Regret and Rehabilitation

Does it matter if they stopped? Does it matter if they changed? a person asked in a conversation I was part of, about all these sexual assault and harassment revelations.

I think it does, although I know it’s hard to measure and that it may never matter to the people they harmed. And I certainly don’t know if a particular man has examined his behavior, has recognized it for what it was, regrets it or has changed. I hope that all men accused of prior assault or harassment have stopped harming women but I rarely have information about that. There may be no proof; we have no obligation to trust them ever again, but that does not mean they cannot change.

And no, random good work is not sufficient. People are multi-faceted and examples of generous or “good” behavior does indicate rehabilitation with regard to misogyny or sexism or preying on women. Specific good work to combat the harassment and assault of women and the manipulation of power imbalances between men and women does.

So I do think it matters if individual men change. And I hope we will recognize it when they do, without attempting to erase harm they cause and without demanding that victims behave in any particular way toward men who harmed them. But I believe in rehabilitation or I would not work in court reform; I would not make an effort to change myself or my community.

This is what I think “Of course you’ve all done it. Each of you. Even if it was just laughing at a gross misogynist joke with your mates when you were fourteen, even if it made you feel uncomfortable to laugh and not say ‘dude, that’s not cool.’ What separates the good among you from the unsafe among you is the ability to one day stop going along. To one day recognize that you’re not ‘pushing a boundary’, you’re harming someone. To admit that there was no gray area, you assaulted that person. And stop doing it and start calling other men out when they do it.”

So yes, I believe that it matters if men change, even if just in their own hearts and own actions, but even more in the way they respond to the men around them and the shitty things those men do to women. I believe men need to change, and can change, and I believe they do.

Even recognizing the possibility of sincere regret, of actual person growth and rehabilitation, I know there are boundaries to it. I know that the journey from being an adolescent who kisses a girl against her will at a kegger to a man who always seeks consent is a different journey than that of a man who demands sexual favors at the price of your career. It’s clear some men don’t regret their behavior only that they’ve been caught and that the world seems no longer willing to accept their excuses. In either case,

Most importantly, I know that is irrelevant both to consequences and to the opinion of any given victim. No matter how clear the evidence of either repentance or rehabilitation, a person harmed by sexual assault or sexual harassment owes the perpetrator nothing. Not forgiveness, not understanding, not  belief in his rehabilitation, not assistance in repairing his name. Nothing.

These things can both be true: that men who harass and assault women can be taught to change and that the women they harm owe them nothing if they do. By extension, the rest of us do not owe them trust, even when we believe they are doing the work. If you break trust, it will not be readily available to you in the future.



“The fact that both parties are willing to defend on partisan grounds rapists and sexual offenders based on their political views, in my mind is exhibit A that this indeed is a rape culture. And rape culture always has been bipartisan.”–person on a message board, discussing an article about Bill Clinton’s history of sexual harassment and assault.

Additional reading (which is not the article being discussed by the person quoted above):
“Most of all, as a [male] citizen I’ve come to see that the scandal was never about infidelity or perjury — or at least, it shouldn’t have been. It was about power in the workplace and its use. The policy case that Democrats needed Clinton in office was weak, and the message that driving him from office would have sent would have been profound and welcome. That this view was not commonplace at the time shows that we did not, as a society, give the most important part of the story the weight it deserved. “–Bill Clinton Should Have Resigned, Matthew Yglesias

i\I’ve added “male” to this sentence because in 1998, when I was in law school, small groups of women were quietly calling what happened to Monica Lewinsky what it was: vicious sexual harassment of the sort we should expect when we went to the Hill (I went to law school in DC) or at Big Law. I recall becoming quite angry at a (male) friend who laid most of the blame on the women (Lewinsky, Tripp, Jones and Mrs Clinton), reserving the rest for Republicans who were blowing things out of proportion.

Yglesias is right: Bill Clinton should have resigned; his party should have demanded it. Yglesias is right, as well, that in re-evaluating the situation, we can’t change the past but we should be clear about it. That means recognizing that those of us who saw Bill Clinton for what he was at the time were ignored, shouted down, dismissed as man-haters or of so little consequence in power structures, no-one cared.

But this is a change I never thought I’d see in my lifetime: the recognition of this constant noise and pressure and threat which comes from casual sexism and everyday misogyny. The understanding that yes, every woman is treated this way; that many of us are seriously damaged by it but that all of us are harmed by it. The realization that it is your job not to let it continue.

I still favor repeal

As I understand it (from professional colleagues and other sources), this link between domestic violence and gun violence (whether against a partner or humans generally) is pretty well established–it’s simply a failure of political will to do anything about it. Illinois revokes your gun license when you’re served with an Order of Protection (which is available in a broad variety of relationship contexts–whether familial, romantic or residential). It’s ahead of many states in both this steps, but an OP is not always possible for a variety of reasons (there’s a lot of tension between the “fix things for victims of domestic violence” camp and the “fix all these structural oppressions in the criminal justice system” camp, also for a variety of reasons).

Nonetheless, I find that Mike Quigley is generally stepping up in our bizarro world.

As you may recall, the CDC stopped researching firearms as a health crisis in 1996 when Congress threatened to pull its funding after the NRA accused the CDC of promoting gun control. Sidestepping to the DOJ might be a good idea, but I prefer the CDC be protected in doing its job and that Congress just generally start telling the NRA to fuck off.

At This Moment

I am ashamed of those moments I privileged law over justice or valued order over community. The opposite of law and its attendant order is not, as we fear, anarchy and violence. Anarchy and violence, rather, result from law and order which try to exist for their own sake, instead of which try to serve.

Law and order cannot be the master because law is but the means. Justice is the end.

I Did a Thing

I was a last-minute substitution to the 20 x 2 show last night in Chicago, where 20 of us took two minutes to answer the questions: What Are You Waiting For?

It was fun and the other performers were an interesting assortment of talent and ideas. A couple of them were even friends of mine! The front row of the audience was super-enthusiastic, too.

I am very glad to have been included.

I have my notes of where I went wrong (surprising how much peril lurks in 2:15–I ran slightly long), but mostly, I very much enjoyed the chance to do a thing of the sort I have not done since college. Not just to do my own little bit but also to mingle with others doing their bit and spend some time around the Let’s Put on a Show vibe that I enjoyed before law school.

I have a lovely circle of friends and a great social network here but–well, I have more thoughts to tweeze out here about a community of being and supporting versus a community of doing and facilitating. Thoughts I did not realize I was having. I am about to spend some time at the beach with not much to do, perhaps the thoughts will come together.

In the meantime, this is what I said in response to the 20×2 question: “What Are You Waiting For?”:


I am never relaxed.  Comfortable? Possibly. Confident? Where appropriate. Calm? As necessary. But I Never Not Ever Relax.

So you might guess that I’m waiting for the blow. Bracing for impact. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Catch. The Hitch. The Gotcha.

Except I’m not. I not waiting at all. For anything.

Because there is no need. There’s no next. No resolution. No finale. No Bang. No whisper.

Just each moment. Just each action. Each thought. And then the next. Then the next. The next and the next. And the none at all. So you might say that I’m waiting for nothing.

Which is not to say I’m waiting for death. Just that I’m not—so far as I know—waiting for anything.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not enlightenment. No carpe diem moment of zen. I put plenty of things off. And I have no more patience than your average middle-aged public interest attorney working in an unjust world.

But waiting? For what? For change? For justice? For the world to catch up with itself? I think not. I’ll wait for the elevator. I’ll wait for the toaster. (I’ll wait for the bus) But I’ve learned not to wait for humanity—I’m already anxious enough.

You see, change happens after you work for it your whole life. So you musn’t wait for it. To wait for it is to drive yourself mad. It torments your hope. Betrays your belief and hobbles you.

I don’t wait. And I never relax.

But in this I find belief in the value of each moment which follows each thought without ever actually displaying this Good we’re waiting for.

Just laying it down. In thin imperceptible layers of progress. Each of us. Each moment. One thought at a time.


From every mountainside, let freedom ring

You may have seen this going around: From an essay titled Is Patriotism a Virtue? by Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre:

I understand the story of my life in such a way that it is part of the history of my family or of this farm or of this university or of this countryside; and I understand the story of the lives of other individuals around me as embedded in the same larger stories, so that I and they share a common stake in the outcome of that story and in what sort of story it both is and is to be: tragic, heroic, comic. A central contention of the morality of patriotism is that I will obliterate and lose a central dimension of the moral life if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country. For if I do not understand it I will not understand what I owe to others or what others owe to me, for what crimes of my nation I am bound to make reparation, for what benefits to my nation I am bound to feel gratitude.

That last line–that is why I have been marching and protesting and calling the legislatures weekly since November. What I owe others, and what others owe to me, that is community, that is country, that is home. The measure of me and my life is what I do with those debts.

“. . . I will obliterate and lose a central dimension of the moral life if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country.” Modern intersectionalists might describe the latter part of this sentence and the next as “privilege”–that we must view our individual lives within in the structure of the larger life of society. What benefits have we accrued from being born white or being born a citizen of a influential rich democracy? That’s the awareness you need to check your privilege. That’s also the awareness you need in order to do good.

In this tiny excerpt, MacIntyre is tying that awareness into the question of why we consider it a virtue to be patriotic and answering that the national context of our personal benefits commands us to nurture those benefits for the larger national community through acts of patriotism: informed voting, paying your taxes, respecting your national parks, war service.

I read it that way, anyway. It follows with a belief I’ve expressed here many times: that our primary duty as human beings is to share the excess we have with those that have less. Not because God commands it but because each human is part of every other human and we express that through society.

The desire to share with your society in that manner–and the ability to recognize your excess as well as apply it meaningfully–comes from a studied awareness of your community and your surroundings. Careful patriotism leads us to question both the goals and the methods of legislators and executive, dogcatchers and registrars. It brings us to examine the qualifications, desires and manner of the people who lead us. It commands us to protest and shout when those people and their character reflect badly upon ourselves and our shared story.

When those entrusted with enacting the narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country forsake what is owed to others, they have forsaken what is owed to me.

Happy Independence Day. May we create the nation worthy of a larger story.

I Definitely Need to Get Out More

Last night, thanks to my sister and the Chicago Humanities Festival, I went to a reading by Roxane Gay. It was great. She’s just as sharp and interesting in person as she is in carefully drafted written work.

After she read, she took questions from the audience. One woman asked for expansion on a comment Ms. Gay had made about allies and allyship (in another context–I don’t recall the context, but here is apiece at Elle which makes a similar point. I believe) and Ms. Gay asked all of us how many of us had had a conversation yesterday about Charleena Lyles. Or Nabra Hassanen.

I have had a conversation this week about Charleena Lyles. But it was a conversation among people who all agree, first about the unvarnished tragedy of her death. A pregnant woman who had called the police for help, asked for assurances that she would not be harmed, and then was shot to death in her home with three children at home. Nothing here is justified.

It was a conversation, second, about the absolute failure of police training, of police procedure, of police recruitment & hiring, of individual police officers in the United States. Among people who all believe these failures to be true.

It was a conversation, third, about the examined and unacknowledged racism that still pervades American institutions. Among people who try to learn about and see the unalloyed racism at the root of our structures.

I am certain that’s not the conversation Ms. Gay was talking about.

She was talking about me having that conversation with a person who would defend two police officers shooting a small women who called the officers to her home for help because they thought she was concealing a knife. Or with someone who does not think it was inappropriate to respond to a call for help prepared to shoot the woman who called. Or with someone who thinks de-escalation was not the proper choice in the situation.

Or with someone who thinks police are under siege. Or with someone who believes police not subject to bias, whether conscious or not. Or someone who does not believe there is a pattern of police violence against people of color.

Or with someone who is offended at the suggestion racism permeates all our official structures.

I know those people. I know who some of those people that I know are. But I know I do not know who some of those people are. I find myself wondering: which is the more useful conversation? I’ll admit straight up that I avoid the first one. I know I’ll be angry and I worry that, especially now, I won’t be able to temper myself.

Nearly ten years ago, I pushed back in a conversation with a woman roughly my mother’s age. I had said something offhand about the exorbitant phone rates for calls to and from inmates in Illinois prisons (Chicago Reporter story) (Recent legislation on the issue). She had reflexively said something about not feeling sorry for them and prison not being about fun and who cares. I tried to gently point out that people in prison very rarely stay there their whole lives. That the come back to the cities and towns they left. And isn’t it better that they be able to stay in touch with their families while they’re gone? So that the relationships remain intact so they have something to go home to? Somewhere they can be while they readjust? And isn’t it better to not further burden the finances of the families who are trying to get by without whatever income or household support the prisoner once provided? I don’t know how successful I was, but I remember I remained calm. I remember I did not embarrass myself. I remember I did not make anyone visibly angry.

I really don’t think those things would happen if I tried to confront the unexamined racism of the people I know. In fact, only a few short years later, I was inarticulate and angry at someone who made a disrespectful comment about Eric Garner. And I was ashamed at their callousness and ashamed at my inability to speak calmly and persuasively about their error. And I have not tried to engage since. Either with the people I know are not working on their personal relationship with America’s racism or the people I don’t know are not working on it.

Which may have been part of Ms. Gay’s point. How useless my own work toward understanding is if I only share it with people who are already undertaking that work themselves. And so she’s right.



I don’t recall the comment about allyship Ms. Gay had been asked about. A short internet search pulled up this essay at Marie Claire which seems about right.