Trigger warning: Domestic violence and the legal system.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can help create and maintain safe, healthy and productive spaces for all, but particularly for those most at risk of further trauma.
And so when it becomes apparent that one member of the community has been engaging in partner violence against another, I take that very seriously.
What’s been made clear in the last week, however, is that our community has a lot to learn about domestic violence, how violence operates within communities, and how we can best support each other in working through these difficult issues.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do know quite a bit about domestic violence, having several decades of personal experience with it. With that, I’d like to address some specific misconceptions I saw propagated over the last week.
Addressing common misconceptions
Courts do not determine what is true or real. They determine legal outcomes. The distinction is important.
Most often, a criminal court never adjudicates whether a person is guilty or not guilty. Whether or not a person is prosecuted for criminal charges is at the discretion of the state or local prosecutor. Prosecutors make these decisions based on a number of factors, including their estimate of how likely they are to achieve a conviction, as well as their own prejudices. The fact that State declines to prosecute criminal charges does not, in and of itself, confer innocence. It most certainly does not confer “exoneration” which can occur only after a previous conviction. Lack of prosecution, by definition, simply confers an absence of legal judgment.
Civil suits are entirely different. Citizens (not the state) can file cases upon one another for violating civil statues and courts decide these matters under a different set of guidelines and then award restitution, or not, depending on their findings. Civil cases are often more successful for plaintiffs than criminal ones because the burden of proof is less stringent. Quite often when a defendant is found not guilty in a criminal case they will be found guilty in the corresponding civil trial, thus providing some measure of accountability. Relying on civil cases as a means to support domestic abuse survivors is problematic because the financial burden of pursuing litigation and of enforcing any judgments lies almost entirely with the plaintiff.
In our country, the courts must operate on the presumption of innocence. Legal guilt or innocence is determined based on very specific procedures which take into account a limited set of facts and circumstances. Individuals and communities, by contrast, have the latitude to make decisions and take action based on a greater range of available information.
Because remaining silent about abusive behavior perpetuates and propagates it, communities can work to reverse this pattern by judiciously sharing information about those who have engaged in abusive behavior. Communities do not need a conviction in a court of law in order to be confident that abuse has occurred. It is sufficient for communities to trust the person who has reported the abuse.
The phrase “public shaming” is quite often used to refer to these acts of sharing information for the benefit of the community. Sharing information in order to safeguard the overall well-being of the community and at-risk individuals within that community is not vengeance, mob violence, a witch hunt or any other form of abuse. The fact that individuals who have engaged in abusive behavior might feel shame or otherwise incur negative consequences as a result of this information sharing is not sufficient reason to remain silent. It is acceptable for a person or person to feel shame when their inappropriate behavior is revealed. Shame in this context represents the loss of social privilege and is an important, but not the only, strategy communities have when confronting partner violence.
Moving forward, together
Pivoting back to our own community. How do we move forward in a positive and healing way?
We need to work together. We need to remember that everyone involved, including the aggressor, is human, and not sacrifice that humanity for an easy or expedient solution.
It’s a difficult task, certainly, but not insurmountable.
I, and others, are actively working on this issue. If you want to help or have questions, I’m here for you, so please get in touch. If you want to learn more about violence in communities, a good place to start is Revolution Starts at Home (pdf).