much more.

Are there social, relational consequences to our actions? Yes! If I have repeatedly been abusive to other people in my community, I am going to see and feel the impact of that, and it will be viscerally unpleasant to me as someone who needs love and connection. If I have proven I can't be trusted to handle a certain responsibility in my community (say, a role that gives me the opportunity to hoard, damage, or steal resources), losing that role is a consequence that makes sense for everyone involved. If I have stalked and berated someone repeatedly, not being welcome in spaces where that person is present also makes sense as a suitable consequence. But the goals of these things are not specifically to punish me -- the unplesantness of the consequences is not the point -- and I don't think any accountability process with potential to do good has punishment as its goal.

I just don't understand how one can construe liberatory accountability and punishment as the same things. The goals of them strike me as fundamentally different -- accountability and consequences are meant to reduce and prevent future harm, open up pathways for redressing past harm (when appropriate), and building systems of accountability that, if the person who has done wrong is willing to participate in them, can facilitate change and healing.

Punishment in contrast is the institution of negative consequences for the sake of having negative consequences -- the logic of penalizing, disciplining, or otherwise metering out harm as a recompense for harm simply does not make any sense to me either as a means of motivating behavior change, or as being compatible with the spirit of anarchism.

I bring this up because some of the examples you mentioned in your other, more recent piece on the topic do strike me as explicitly punishment in this sense -- your example of getting a group together to beat up a rapist for example. I think violence is a necessary tool in a fair number of situations, but metering out physical harm purely for the sake of penalizing past harm... how does that help? How is that not carceral in its goals and means? How do those consequences protect future victims? If it's wrong for the state to have the power to decide who lives and who dies, who has physical freedom of movement and who does not, and if it's wrong for the majority under our current electoral system to inflict such violence and control over groups they deem to be "criminal," (say, the parents of trans kids in Texas)... how is it acceptable for a group to appoint itself judge jury and executioner of violent redressing of past harm in an abolitionist anarchist world?

The only argument one can make, that I can think of, is that it sets an example and penalizes bad behavior in order to scare people, in essence, into behaving rightly. And we know that both does not work, and involves wielding power over others in a means that expands systems of control -- how is that anarchist? Excluding that same person from certain spaces or communities I can see. Physically harming them? Why? These are all sincere questions and not sealiony hand wringing bullshit, and again I am not a pacifist, I'm an anarchist and an abolitionist and do believe in consequences for actions. But this is just really flummoxing me.




He/Him or It/Its. Social Psychologist & Author of LAZINESS DOES NOT EXIST and UNMASKING AUTISM. Links to buy: https://linktr.ee/drdevonprice

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Devon Price

Devon Price

He/Him or It/Its. Social Psychologist & Author of LAZINESS DOES NOT EXIST and UNMASKING AUTISM. Links to buy: https://linktr.ee/drdevonprice

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