(Content Note: mentions of sexual, gendered, race-based, and anti-queer/trans violence)
The idea of practicing empathy for our oppressors is a difficult one to swallow. And I get why. We’re tired.
Amidst the political rampage of Donald Trump’s hate-filled campaign and the constant plea of Black Lives Matter, we find ourselves at an impasse where push and shove are all but spent, and we have no place to go.
We are outraged. We have exhausted ourselves at every turn, decades gone by as we continue to assert our right to humanity, our right to breathe, our right to exist without borders, our right to live without fear.
We’re angry because we are fearful – we feel helpless within systems of oppression that trap us within ourselves. We feel powerless to protect ourselves and our loved ones against racial injustice, misogynoir, police brutality, gender discrimination, LGBTQIA+ violence and erasure, cultural genocide, and more.
Our anger is the lament of our wounded humanity, a cry that will no longer be suppressed. Our generation is done asking – we are not begging to be addressed. Justice is our demand.
But how do we recognize or seek a compensation we have never met? Considering that so much of our nation’s history is built on unpunished crimes likes genocide and slavery, how can we possibly know what justice looks like?
Many of us, including myself, feel ill-equipped to distinguish justice from retribution. And, as a result, we unknowingly perpetuate our own pain.
We are taught from a young age that justice involves making our trespasser, or oppressor, suffer in the same ways that we have been made to suffer. For example, when Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted for sexually assaulting thirteen women, many of whom were low-income Black women, people rejoiced over “justice served,” some even hoping that he would experience his victims’ pain (that is, sexual violence) in prison.
Our criminal justice system is built on retributive punishment, so it makes sense for us, in the midst of our justified and unhealed anger, to see this as justice.
Further, many of us have felt “othered” or dehumanized by our oppressor(s) who seem far removed from our own humanity due to the systems that divide us. Consequently, sometimes it seems like the only way we can receive both vindication for our suffering and affirmation of our shared humanity is by making our oppressor feel our pain.
However, perpetuating brokenness and injustice neither adds to our own healing nor addresses the roots of our oppression.
We can never be better than that which we imitate, so mimicking a retributive system in the name of justice must stop. Punishment and accountability do not need to look like retribution.
Justice begins with empathy. And in order to cultivate an empathic practice, we must not be afraid of evaluating ourselves in the process. Here are three things that separate justice from retribution.
1. Justice Calls for Empathy – Retribution Perpetuates Othering
I recognize that a call for empathy for both the oppressed and the oppressor seems extreme. Oppressed folks are constantly asked to “be the better person” by expending emotional energy on behalf of others when we struggle to hold space for ourselves.
However, empathy for a trespasser neither excuses their actions nor requires the sacrifice of self.
Navigating empathy in a society that dehumanizes the experiences of bodies deemed “other” is challenging. Many of us confuse empathy with weakness because we believe that we can neither feel nor relate to the suffering of someone who has wronged us without “allowing” the transgression to happen again.
However, you can have empathy for a rabid dog without sticking your hand out to feed it. Similarly, you can observe the suffering of a dangerous being while still ensuring the safety of yourself.
Empathy is necessary in order to hold someone fully accountable, in order to build paths of justice, in order to create change and to facilitate healing.
It’s not enough to reactively punish a trespasser once a crime has been committed. If we are to create sustainable change, then we must first be willing to see ourselves in the humanity of the trespasser, even when their actions are inhumane.
Actions and experiences are limiting – there will always be experiences with which we cannot fully empathize. But when we expand our definition of empathy to center the humanity of the individual opposed to their actions or experiences, and when we acknowledge that each of us has just as much potential for evil as we have for goodness, we open ourselves up to the fullness of ourselves.
We create authentic paths for justice and healing.
On the other hand, retribution relies on “othering,” which is a form of dehumanization.
Othering is the very standard (and myth) that perpetuates injustice. When one is cast as “other,” one is removed from the measure of humanity that cultivates empathy.
I mean, think of the injustices many of us have experienced as women, LGBTQIA+ folks, people of color, disabled folks, and more. A lot of our pain is caused by the fact that people and systems treat us as if we are less than human.
Yet, when we view our oppressor as “other,” they are removed from our own being.
Because so many of us have experienced “othering” as a result of oppression, we perpetuate what we know.
To us, our oppressor is also an “other” based on a system that separates “us” from “them.” We cannot heal systems of injustice if we do not see ourselves, or at least the possibility of ourselves, in those who both harm and have been harmed.
A call for empathy neither suggests a pardon for the crimes committed, nor does empathy for an oppressor preclude empathy for the oppressed. Furthermore, empathy does not mean that one cannot hold a perpetrator accountable for their actions.
2. Justice Holds People Accountable – Retribution Demonizes Our Oppressors
It is easy to lose sight of ourselves – and others – in a culture that dehumanizes individuals who fall outside of its White American, middle-class, able-bodied, cis-heterosexual male norm.
Bodies caught at the intersections are at risk for internalizing the consequences of dehumanization, thus projecting their own degradation onto others.
For example, I know quite a few Black women who are victims of patriarchy within our own community, yet perpetuate violence against Black girls via patriarchal thinking in the way they both treat Black men and raise their sons.
The consequences of bodily oppression are reflected in the states of our hearts and minds.
We tend to identify with either the identity of an oppressor or the oppressed, rarely realizing how these identities intersect, thus making us simultaneous oppressors and victims of the same systems that harm us.
For example, White women benefit from their White privilege, and are often used as tools to perpetuate racism against Black folks, yet they experience gender oppression.
In our society, a lack of full accountability becomes the norm, making it is easy for us to distance ourselves from those who oppress and avoid cultural accountability for our role in creating them. We are all victims and perpetrators of oppression, and we must all be held accountable in stopping it.
It’s often safer to dehumanize, or otherwise categorize an oppressor as a monster. For example, we often demonize White police officers, and men like Daniel Holtzclaw, Ariel Castro, and George Zimmerman. If they’re not human, then they’re not one of us and we don’t have to claim them.
Accountability begins with empathy since we must recognize and center the humanity of a trespasser prior to holding them accountable.
Deeming any perpetrator a monster suggests that they have no control of their actions, as a monster cannot be held accountable by the standards of humanity. Monsters are innately inhumane.
Instead, we must acknowledge how our culture allowed them to commit their crimes. As previously mentioned, we’re born into a society that privileges identities in an ableist, racist, sexist, heteronormative fashion. Most of us are conditioned to shape our identity in relation to the subjugation of others, although some more than others (even if it is the subjugation of a child).
This conditioning is inherently traumatic: It limits the privileged party’s access to the fullness of their own humanity by shaping their identity in relation to the inhumanity of “others.” It distances them by cutting them off from being in community with other human beings. Privilege promotes fragmentation and trauma, and trauma coupled with power creates the recipe for oppression.
It’s important to first empathize with the humanity of our trespasser(s). Some may argue that we all grow up in the jacked up culture, but not all of us turn out to be rapists, murderers, and so on. And yet, enough of us do such that rape culture and deadly violence against Black folks, women, and LGBTQIA+ folks still exists.
It’s time to change the conversation.
3. Justice Centers Healing of the Oppressed – Retribution Centers Vengeance Against Oppressors
We continue to maintain a cultural standard that conflates justice with retribution, and in our quest for vengeance, we lose sight of our own humanity. Any model of justice that doesn’t place healing at the center of its mission is both incomplete and insufficient.
Dehumanizing a perpetrator in the spirit of retribution doesn’t center the needs of victims, nor does it restore their sense of humanity.
To enact punishment from a place of vengeance is a quick fix to make ourselves feel better.
Rejoicing over our oppressor’s tears or even the possibility of them being harmed in prison does not erase the violation experienced by the oppressed – it just adds to the brokenness of another human being.
Justice centers the need for healing and reparation of the victim’s humanity. It centers the wholeness of community.
One does not become whole through perpetuating injustice. Wholeness is created through the power to hold a perpetrator accountable, and the right to access resources that promote healing through safety and self-determination. Holding an oppressor and ourselves accountable is the most humane thing we can do in order to offer justice, healing, and hope to the oppressed.
In short, we can’t embody our oppressor by acting from a place of vengeance, thus dehumanizing those who hurt us, and expect a different result than the society we already live in.
Perhaps our society does not know how to discuss justice, or humanity, as we often find ourselves ill equipped to navigate the daily manifestations of our nation’s original sin(s).
Perhaps we do not know how to craft a model of justice while continuing to live in a present where the past threatens to come undone. Perhaps we don’t yet know how while we are still running from the impact of Western imperialism, slavery, and genocide – things we do not want to own up to.
But we are tired. And we are angry.
It is time to stop running and face ourselves. We can no longer afford to believe in the myth of monsters.
Breeshia Turner identifies as a queer, sex positive, Southern Baptist who loves all things sacred and profane. She received her BA in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, focus in Creative Writing from Stanford University, and is currently pursuing a dual Master’s in Divinity and Social Work at the University of Chicago. She is actively cultivating her practice as an intersectional feminist philosopher and theologian, exploring the intersections of art, BDSM and spirituality.