Thoughts on The Women’s March

Pink “Pussy Caps,” art installations of glitter writing on pads, anthropomorphized uterus puppets, drawings of vagina dentata—These are some of the things I have seen around the Women’s Marches of the past year. The problem with this sort of extensive rhetoric around genitalia, childbearing etc. is how it excludes transgender women, non-binary, and intersex people while overlooking shared political concerns with transgender men.

Simply put, not all women have vaginas, not all people with vaginas are women. The experience of being a woman cannot be characterized or reduced to one’s genitals, and by ignoring this, privileged white feminists exclude the transgender people who are hurt the most by the current administration.

Reproductive health is a very serious issue threatened by our capitalist healthcare system, it’s not just a women’s issue. Transmen and masculine non-binary people menstruate, see specialists for uterine health, and experience a great deal of sexual harassment and assault.

While I do not believe there is any kind essential feature that makes one a woman outside of holding womanhood as your gender identity, I do think there is a near-universal experience transwomen, ciswomen, and non-binary femmes: how our bodies are political. Whether it is the experience of being shamed for your form, being unable to access menstraul products, having your life-giving medication excluded by your health insurance, or having genitals that exclude you from women’s spaces, our oppression and our trauma is inseparable from our bodies.

Let us march for a place our bodies can belong.

Gender, Race, and Why the Hypatia Article is Wrong

I don’t want to dedicate more time than I have to on this matter, but I do feel compelled to respond to the “Hypatia Transracialism Affair.”

Recently, Feminist philosophy journal Hypatia allowed for a publication of an essay defending the notion of “Transracialism” in the Rachel Dolezol sense by claiming that the arguments in favor of transgenderism (as if Transgender people, who do exist, are just one ideology among others) logically support the notion that a person can change races. Hypatia has since apologized the article, but the class of privileged people who make “Freeze Peach” the hill they want to die on have responded poorly to the whole affair.

Let me begin with the reminder that having your ideas challenged, and having your speech held accountable and removed from a private publication for continuing to perpetuate misunderstandings and misinformation about marginalized people, is not censorship. Censorship is the state preventing and silencing voices. Free speech is not the ability to speak without consequence. The cisfeminist here wrote a mediocre philosophy paper that misrepresented and misused important concepts in queer theory so she could score a publication by defending something unpopular.

I will not be going point-by-point on her essay, but I would like to introduce two important ideas that I believe challenge and overwhelm the thesis that transgender concepts necessarily allow for transracialism:

Academic philosophy spends a great deal of time discussing something called “The Problem of Universals,” that is, how do we go about objectively grouping things together? For much of western history, most people, philosopher and layman, have posited that things must have an “essence” to them which necessarily makes them members of a group. Essences are nice, because they allow for definitive answers as to whether an X belongs in grouping Y or not. However, I, along with many other philosophers, hold that essences are (for the most part) not real, and the ways we identify group belonging is socially constructed and far more ambiguous.

Why is this important? Well, because this is used against transgender people. TERFs (Trans-exclusive Radical Feminists, basically the worst people in the world) make this sort of argument:

THE TERF ARGUMENT WHY TRANSWOMEN ARE MEN (consider grabbing a wastebasket to throw up in)

P1 Gender is socially constructed, sex is biological and “real”

P2 If Gender is socially constructed, it is just a collection of stereotypes. We must “abolish” gender. Boys can do whatever they want, girls can do whatever they want, gender is abolished.

P3 If Gender is abolished, there is still biological sex. Women (“Biological Females”) experience oppression based on their bodies from the moment they are born. Men (“biological males”) do not experience this sort of oppression. This is an objective, unchangable, biological caste.

C Transwomen are men because they have men’s bodies, and thus these sick, delusional men are invading women’s spaces.

TERFs so dearly want to believe there is an essence to being a woman, and so they pin biology as what necessarily makes for a woman. This is an incredibly poor argument for a variety of reason, not the least because biological sex is not a clean binary, because there are different kinds of sex (gonad, chromosome, hormone, etc.) but more importantly, it makes the classic essentialist fallacy of thinking that because there is no one unifying factor that defines gender identity or gender membership, it must somehow be done away with.

There is no essence, biological or otherwise, of gender, just as there is no essence of race, but that does not mean that gender is “imaginary.” Gender is a multifaceted psychological identity that is deep-seated and immalleable. Even if we lived in this fantasy world in which all gender roles were abolished, individual gender identity would still exist. Some societies have different languages to discuss gender identity, but that is a social tool to politically organize people by their gender identities.

Consider how we divide languages: There is a difference between Arabic and English, but there is no one final, correct construction of Arabic or English, rather, these are categories that include many, many dialects, regionalism, changing features, grammars, and other features under an umbrella. African-American English has a different verb conjugation structure than Associated Press English, Moroccan Arabic is unintelligible to Palestinian Arabic. And yet, there are intellegible tongues that are granted separate language status: Dutch and Afrikaans are extremely similar, as are Croatian and Serbian languages. There is no definitive line that crosses a tongue from being one language to another, just as there is no criteria of femininity that makes for a “true” female gender identity, or masculinity that makes for a “true” male gender identity.

As genderqueer youtuber ContraPoints described it, “All genders are ‘Made Up,’ but some are more made up by more than others.”


One of the critical errors of both TERFs and the Hypatia article is that it assumes that transpeople are “Trans-” because they are attempting to change either their gender or their primary/secondary sex characteristics. “If you can change your gender or sex, why can’t you change your race?”

As I elaborated in the earlier section, your gender is a psychological state. A transperson doesn’t “change” their gender, their gender was always there, they are transitioning from one publicly recognized gender to another. The medical changing of primary or secondary sex characteristics is to alleviate the gender dysphoria that comes from the mismatch of one’s psychological state and one’s physical presence. Trans people are not transitioning because they think that is what makes them “real women or men.”

Thus, the comparison of gender to race or other made-up gender critical nonsense hypotheticals like “Trans-ableism” (ablebodied people thinking they are disabled) or “Trans-speciesism” (humans thinking they are other animals) is that Race is not a psychological phenomenon. There are psychological effects of racism, and the relationship to one’s racial identity is incredibly complex, but these psychological states occur as a result of, and in response to, the political experience of being tagged as a certain race. Race is not biologically real, but it is an socially-constructed (and politically imposed) way of evaluating one’s ancestors. Your lineage is something external to your psychological state. Your racial identity might change in the sense that societies might start constructing races differently (e.g. Jewish people, the Italians, and the Irish were not always considered white, but are now), or you may come to a new personal political understanding of your racial identity, but there is no sense in which a racial identity can be defined as a psychological status.

In short, consider this argument:

P1 Transgender people exist throughout human history in many disparate cultures (the Hijra, Two-Spirited People, Kathoey, Khwaja Sara, Bissu, and so on and so forth).

P2 There is extensive medical and psychological research that confirms that gender identity is a psychological phenomenon, and transitioning is the best approach to treating gender dysphoria

P3 There are virtually no other examples of Rachel Dolezal-style transracialists, who claim to experience a form of “race dysphoria.” In fact, while gender is a cultural universal (there are no cultures that do not make social categories around a spectrum of femininity/masculinity), race is a Western creation of the Enlightenment.

C “Gender-as-psychological-state” is empirically confirmed through anthropology and psychology. “Race-as-psychological-state” is not.

More than just bad philosophy, the Hypatia article makes a critical moral error of discussing a literal life-or-death issue, the validity of transgender identities, with utter disregard to the consequences of such an idle, hypothetical discussion. Whether the author intended to infringe on trans identity, she still transgressed by ignoring just how much violent anti-trans rhetoric and policy found a home in the Rachel Dolezal case. It should be no surprise she makes only fleeting reference to actual transgender theorists. Our lives are not a stepping stone for you to get an assistant professorship; cisfeminist philosophers, listen to us first.

Why Read Fiction?

When I was in college, I was constantly avoiding students who were sucked into multi-level marketing pyramid schemes. One such fellow, whom I barely knew, kept interrogating me about my values and interests in a transparent attempt to figure how he could spin Amway for me.

“I like to read” I said.
“What do you read?” he asked.
“I try to read classic literature. Do you read?” I try to turn it back on him.
“Yes, I read business books [Read: Amway propaganda].”
“So you don’t read novels?”
“No. Why would I waste my time on something that never happened? To try to figure out some ‘secret meaning’ of writers?”

Our conversation was officially over after that, but this exchange really bothered me, as never in my life before had I heard somebody question the value of literature. From as long as I can remember, I had been told that reading, and especially reading long-form fiction, is good for you. As a pre-teen, I recall my father being a bit disappointed that I was reading lots of non-fiction, but very few full-blown novels. I internalized this, and to this day, I find myself reading novels often out of a sense of moral obligation. “A good, healthy person reads at least ten novels a year,” right?

The notion that reading fiction is good for you, any fiction at all, has not always been common sense. Especially during the 19th century, many viewed novels as a threat to the emotional and moral status of their primary readership: women. Novels blurred the lines between reality and fiction, novels rotted your brain, novels were a waste of time, and so on and so forth. Similarly, a number of my peers in my secondary and post-secondary education expressed great annoyance at any kind of literature requirement we had, arguing that any kind of critical reading of the text was just inane navel-gazing invented by English teachers. For many of my classmates, and I would imagine most adults, literature is just one form of entertainment or diversion among others. The only reason we as a culture promote reading to kids over video games or television is to make sure they are reading at grade level.

I disagree with this assessment, and posit that reading, especially the taking of a mindful approach to reading, is good for a person, and good for a community.

To spearhead this apology, I am reminded of Canadian English professor and media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s formulation of “hot” and “cool” media. Hot media are the forms of communication that are more direct and one-sided, allowing the audience to be passive; McLuhan cites film, radio, and the lecture as hot media. Cool media, conversely, require more participation form the audience to gather meaning, and are often “lower resolution” than hot media. Cool media include comic books, seminars, street performances, the telephone, and the highway system. Novels, as a cool medium, require quite a bit out of the reader: a 400-page novel can easily take eight hours of time, and a great amount of patience, focus, and emotional energy to read thoroughly. Each novel is a constructed world and set of lives that we are expected to take on as our points of interest. We are tasked to listen and to understand to people whom we have not grown up with, and we may struggle to understand why and how they make the decisions that do. We must remember histories, relationships, families, attitudes, and motivations for up to dozens of new people. And by the end of the novel, we have to say goodbye.

Novels, more than film, television, podcasts, or video games, allow for the development of empathy, because the reader must help in creating the characters, the emotions, and the happenings of a story. Reading novels fosters empathy, especially for characters who are unlike us, and for people in situations different than the ones we ourselves have been in.

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, made similar claims in his work An Apology for Poetry. Rather than being lies, as Plato and the religious conservatives of Sidney’s day argued, narrative fictional works do not claim to be reality, but a hypothetical and imaginative practice that builds towards one’s sense of virtue; thus, novels can help you become a virtuous person.

By virtue, I don’t mean a didactic, condescending prescription (like it’s the end of Sailor Moon and I’m being told to eat my vegetables and look both ways before crossing the street), rather, “What is the kind of person we would trust and like to have in our lives?” From my own experience, novels have helped me become more of the person I would like to be, by broadening my scope and making me a less judgmental, more caring person. Some examples include

Middlesex and what it is like to be a person with an Intersex condition
The Art of Fielding and why some people are attracted to a sport on a spiritual level
Things Fall Apart and life under colonialism
A Little Life and why some people turn to self-harm
Netherland and the challenge of making friends as an adult
Infinite Jest and how sincerity is a force that can save people’s lives

Conversely, reading helps us recognize just how many of our own thoughts and experiences are not unique to us, but are shared. I think of reading Tom Sawyer as a 14-year-old, and being amazed how Tom imagines if he were to die, how distraught and sorry his Aunt Polly would finally be. Or how like many of my peers, the protagonists in Notes from Underground and Dostoyevsky’s longish-short story White Nights responds to modernity by retreating into isolation and an unhealthy set of projection on prospective lovers. I found Donna Tartt’s The Secret History utterly captivating, partially because I was a liberal arts major who loved nothing more than arguing about highfalutin matters with my friends. And I found solace in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s book of creative [and spoiler alert, sometimes fictive] non-fiction Pulphead, especially the first narrative essay, when Sullivan explores his teenage flirtation with Christian Evangelicalism, an experience I share.

There are many other reasons to read: to learn new words and turns of phrase, to relax, to understand what it is the kids are talking about, to learn historical or cultural details, to explore what it is like to be your gender if you are a closeted trans person, and many more, each one of these reasons being valid. What reading is not, is a waste of time, because reading is not a task or a practice with a single goal or outcome, any more than a conversation with a friend is a waste of time, because it does not produce a specific, measurable goal.

To read is to have a conversation, and like most relationships, how it changes you will often be in ways you do not expect.

Nature Fetishism and Transphobia

Yesterday, some overly-confident men were talking around me about how vaccines cause autism, and how fluoride in water is causing our kids to be effeminate. I’ve had other people send me wacky “Natural News” articles about how the “uptick” in “transgenderism” is from processed foods and other nefarious “chemicals.”

As much as I tried to avoid this discussion, they asked me repeatedly if I would get my children vaccinated, and condescended and [erroneously] mansplained to me when I told them that vaccines have eliminated polio and smallpox.

Like many cismen, they were filled with a hubris that made them think that their wacky conspiracy theories overwhelm the heaping consensus of the international scientific community. The problem is, people who have this fetishistic view of nature (that is to say, people who believe that the natural world is pure, morally good) wind up being transphobic. TERFS, conservative Christians, Some Black Nationalist Groups (“Hoteps”), and Deep Green Resistance, often hold to this notion that we need to return to some sort of state-of-nature before agriculture, before the Patriarchy, before the White Race, before psychiatry, before GMOs, before “Western Medicine,” and only then will we be cured of all our social and physical ills.

If this is true, where does this leave transsexual and transgender people, who cannot accept the bodies they were given by nature? Instead, overwhelming amounts of research and documentation across cultures have confirmed that gender dysphoria has one cure: to transition. There is no “natural” way to transition. Rather, to transition is to reject the utter lie that there is a normative natural order we are born into, and to accept a synthetic process that allows you to live your fullest, most authentic self.

I implore my friends to be cautious around language about “Returning to nature,” or how modern psychiatry and medicine is somehow inauthentic, and people would be ridded of their dysphoria, depression, bipolarity, ADHD, etc. if only we retreated back to an imaginary Garden of Eden. The truth is, we have moved beyond a nature “Red in Tooth and Claw,” and because of that, I am able to live as the woman I am.

I have no use for your Arcadia, or your alkaline diet.

Church Mission Trips Might Not Be a Good Idea

If you grew up in a middle-class suburb, and belonged to a protestant church, there is a high likelihood you have been on a mission trip. Millions of young adults, adult lay leaders, and pastors pack their bags every summer for week-to-two-week service trips to locations like Central America, Haiti Appalachia, and Native American nations. Projects like house builds and vocational Bible schools will be undertaken during the day, prayers and small group discussions in the evening, a day or two of fun, and everybody returns back to the suburban congregation changed and energized by the Spirit.

I know this, because I have been on four mission trip: Juarez (2006, housebuild); Gulfport, MS (2007, cleanup); Milwaukee area (2009, cleanup, foodservice); and, Belize (2014, Housebuild). (I also took an “Alternative Spring Break” to Birmingham, AL in 2010, but my college group did not know that Habitat for Humanity was a Christian organization until we were asked to pray before our first day). I have been through the emotional highs and lows of the trip. I have spent countless hours fundraising and advocating for our youth group. I have lead prayers and reassured parents. At the age of 15 in Juarez, I even stated during our house dedication how this was the first time in my life I felt like my life had meaning. I now find it very difficult to justify the current White Suburban Church model of mission trips.

On grounds of utility, mission trips are a great mismanagement of resources. Tens of thousands of dollars are raised to let unskilled youth and parents travel to a foreign country and build a small house, when that money could be allocated to local laborers. Even using the $50K for microlending or vaccine outreach will almost certainly do far more material good than a single house build.

Of course, most mission trips do not claim that this is the most efficient use of resources. From my experience, many churches go to great lengths to explain why they are choosing to send their youth to the Developing World instead of to a local community. Unfortunately, the explanations I’ve heard all eventually take a patronizing, colonialist, and poverty-tourist tone: “By sending our youth to Haiti/Honduras/Jamaica/Mexico, they will see just how blessed we are here in the United States.” One priest leading a trip brazenly exclaimed, “America is not the ‘Real World!’” Upon returning, the promoted narrative among the parents and adults involved

1 Declaring how bad things were for the people in the country
2 Being surprised how friendly/happy they seemed, and
3 How Jesus instructs us to be a Good Neighbor and a Good Samaritan

The problem with the White Suburban Mission Trip, with its volun-tourism, poverty-fetishism, and White-Man’s-Burden rhetoric, is how it fails to ask a very basic question: WHY do most of us have it so good in the United States, but people have it so poorly in the Developing World? As soon as you ask this question, the entire purpose the mission trip begins to look less like being a good neighbor, and more like an attempt to shift away our collective guilt.

In the Episcopal hymnal, there is a popular piece entitled, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” While otherwise an inoffensive and child-like hymn, the old additions included a verse that has since been excised: “Rich man in his castle/Poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate.” God orchestrated a divine plan in which some people would be rich, and others would be poor. And although we may not understand the purposes of this right now, we ought not question God’s intentions. This sort of divine sanctioning of classism (and slavery, and colonialism, and transphobia, and so on and so forth), is nonsense, and is contradicted by The Beatitudes, Christ’s healing of the Disfigured, and the Book of Job. The problem is, the White Suburban Mission Trip supports this “Divine Plan of Poverty” when it fails to question the power structures that make the Developing Regions poor, and the Industrialized World rich. When I was in Juarez, we did not talk about how NAFTA destroyed the livelihood of millions of Mexican farmers, and how US drug policy has helped create the political mess enabling the cartels. When I was in Gulfport and New Orleans, we did not talk about the legacies of slavery, sharecropping, or the New Jim Crow. Nor did we talk about Wisconsin’s highest-in-the-US incarceration rate for black men, and long history of eviction rates when we served in Milwaukee. Or how Belize’s long history of colonialism and slavery.

All too often, we were expected to try to find a “Blessing in Disguise” in the systemic poverty, so we took pictures with little brown babies, drank local sodas, and looked forward to taking a warm shower as soon as we returned. But if Christ had wanted Christianity to be about powerful groups taking pity on the downtrodden, He would have preached directly to the Romans, and not for the Jews. Rather, our Gospels challenge the power structures of Empire, the same power structures that we, the White Suburban Churches, draw tremendous benefit.

Rather than sending our youth on college-resume-boosting mission trips, I recommend that White Suburban churches commit themselves to standing behind grassroots and community-initiated efforts in Developing Nations, and instead of going on international House builds, going on Pilgrimages. In 2008, my church did just that, and we traveled to Ireland to learn about Celtic Christianity and the influences of Irish beliefs on the church. As a 17-year-old making 6.50 an hour at McDonalds, I spent $750 to go on this trip, and had a wonderful, transformative experience. Among other things, I began accepting the Femininity of God as a result of this trip, which has definitively helped me in my life and my transition. Other pilgrimages take an explicate social-justice angle, especially some of the Episcopal churches around St. Louis during the year after the shooting of Mike Brown. After all, If your spirituality does not upset and direct your material reality, then what’s even the point?

Why Do I Bother With Religion?

I was baptized in the Episcopal church when I was very young. For as long as I remember, I have belonged to a church of some sort: St. Joseph’s, St. Matthias, St. Bart’s, St. Francis House, Grace, Deaconess Anne House, Christ Church Cathedral, and now St. Mark’s. I served in the Episcopal Service Corps twice, in Syracuse and St. Louis. I have been on four church mission trips (Juarez, Gulfport, Milwaukee-Area, Belize) and one pilgrimage (Ireland). I studied the history of Christianity in college, completing a year-long senior honor’s thesis on 17th century protestant reformer John Calvin contrasted with his critic Jacobus Arminius. I worked for a year as paid youth group leader. I have preached sermons. When I was 20, I applied to begin an official discernment process with my diocese to determine if I could become a priest.

Why, exactly do I bother with all of this?

Almost all of my friends of faith I have are those I have met through church functions. My queer circles are unilaterally atheist, if not outrightly hostile to religion. Not just queer people, but church attendance among Generation X and Millennials, even Baby Boomers, has been on a decline for quite some time. In my mainline protestant faith tradition, we’ve been loosing something like 50,000 people a year. The average age of a congregant is in the upper 50s. Almost every major church function I have been to includes a discussion about this shrinkage, and has attempted to placate worries about “The Death of the Church.”

Why do I bother?

On the face of it, this question seems a little strange: if I really believe there is a God who created the world out of His Good Nature, who sent Their only begotten son Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Savior, then of course I would be part of the church, the opinions of others be damned, literately. This is the approach I think a lot of Christians take, but I don’t think this is the whole story of anybody’s faith. If you believe in orthodox, credal Christianity, I have to ask not just why do you believe what you do, but also why do you worship the way you do? A lot of evangelical christians will give extensive historical arguments for the inerrancy of the Bible and evidence for the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. I think these sorts of arguments miss the point: there is an emotional and communal reason we are part of a religious tradition. And more often than not, our theology comes after our modes of worship. In Anglicanism, we even have a term for that, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, the way of worship is the way of belief.

I go to church because I like the community. I feel relief and value in the ancient language, rituals, and readings. I embrace the rhythms of structured prayer. I love the other-worldliness of chanted psalms and incense. I lean into the sincerity of the hymns. I connect to The Great Cloud of Witnesses when I take the Eucharist. I fall into a silence during the stations of the cross, and I see the whole of Creation light up when we ring the bells at the Easter Vigil.

I’ve tried to leave the church. I’ve read plenty of atheist articles and seen countless atheists destroy christians at college campus debates. It’s no matter: I keep coming back. What many atheists don’t always acknowledge is how my faith is not just this series of propositions that I assent to: my faith is my culture. My Anglican heritage is the only real cultural identity and tradition I have in our materialistic, individualistic, capitalist America. This tradition informs my political and personal views, challenging the narcissism of capitalist spirituality, and openly opposing the hegemonic culture of Empire. My religion is not just my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it is how I relate to everything and everybody.

Thus, I find myself believing in God, the Trinity, the Promise of the Resurrection, the Gift of the Holy Spirit, maybe even the Assumption of Mary, largely because I go to church every week. And by believing in all of these things, I mean that I embrace this language, history, set of practices, and community as valuable and my central narrative for navigating the world. My faith helps me live, and that is why I believe.

If the Prison-Industrial Complex is So Bad, Why Do We Want to Lock Up the Bankers?

A popular talking point in leftist political circles is the Prison-Industrial Complex. Drawing its name the “Military-Industrial Complex,” a concept President and WWII General Dwight Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address, the Prison-Industrial Complex references the ways that private, capitalistic interests mix with justice system, and cause oppress marginalized communities. The major talking points about the PIC are how the United States incarcerates more people than any other industrialized nation, and our prisoner population is disproportionately black and latino, to the point that the United States incarcerates more black men per capita than South Africa at the height of Apartheid.

Many leftist activists will speak about the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” which describes how primary and secondary educational facilities have increased their security and police connections in recent years, and have resorted to arresting youth for infractions instead of managing them internally to the system. With criminal convictions early in life, (especially for youthful mischief characteristic of a developing teenager, like vandalism, fighting, marijuana use, or petty theft) minority and poor-white teenagers will have much greater difficulty getting into college or finding gainful employment. By restricting their economic opportunities at an early age, these youth often turn to criminal activities such as selling drugs, which often lead to further convictions.

There must be an alternative to prison, the argument goes. The massive prison population is expensive, dehumanizing, racist, and exploitative: The Prison-Industrial Complex is unacceptable in principle. I agree, but it leads me to an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance: If prisons are immoral, then why do we leftists want to lock up bankers? Why do we want to lock up the police who shoot unarmed black men in the back? Why do we want to send Bush to Den Haag for the Iraq War, and Obama for his drone strikes? In short, is our disapprobation with prisons really about prisons themselves, or because we want to punish a different set of people?

When I was a child, I thought justice was a simple thing: people who did bad things got to have bad things inflicted on them by a neutral, objective force. I didn’t even question this at all, it just seemed to me that punishment existed for its own sake, that justice was desirable in and of itself. This sort of view is called the Retributive view of Justice, and is perhaps the strongest argument used in support for the death penalty, corporal punishment, and increasing the severity of prison sentences. In my childlike mind, when I was hurt, I wanted nothing more than an equal amount of pain to be inflicted on my enemy. Similarly, contemporary defenders of the Retributive Justice argue that unless a suitable punishment is levied against the wrongdoer, the memory and dignity of the victims is disgraced. Charleston Shooter and White Supremacist Dylann Roof has recently been condemned to death in a federal court for his heinous crimes. Clearly he is not being put to death because he serves an immediate threat, as it would have been cheaper and easier to simply give him the sentence of life without parole. The Federal Government wants to kill Roof because he is a bad person, and because the State disapproves of his actions. Killing Roof has no utility: his victims will not be resurrected by his execution; systemic racism will not disappear by his execution; I sincerely doubt any other domestic terrorist will be deterred from committing terror by the fear of a death penalty. This State-endorsed murder is simply a task to balance “the ledger of justice.”

While Leftists often talk in great disgust about the death penalty, I see an identical system of reasoning around locking up bankers or abusive police: the act of punishing the architects of the financial collapse or the officers who murdered Walter Scott and Philando Castile, or privileged rapists like Brock Turner or Roman Polanski will be “Justice Served,” as if Justice is an idol unto which we must satisfy by making an appropriate sacrifice. When white collar criminals do serve time in prison, the criticism is often how lenient and lofty their sentences wind up being. Even in the most “woke” activist, there is a desire for blood.

Not everybody believes this is the only way to think about justice. Jeremy Bentham, 19th century lawyer and philosopher, famously argued for the ethical theory of utilitarianism. According to Bentham, morality is a matter of pleasure and pain: pleasure, or happiness, is good, and pain and suffering are bad. Abstract theories about “Natural Rights” or a “Natural Law” were nothing more than “Nonsense on Stilts.” As such, Bentham argued that all punishment was necessarily evil, as it inflicted pain on a party. The goal of the justice system must be then to prevent crimes, rather than to manage this abstract and inflated notion of justice. The death penalty, Bentham argued, did not deter crimes so much as it made criminals more careful as to not be caught, and thus different sorts of punishments must be considered. Bentham would almost certainly be disappointed at the American PIC, as incarcerating youths and adults does not stop people from committing crimes, as criminality is often an outcome of socioeconomic and psychological factors that are not solved by locking them up. If anything, bundling all the criminals together makes for more criminals. Thus, utilitarian justice looks forward, while retributive justice looks backward.

In both of these instances, the crime is understood to be a violation of the rules of the State, and thus it is the roll of the State, and the State alone, to make judgements and administrate punishment. Many Leftists dislike this focus on the power of the State, and claim that both Utilitarian Justice and Retributive Justice ignore the victims of crime by making the transgressions crime about the State rather than about actual people. In contrast, some activists express interest in ideas around Transformative, or Restorative Justice. There are a variety of models, but the general idea is that the parties would meet, the victims would have a much more active roll in determining what is to be done, the situations of the guilty would be carefully considered, and the judgements will seek to rehabilitate and minimize the future offenses. Victims and offenders broker a decision, rather than the State holding a monopoly on all violence.

While I understand the appeal of Restorative Justice (as I tend to have sympathies to anarchist politics), I don’t quite see how it would work on macro level, or in any circumstance where the offender does not recognize their transgressions. If the CEOs of speculative investing firms truly believed they were acting in enlightened self-interest, if collegiate rapists like Brock Turner really believe that his heinous behavior wasn’t really rape, if White Nationalists like Richard Spencer or Matthew Heimbach actually hold that White people are genetically and culturally superior to all other races, how on earth is a restorative peace ever supposed to be reached, especially if the victim does not have the retributive power of the State to “back them up?” Why should the victims of violent crimes especially ever need to consider the input of their oppressors? And especially in cases such as child abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic abuse, the victims are often manipulated by their oppressors in the first place to believe the abusive tactics are justified.

Moreover, I’m not convinced Restorative Justice models solve the question at the heart of the divide between utilitarian and retributive justice: does justice require a violence to be inflicted on the offending party to reconcile a perceived debt?

Restorative Justice is often linked to talk about Forgiveness, but again, I think this is side-stepping the fundamental question about Justice. Consider Dylann Roof again, days after his racist mass murder, members of the congregation he attacked stated how they forgave him. While I in no way question the intentions or sincerity of this gesture, I am a little confused about what this really means. Suppose the judge of his trial, upon hearing that the victims’ families forgave Roof of his crimes, granted him an unconditional pardon, under the condition that he be banned from ever owning a weapon again. Such a move would be met with mass protests, if not riots, in the streets. On an intuitive level, the vast majority of people simply could not accept a situation of justice in which an offender commits a violent crime, is forgiven by the victim, and is free to carry on their lives. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee after Apartheid South Africa is a living example of this: the vast majority of the requests for absolution were denied, indicating that most victims needed for there to be a violence inflicted on their offenders for there to even be the possibility of reconciliation.

Consider the notion of forgiving a debt: if my bank told me they would forgive my mortgage, but I still had to pay the money I borrowed, I could not possibly agree that there was any act of forgiveness. On the same measure, I reject definitions or usages of the word “forgiveness” to mean something to the effect of, “A lessening of personal anger toward somebody, but a desire that a retributive act of violence is still inflicted on the offending party.” For this sort of “Ersatz-Forgiveness,” there is still a belief in a metaphysical ledger of justice, dashed in the blood of criminals.

I reject Retributive Justice as a product of our residual reptilian brain: as much as we want blood, there is literately no justification for punishment for its own sake. With Bentham, I hold that all punishment must serve to prevent crime and to rehabilitate the offenders. The State must also work to restore the lost livelihood of the victims, but this restoration is a process separate from the punishment of the offender. There is no such thing as a debt to society that is somehow paid through a prison sentence; if anything, exacting our State-Sanctioned revenge against the mortgage crisis bankers, the murderous police officers, and rapist college men will grant us that immediate rush of pleasure, while ignoring the rancid systems of power and cultures of abuse. Locking up the bankers will not restore the sunk retirements of millions. Locking up Brock Turner for 10 years will not end rape culture. Locking up George Zimmerman for 25 years to life will not end racism. Injecting poisons into Dylann Roof’s arm will not end White Supremacism. At the same time, we cannot forgive or restore relationships with Dylann Roof, George Zimmerman, Roman Polanski, or Jordan Belford in my view, because they do not want to be reconciled for their abuses. The best thing a victim can do is forget or “release” the abuser, but this is without ever absolving them of their abuse.

Justice is in how outside parties will uphold the victims, not in how we destroy the oppressors.