From Lee Shevek’s “Is Punishment ‘Carceral Logic’?”:
…the difference between carceral logic and liberatory accountability is not the presence/lack of punishment. Rather, the difference lies in how much power the person who has done harm has. Carceral logic aims to strip them of their personal power, while liberatory accountability processes require that they take ownership of that power. That is, ultimately, what accountability is: taking responsibility for your power as well as for the consequences of your use of it. Recognizing your own agency in having made a choice that resulted in harm, facing the people you hurt, giving them answers and apologies, and claiming your ability to do differently. This is what the carceral system does not allow. It strips people entirely of their agency, requires of them no meaningful repair process, and locks them in a cell where they are ritualistically abused by the State. This is a process that heals no one, nor was it ever even intended for healing or repair. It is a system only of control.
Liberatory accountability processes, on the other hand, demand something incredibly difficult for people who do harm: acknowledgement of their own power, their own responsibility to the harm they do with that power and their obligation to use that same power to make amends. Taking that responsibility also means acknowledging and respecting the consequences for the harm they do. If I truly take a harm I’ve done seriously, if I genuinely see it as harm, then I also will respect that the person I harmed may need to put more boundaries up between us to feel safe again. If the harm is more extreme, I will see the steps the surrounding community takes (closing my access to certain spaces, demanding my participation in ongoing accountability processes, etc.) as important responses to re-establish safety where my actions ruptured it, even if those responses are painful or uncomfortable to me. Absent of these consequences, the people most adept at doing harm while maintaining community support have free reign to continue perpetuating cycles of harm that will reverberate through years (often generations) to come, and survivors flee into solitude because there are no communal norms in place to provide them any real or trustworthy sense of safety. This is, in fact, the status quo of the world we live in now.
The real distinction between carceral logic and liberatory accountability is that one process violently strips someone of their humanity and agency, while the other demands that people who do harm take full command of their humanity and agency to atone for that harm and become better members of the community in the process. The carceral system says: “You are a criminal and you deserve to be subject to constant harm and control because of it.” Liberatory accountability says: “You are a person who chose to do harm, we believe in your capacity to choose to face the consequences of that harm and do what you can to repair it.”
This reminded me of SorryWatch’s “How to apologize: a short checklist”:
APOLOGIZE – Say “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” Take responsibility. Talk about what you did, not just “what happened.” Avoid “if,” “regret,” and “it’s unfortunate.” Try “I shouldn’t have done that,” “That was rude of me,” or “It was wrong.”
TO THEM – Not just to the twitmosphere, but to the person harmed.
FOR WHAT YOU DID – Be specific. Not “hurting you” but, for example, “calling you a slimy swivel-eyed creep.”
ACKNOWLEDGE THE EFFECT – If you know it. “I embarrassed you by calling you a slimy swivel-eyed creep in front of everybody at our dinner table, and at the nearby tables.”
EXPLAIN, BUT DON’T EXCUSE – “I called you a slimy swivel-eyed creep to try to make you be quiet because I didn’t want to be thrown out before dessert came. I was a jerk.”
STOP TALKING AND LET THEM HAVE THEIR SAY – “I wasn’t upset that you called me a slimy swivel-eyed creep. I was upset that you interrupted my song. It made me feel like you don’t respect me as an artist.”
And accountability (giving an account) fits into themes in Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse, which I’ll requote:
… everyone deserves help when they reach out for it. …the collapse of Conflict and Abuse is partly the result of a punitive standard in which people are made desperate, yet ineligible, for compassion. … people who have suffered in the past, or find themselves implicated in situations in which they are afraid to be accountable, fear that within their group acknowledging some responsibility will mean being denied their need to be heard and cared for.