I used to say, only sort of in jest, that I was in favour of public shaming. I didn’t mean that I thought we needed to bring back the stocks or anything like that (okay, okay, I may have joked that we needed to bring back the stocks), but I had an idea that people needed to be held accountable for their actions.
This stance was a result of being a member of small communities throughout my life, in which I had witnessed the general tendency of people to avert their eyes when one community member caused harm to another. I was fed up with the willingness of people to bury their heads in the sand. I was concerned for those against whom harm had been perpetrated, and were without meaningful support. I thought public shaming would be of benefit, because I wanted to force accountability onto these wrongdoers, and I wanted to force a reckoning in the community.
And, to be perfectly honest, I can still see why and how I landed on this belief. I had read and listened to podcasts about reparative justice, and I thought this was a way to work towards it. Reparation for everyone! People would see the error of their ways, there would be opportunity for healing, and everyone would live happily ever after! Cue the trumpets.
Perhaps you got there before me, and you can see the flaws here already. But if you can’t, then I urge you to go and read I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World by Kai Cheng Thom.
I first discovered Kai Cheng Thom when she was interviewed on the podcast Secret Feminist Agenda. I was very taken with her interview, her thoughts, her honesty about uncertainty, and her articulateness. I purchased I Hope We Choose Love, looking to read more of her musings and essays, seeking out more insight into tough issues like accountability, justice, consent, love, abuse, suicide, and identity. The book did not disappoint.
In the introduction to the book, Thom talks about how she lost faith in community. Within the essays, there are many stories that illustrate her experiences, and how this loss of faith happened. Throughout the book she also, with an incredible willingness to let go of bitterness, talks about moving forward in love. About loving and listening with both compassion and critique. She wishes for relationships where there is “willingness to enter the space of conflict, as well as the knowledge that we will emerge from it.” Yes! I thought as I read this. Yes!
Thom goes on to tackle some of the thorniest questions surrounding community, including how to apply justice and accountability, what happens when the perpetrators of harm are also victims of abuse, and what happens when we let go of the “dream of perfection,” meaning that imperfect people are also allowed to be a part of our communities.
There are examples given about the harm that comes from public call-outs, which can lead to bullying and intimidation. She points out that true accountability “is based on personal integrity and genuine willingness to learn.” Needless to say, the metaphorical stocks are not going to facilitate this process. Rather the loving and compassionate willingness to see people for who they are, have difficult conversations and ask difficult questions, to speak up when harm is done, and, crucially, to also “examine the ways in which communities create and actively maintain the conditions in which such violations are likely to occur.”
These are all intricate ideas discussed with a depth of understanding and compassion that I needed to read. I appreciated Thom’s way of seeing the big picture as well as the small details, and most of all I appreciated that she is also asking questions—and recognizing that the answers are hard to find, and take work.
I Hope We Choose Love is a book about more than accountability within community. It is also a book about being a trans woman in a world where, horrifyingly, “a life expectancy of thirty-five is the norm.” Kai Cheng Thom talks about mentorship, adopted families, sex work, suicide and mental illness, the myth of exceptionalism (the idea that if one member of a marginalized population can “make it” then the rest just aren’t trying hard enough), and all of the realities of being a trans woman that are important for cisgender people like me to read about and understand. It also combines Thom’s thoughtful essays with her reflective poetry, giving the already emotion-filled ideas further grounding in a more raw expression of feeling.
I am grateful to have read this book, and to have my ideas rearranged by Kai Cheng Thom. In the end, her words served as a living example of the kinds of changes she is putting forth as an idea for the future. I felt as though a kind and compassionate friend had challenged my notions, and I was able to think them through and see where I went wrong. It was a painless process, not like the stocks, and I am a better person for it.
So this is a book about love. This is a book about revolutionary love. Love that might not save us at the end of the world but that might make it possible to live through. It may be hard to believe in. It will be harder to live. I hope we choose it anyway.