I am, in many ways, an unusually a bad person.
I have a personality disorder, it comes with the territory. If anyone who has been diagnosed with a cluster B personality disorder tries to tell you they haven’t ever done anything really really wrong, they probably aren’t self-aware enough to be safe being around.
So it is important to me to come up with a system that handles people who have done unusually wrong things well.
Throughout this particular post, I am talking about relatively serious wrongdoing– violations of common-sense morality, things that will make your wisest and most ethical friends go “what the fuck?” Much of the advice in this post is overkill for ordinary-scale wrongdoing that people do every day, and you shouldn’t apply it for that. Wait until later in the series.
This post is not going to be relevant to most of the people reading this. Most people don’t do things that are really really wrong. But I feel it would be irresponsible to address the issue of dysregulated guilt and shame without addressing the issue of feeling dysregulated guilt and shame because you actually did something awful.
A few years ago, I was coming to terms with the fact that I did The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done In My Entire Life. Although I’m not going to share the details here, for obvious reasons, this is not a scrupulosity thing; I’ve run it by several sane friends with upright moralities and they’re like “wow, Ozy, that is in fact exceptionally bad. Don’t… don’t do that again.”
Naturally, I struggled with a lot of guilt and suicidality at the time. I’m naturally a pretty guilt-ridden and suicidal person, but I think pretty much everyone feels guilty when they have done a Very Wrong Thing, and perhaps has a passing thought of suicidality.
At the time, I read a Tumblr post by my longtime Internet friend Cliff Pervocracy. (Sadly, his blog was lost to the great Tumblr purge, so I have to reconstruct the post from memory.) Someone had asked him what to do: they’d discovered their friend had committed a rape a few decades ago, and they didn’t know the victim, and as far as the person could tell the friend hadn’t committed any rapes since and he had multiple exes who had nothing but positive things to say about him and so on. Should they stop talking to their friend because he was a rapist?
Cliff’s response was that he felt it was okay to decide not to be friends with someone because they committed a rape. It’s a normal preference, one that’s widely shared among many people, and one of the consequences of committing rape is that sometimes people don’t want to be your friend. But he said that he thought that you don’t have to. Solitary confinement is torture for a reason; people need friends. The ex-rapist doesn’t have the right to make people interact with him, but we as a society should say that it is okay to interact with him if you choose.
And, god, at the time that meant a lot to me, because I am less bad than a rapist, and if rapists deserved to be able to have friends and enjoy themselves and not self-flagellate for eternity, then by extension I must also deserve to be able to have friends and enjoy myself and not self-flagellate for eternity.
So I think that is the first part of a humane approach to people who have done really wrong things. There are some things you are entitled to that are completely non-negotiable, no matter how bad a person you are, no matter what you have done, no matter if you are Ted Bundy or Pol Pot or Thomas Midgley Jr. You have a right not to be tortured. You have a right not to be assaulted or killed, except when necessary to defend others. You have a right to food and water and shelter. You have a right to human interaction (but not to force unwilling people to interact with you, and that sometimes means sufficiently disliked people are doomed to loneliness– but it is a tragedy, every time). You have a right to fun and pleasure and recreation. You have a right to learn things if you want to, to make things if you want to, to exercise if you want to, to see the sun if you want to.
(Guess, from these beliefs, my opinion on the US prison system.)
And this means there are some things that ethics cannot demand from you. It cannot demand that you kill yourself. It cannot demand that you cut yourself. It cannot demand that you isolate yourself from everyone (although it can demand that you communicate honestly with other people and let them make their own choices about whether to interact with you). It cannot demand that you never watch a movie again.
All of those rights are important. But there is one right that I think is the most important right of all.
You have a right to a life that isn’t all about the worst thing you ever did.
Restorative justice is a big topic, and I’m only going to be able to glance at it here. For example, I’m not going to have the space to talk about restorative-justice alternatives to the prison system, or about the roles of community members and victims. I highly recommend The Little Book of Restorative Justice for a readable introduction, if what I’m saying whets your interest.
Restorative justice is a system that has three principles:
- Crime (or, as I’m using the concepts here, wrongdoing more broadly) is fundamentally a harm to people, as opposed to a violation of a law or rule.
- This harm creates certain obligations on the part of offenders and communities.
- Justice should seek to heal people and put right what went wrong, as opposed to determining blame and inflicting pain on the guilty.
The Little Book of Restorative Justice says our system of justice should provide the following things to offenders:
- Accountability that addresses the resulting harms, encourages empathy and responsibility, and transforms shame.
- Encouragement to experience personal transformation, including healing for the harms that contributed to their offending behavior, opportunities for treatment for addictions and/or other problems, and enhancement of personal competencies.
- Encouragement and support for integration into the community.
- For some, at least temporary restraint.
I think this is a good framework with which to approach serious wrongdoing that one has committed.
Of course, there are some ways in which a restorative justice approach applied to oneself is different than a restorative justice approach applied to society. For example, outside of a restorative justice system, it is often not possible to arrange to speak face-to-face with one’s victim and come to an agreement about appropriate means of restitution. (Indeed, for many sorts of wrongdoing, the victim would find an attempt to do so frightening or upsetting. Do not try to talk to victims of your actions against their will.)
But I think a broad framework of accountability, personal transformation, and reintegration is a useful tool for thinking about how to deal with having done wrong.
There are many ways to take accountability. A single sincere apology (ONLY IF YOUR VICTIM WANTS TO TALK TO YOU) is often appropriate. You should almost certainly tell at least one person what you did, honestly and completely, without leaving out any details or trying to make yourself look better than you are. In some cases, it may be appropriate to write a public confession.
If you have committed a violent felony against another person, in my opinion, accountability generally requires turning yourself in to the police. In countries outside the United States, accountability may also require turning yourself in for lesser crimes, but the United States prison system is batshit enough that I’m not willing to say that here.
I realize among some of my readers this recommendation may be controversial, since the US prison system violates the human rights of its inmates. I myself lean towards prison abolitionism. However, abolishing prisons would involve a fundamental restructuring of society that has not happened yet; it cannot happen willy-nilly by individual people choosing not to go to prison. In the meantime, the justice system has options for restraining people that everyday people do not. Taking accountability for a violent crime means putting yourself in a position where you actually can’t do the violent crime again.
Another important aspect of accountability is trying to repair what you’ve done wrong, as best you can. For example, if you have stolen something from someone, you should give back the value of what you stole, with interest. If you have destroyed someone’s reputation, you should set the record straight. It is usually not possible to repair the harm entirely, but it is often possible to do something. Repairing the harm may require significant emotional or material sacrifice, but it is absolutely necessary.
In actual restorative justice procedures, the victim and the offender often agree on a symbolic means of repairing the harm, such as community service. That can help victims feel like their emotional needs are being taken into account. This seems like not a very good course of action to recommend outside of an actual restorative justice procedure. Scrupulous people may end up using this as a reason to self-flagellate. If the victim is consulted, it may scare or upset them or make them feel like they’re being contacted against their will. If the victim is not consulted, they may never learn about it, and the symbolic means may not be something they find emotionally satisfying. Without an independent mediator, victims may demand an unreasonable amount, perhaps for revenge reasons. Nevertheless, as an offender, if you think a symbolic attempt to repair the harm is appropriate, it may be.
Personal transformation is another aspect of restorative justice. In essence, personal transformation means becoming the sort of person who would not do that particular sort of wrongdoing again. Reflect as honestly as possible about what caused you to hurt other people, and then think about how you could change it. For example, if you did wrong because of an addiction, you might think about how to get clean or sober. If you had a mismanaged mental illness, you might take medication or change your medications, go to therapy, or practice self-help techniques. If particular friends influenced you to hurt others, you might stop talking to them and seek out friends that will help you make better choices. If a particular circumstance tempted you, you might avoid it in the future. If your job involves committing atrocities, quit.
There are two circumstances that commonly come up with regards to personal transformation. First, personal transformation is sometimes really really hard. Some of the concrete steps I listed– quitting drinking, recovering from a mental illness, finding new friends, leaving a job or often a career– are extremely fucking hard. You need support from friends, loved ones, or your community. You need to expect to fail sometimes: addicts, alcoholics, and mentally ill people relapse.
Second, sometimes you discover that you are already transformed. The self-awareness to admit that you did something very very wrong without an outside prompt is often the product of a long process of personal growth, and sometimes the other product of that process of personal growth is that you’re no longer the sort of person who did that thing. That can lead to a sense of emptiness and of useless energy; what are you supposed to do now? There’s an urge to make up for what you’ve done when you’ve done wrong, and it can be frustrating when there’s nothing to channel it into.
The final step is reintegration into society. I discussed that step in greater detail above. Once you’ve made amends, repaired what you could of the harm, and stopped being the sort of person who would do that wrong, then you’re done. You have, as the phrase goes, paid your debt to society, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.
You can have a life that is not about making up for the worst thing you have ever done.