by olivia buntaine
I want to talk about the practice of naming predators - perhaps how this relates to cancel culture, and perhaps not. I want to think about the practice of public shaming within the context of sexual violence - not in reference to survivors, because unequivocally those who shame survivors can burn in hell, but in regards to the perpetrators.
Naming is a powerful practice - in whatever context. The naming of a child, the naming of a hurricane. The name of Romeo - why his name matters. The naming of an emotion, sitting in therapy. It is a process of identification - and identification can be both celebratory and deeply difficult depending on the context. I think about wanted photos, missing person ads, mugshots, the titles of criminal and victim. I think of scarlet letters and being placed in the stocks. I mean that part is conjecture - I don’t know much about the middle ages - but instead of being asked to repair harm, the punishment of people who had committed some kind of crime was not repairing that damage, but the public identification and shaming of that individual. What is the role of shame in change?
About a year ago, an unwell man walked into the middle of an intersection as I was turning left from a stop sign. I hit him - he hit me. He was okay. For about a minute, I thought I had killed someone. For hours - days later, as the trauma response worked its process, my body still thought I had killed someone. As I stood on the sidewalk, trying to speak to the man I had hit and work with the officers who had showed up, a bunch of teenagers yelled at and harassed me, saying that I had been on my phone, that I was an idiot, that I hadn’t been looking. None of that was true. But I also had hit a man with my car.
The way this story relates is this: despite the fact that I had, indeed, hit a man with my car, being publicly identified as a bad, careless person who hit a man with my car didn’t make me a better driver. If fact, it probably made me a worse one because of the deep distrust of myself those words planted inside of me. The naming of me as an irresponsible bad person likely brought comfort to those kids who had just witnessed something terrifying. Sometimes, when confronted with something terrifying and violent, we don’t immediately jump to “Something terrifying and violent has happened. How do I help?” Instead, we jump to, “That person did a terrifying and violent thing. That was them. Not me. Not me.” This a completely reasonable and understandable first impulse - but sometimes clinging to that identification costs us our ability to help. I was the first person on the ground with the man I had hit (as I should have been) - I walked him to the sidewalk - no bystander moved a muscle.
Conclusively, the naming and identification I received made it harder for me to drive responsibly. The anxiety and self-hatred it caused made it impossible for me to drive for a long time. This reality concerns me as it relates to publicly naming and shaming perpetrators.
As a survivor, I see how naming is necessary. I feel it. And it is also terrifying, in a way that naming the driver in a car accident is not. No one is going to come for you or send you death threats if you bully the culpable party in a collision. I would assume. There are powerful and transgressive ways of naming that survivors have created to protect each other. What started as a list of predators’ names on a bathroom stall door turned into an editable google spreadsheet at my college. A nickname floated around for a student I dreamed of ripping the vital organs out of: “No-Consent Neil” (named). That said, Neil (named) was never expelled. He was never short of friends or women on his arm. He was never short of safety.
Lately, the naming and identifying of perpetrators has reached a larger scale - with mixed but mostly predictable results. Kavanaugh (named) cried and maintained a supreme court appointment. Trump (named) denied, denied some more, retained a presidency. We’ve had a few wins, but nothing to compare to 2000+ years of unheard or suppressed naming and identification. What does the recent, I hesitate to say “fad,” of the left publicly shaming perpetrators mean? For one, an at least cosmetic display of ethical values. Similarly, an at least slightly more cosmetic display of safety for survivors. Have those perpetrators who were publicly identified and shamed changed their behaviors or atoned? Maybe a few - to be generous - but not likely. Has anything ultimately changed societally? Not in my opinion. Do people worry about being “#MeToo’d” as if it was equivalent to getting screwed over by the societal stock market? They do. A bad investment. “#MeToo’d” - a verb, a bad verb, a verb to make a joke about.
Yet, naming is important. For safety, for healing. Despite the inherent danger and abuse survivors face in public disclosure. Unfortunately, I have experienced quite a bit of sexual violence in my life - but the hardest incident for my brain to get its head around has been the one I experienced at the hands of the man I considered to be my best friend at the time. Should I try it? Naming him? See how it feels? Alright. Here it goes. Jacob (named). His name was, and is, Jacob (named). I think he’s somewhere in the northeast, I think he dropped out of college, he was and probably still is an excellent guitarist, and all that remains of our mutual friends is a handful of instagram followers. The last interaction we had - if you could call it one - was his name popping up in my paypal account because he bought one of my albums off bandcamp years after he stopped talking to me. Jacob (named), Jacob (named), Jacob (named - last name redacted.) Why not put the last name? Does it mean I wasn’t assaulted enough? I’m not angry enough to publicly humiliate him, have people google him (I flatter myself, reader), have it somehow get back to him that I outed him? Am I not brave enough? Or it just wasn’t that bad? Or, perhaps worst of all, might I still be protecting him?
No, no. That’s not it - despite all those questions in my head. The truth is, I don’t want him to be publicly shamed. I know the punishment of truly grappling with what he had done - if he could - would be punishment enough. Not that I really even believe in punishment. I believe in justice. Maybe I want him to do what I would have wanted to do for the man I hit with my car. I would have gone to the hospital and asked someone - before I went in - if he wanted to see me. I would have brought him flowers. I would have listened to him tell me how scared he was and how much it hurts. But that man refused to get in the ambulance and he never contacted me. Would I actually have brought the flowers if he had? Would I have been too afraid? What would I have been afraid of? Does it matter that I didn’t mean to hit him, and that maybe Jacob (named) meant what he did to me?
But, on second thought, I don’t want Jacob’s (named) flowers. I don’t want to speak to him - not anymore. I want him to grow. I want him to hold what he did like a stone in his pocket. I want him to remember what he did to me like a death he had died - and the rest of his life a precious second chance.
Survivors are perfect. They (we) should do whatever they (we) want. I have dreams of murdering - with my own hands - men who are rapists. Simultaneously, I want to believe that humans have the courage and elasticity to return from darkness - I need to believe that. I don’t want to have to choose between speaking my truth - seeking my vengeance, or justice - and helping people who have committed the unspeakable confront, and metamorphize their iniquity. Change. I want to know if Jacob (fucking named) can change. Have the courage to step out of the fucked up nightmare they let eclipse their hearts and change. Will that bring me peace?