In 2011, a zine called It’s Down to This: Reflections, Stories, Experiences, Critiques, and Ideas on Community and Collective Response to Sexual Violence, Abuse, and Accountability published an essay by Angustia Celeste called Safety is an Illusion: Reflections on Accountability. The essay, which is a critique of community accountability processes, has gained some interest due to its impassioned call for change in the way we deal with abuse and sexual violence in our communities. While the author is correct in highlighting the fact that these processes often fail, and it would serve our communities better to be more realistic with the reach, scope and effectiveness of our community accountability processes, there are aspects of this essay that we believe to be incredibly problematic and, with the dissemination of these ideas, potentially damaging to survivors of abuse and communities in general.
We are writing this critique because we believe that certain arguments made in this essay firstly minimize survivor experience and, secondly, encourage a culture of victim blaming. Because of these things, we believe parts of this essay and its implications should be disregarded as being detrimental to the struggle towards the destruction of power and patriarchy.
Celeste twice refers to abuse as a “dynamic” between two people and, in the case of emotional abuse, states that it is exclusively thus. We find this problematic, because it disregards the multitude of experiences of emotional abuse in which there is a very clear perpetrator and a very clear victim. Doubtless there are many examples where the lines between these two roles can become blurred, but in a great many situations this is simply not the case. We absolutely can identify the characteristics, traits, examples and behaviors of emotional abuse. To suggest that emotional abuse is “an unhealthy dynamic between two people” suggests that, in clearly abusive relationships, the survivor is somehow responsible for that abuse. These statements are very similar to the pervasive views around survivor responsibility or victim blaming. These inherently patriarchal views are a significant part of what continues to disempower survivors of abuse and minimize their experiences.
The author backs up this viewpoint by dismissing certain safety strategies put into place in many accountability processes (e.g. communication through support groups), whilst advocating for direct communication. We think it is totally legitimate, and in some processes more effective, for a survivor to request to not have direct communication with an aggressor. The very reason why those strategies are put in place is because, in many cases, aggressors have disallowed the space for direct communication, not picking up their end of the communicating, but continually putting the blame on the survivor. This furthers the cycle of disempowerment experienced through abuse. By dismissing this fact Celeste makes it clear that it is their opinion that survivors of abuse are responsible for subsequent communication or transformative processes that may occur. In addition, they imply that survivors are responsible for these processes succeeding or failing and more responsible than the aggressor in creating and controlling these processes.
In the case of emotional abuse, it seems the author is suggesting that survivors are partially responsible for that abuse, and also for the response to it. As well as being a form of victim blaming, this attitude is (to put it bluntly) patriarchal macho bullshit. Many of us are sick of how hard it is to have any kind of transformative process. Yes, accountability processes rarely “work”, but that in no way means that, consistent with systems of patriarchy, we should turn the spotlight onto survivors of abuse who chose to engage in these processes and tell them that they are to blame for their abuse and the failings of their response.
The issue that we have with these statements is not only concerned with their effects on survivor experience, but how a culture of victim blaming contributes to minimize the impact of abuse as a whole. In addition to the reasons stated above, this essay is harmful, because by assuming the responsibility of the survivor in many cases, it cannot help but partially remove the responsibility of the perpetrator and, therefore, minimize the hierarchical nature of abuse.
Patriarchal culture necessitates silencing survivors and supporting perpetrators. While we totally think it is legitimate and understand the sentiment and the anger, to “kick the living shit out of people and put them on the next train out of town” isn't a realistic option for many survivors who don't have adequate support. Some survivors would experience severe backlash if they dealt with an assault in this way. Advocating for violent retaliation is an easy thing to say, but far from easy to follow up: an easy option to point out that isn't even an option in many cases. Our radical communities are connected. People travel, word spreads, everyone has an opinion on things and often those opinions are to side with the perpetrator and call into question the response of the survivor to a sexual assault. It's not so easy to literally put a perpetrator on the next train out of town, and it's also not so easy once it's done to wipe our hands of it, to have closure. It's also important to be honest about the effects that more violence can bring upon the survivor.
Promoting these responses to abuse, whilst discounting accountability processes serves to perpetuate the macho romanticization of force, violence and insurrection that pervades parts of anarchist subculture. Once again, it’s easy to talk the talk, whilst gaining credibility for the zealousness of one’s ideas, but rare for people who proselytize these tactics to actually follow through with them. We think it's important to acknowledge that there is a whole host of ways that survivors can choose to respond to intimate violence, and all of these ways are valid. There is not one right way to respond, and we think the tone of this essay implies that some ways are better (and more glamorous) than others, thus undermining other ways of responding.
The other attitude that's communicated in parts of this essay and within the title itself is that safety doesn't exist, so fuck it. Let's not try to create it. Let's have low standards so people aren't disappointed in addition to being unsupported. We can see these sentiments coming from a place of frustration and despair, but it's all too easy for others who are not interested in supporting survivors who are reading the article to agree and say, "Why waste our time trying to make spaces safe for survivors, to try to address and change the ways our communities are lacking in support for people who have been assaulted? This particular survivor (Celeste) didn’t need networks of support, so it doesn't seem as important to me anymore to try and create them in my life, to put work into self-reflection, challenging patriarchy and creating accountability."
The nihilism that is inherent in Celeste’s argument is easily picked up and propagated by people who want to talk about “fucking shit up,” but have no real intention or investment in transforming their communities into safer spaces. Does Celeste want us to feel guilty about hoping for a violence-free world, because it’s a symptom of privilege? Sure, living in a violence-free world isn't a realistic goal (neither is anarchy, as we have been reminded for decades), but we can hope for it and work towards it. On the contrary, refusal to hope for and work towards creating a safer world says a lot more about our privilege than engaging with it: to be so privileged we could ignore oppression and not challenge it. Refusing to work towards it preserves our own entitlement to a privileged existence.
Safety is an Illusion promotes easy answers to far from simple issues. It glosses over the multitude of complexities inherent in the violence of this culture with a romanticized machismo and nihilism that completely fails to support the reality of many survivors of abuse. It focuses on an alternative that whilst being more seductive than many other options, in practice is counterproductive in many direct and more insidious ways. We hope that Safety is an Illusion is read with a critical eye and resistance to being seduced into taking easy options out of far from straightforward situations.
The accountability processes we create in our communities, that are as varied as the needs of survivors and that respect all survivors’ individuality, circumstances, and backgrounds, are truly important to the struggle to subvert power and patriarchy. We need to actively combat the culture of victim blaming that reinforces the disempowerment created through abuse and we need to put in real effort to work towards safer communities that are a part of a world that validates survivors of harm and has the capacity to offer real accountability and healing.
you can contact the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org