Pushing Back Against Mass Abuse Apologism

Estelle Ellison
9 min readAug 11, 2022


Pushing back is to apply force to something that is exerting a force upon you. During this fascist period consisting of multiple crises, we are all having lethal forces directed at us and many of us are being crushed alive. Despite this harrowing predicament, we all find ourselves in, why are so many americans choosing to align with pacifism? Neoliberalism fascism has demonstrated just how many people believe the state is benevolent if there is a democrat in the white house, and it has become clear that radical abolitionists have also been influenced by this trend. Patriarchal violence is a dedicated arm of fascism and we see it at every level of society, from the biggest institutions to relationships between two people. Before and throughout this ongoing pandemic, we have seen our toolkit for pushing back against systemic oppression severely reduced. We have seen call-outs crucified across mass media and this reactionary trend continues to be mimicked.

One of the reasons that people are uncomfortable with call-outs is because they first imagine how they would feel if they were called out, and this happens regardless of whether the empathizing person has ever done anything remotely similar to the called-out person. This is indicative of a culture steeped in abuse apologism. Because we live in a patriarchal society, it is easier for people to relate to a loss of hierarchical power (i.e. systematically reinforced control of someone else’s behavior) than it is for people to truly grasp what it means to become the object of power (i.e. to be dispossessed of one’s agency). This is true even when people have no direct experience with utilizing the forms of power that someone else loses as a result of a callout or intervention. Conversely, this ability to better relate to a loss of hierarchical power oftentimes still persists in people who have substantially more direct experience with being the object of dominating or controlling power dynamics.

Even in venturing an attempt to define such terms, abuse apologism immediately interjects itself in these conversations by claiming that callouts or community interventions are themselves a form of social control or even abuse. Indeed, mass abuse apologism claims to be so against “any form of abuse” that it has no choice but to renounce all consequences or punishments for the countless harmful behaviors that make our patriarchy-dominated world what it is today. While the word abolition commonly evokes the idea of destruction, abolition is about creating strategies for dealing with and preventing harm such that carceral institutions become obsolete. Mass abuse apologism has led to the co-optation of abolition, which now in its distorted view claims that only inaction and tolerance of harm and abuse are the only “moral” response to systemic and interpersonal violence.

The idea that those who cause harm or abuse others must be “humanized” above all else is an exercise in patriarchal morality. Abuse is inherently objectifying action, yet those who refuse to condemn their own abusive behaviors and transform them into caring behaviors must first be humanized before they can be reproached? What then does it mean to humanize the survivor or victim who was denied humanity when they became the object of abuse? The paradox of confronting a patriarchal society that is inherently violent with noble pacifism is invariably a promise that patriarchal violence can continue uninterrupted. Abuse apologist pacifism is ultimately the refusal to interrupt harm. The elementary school logic that two wrongs don’t make a right prevails even on the national political stage and it permeates our so-called radical and abolitionist spaces.

What do we do when harm is unrelenting, when abuse becomes serial, victims multiply, and survivors keep struggling to survive? Confronting someone who refuses to stop harming, abusing, and benefiting from past and present harmful behaviors is itself an acknowledgment of their humanity. It is an acknowledgment of the human capacity for violence, for lying and getting away with it, for manipulating entire communities into becoming accomplices to abuse. This is not to say that these are the only attributes humans are capable of nor does this mean that they are the only ones we need to acknowledge. It is simply accepting the grounded reality that humans can be capable of great harm when there is no oppositional force to stop them.

Building collective power with each other in order to stop individuals who continue to harm and abuse or deny the impact of their past behaviors is a necessary part of any abolition network that claims to be creating a world without prisons. The belief that people are only capable of transforming their harmful behavior if they are fully protected from any negative consequences of their actions is dehumanizing. Mind you, this is ignoring the fact that victims and survivors who have endured their harms are already a negative consequence of other people’s abusive actions. If we choose not to ignore this fact we are then forced to accept that mass abuse apologism very effectively centers those who have caused harm or abused others by subjecting us all to their vantage point.

Apologists don’t want negative consequences for those who have abused or caused harm and this is the guiding moral principle they use for assessing whether a response to harm and abuse is “carceral” or not. Not only does the apologist pacifism line of thinking dehumanize the victims and survivors who have had their lives permanently changed by the abuse they endured, but it also dehumanizes people who abuse or have caused harm by treating them as if they merely unconsciously select behaviors based on the presence or absence of unconditional support. Reactionaries will oftentimes ask “Are you saying abusers don’t deserve support!?” This disingenuous line of questioning is not actually about support. It is about comfort. “Are you saying that abusers should ever be uncomfortable?” The lens of mass abuse apologism erases the distinction between supporting someone’s effort to stop abusing with supporting someone’s unwillingness to be made uncomfortable because they have abused or are abusing.

As it stands, most self-proclaimed abolitionist organizations, networks, and individuals cannot stop or prevent violence. They can merely ask politely for it to stop, and they have thoroughly demonstrated how ineffective this method is over the course of several decades. If anything, this method has increased the number of ways victims and survivors can be abused, silenced, and gaslit. Yet this method is the most common “abolitionist” conception of an anti-abuse praxis. If you can’t make someone be accountable for their actions and they refuse to be accountable for their actions, what do you do?

Judging from the interpretation of prison abolition we’ve just gone over, the answer is that you do nothing. The conversation ends there and whatever happens happens, as long as there is no consequence, punishment, or carcerality for that person’s actions. There is no “how do we stop them?” No “how do we warn people who are likely to be the next target?” Not even a “how do we know they’ve actually changed their behavior?” There is only the abuse apologist myth of the “good” and “bad” survivor, where the anonymization of their abusers gets survivors a chance to be rewarded with crowdfunds that will go towards attempts to stabilize their lives after escaping harm and abuse.

I use the terms “consequence” and “punishment” very deliberately here because mass abuse apologism has made it so that all asks and demands from victims and survivors are heavily scrutinized on whether they offend pacifist sensibilities. This abstract search for “carcerality” where there is none prevents us from understanding the context of the situations that necessitate such asks and demands from survivors. We have made armchair intellectual debates about what is and is not in line with liberalized abolitionist ideology into the only “respectable” approach to active harm situations and this approach is a non-response. It is self-permission to disengage from pressing concerns that affect our collective health and safety.

It is because we understand the mechanics of abuse that we sometimes reach for consequences and, yes, even punishment when a person is unwilling to acknowledge and change their abusive behaviors. While punishment can itself be abusive, it is not innately carceral nor is it innately abusive. It is not the act of perceiving that some action is a punishment for harmful behavior that makes something carceral. Carcerality is the preservation of slavery in the form of the modern surveillance police state. Punishment is merely what the carceral state positions itself to have the sole authority to enact so that it can better get away with cultural claims that its arsenal of violences is morally benevolent.

Communities making their own disincentives for continued harmful behavior (i.e. punishments) entirely separate from the carceral state demonstrates that those communities are not carceral. They are abolitionist by virtue of the fact that they have created an alternative to the police that can effectively stop abusive dynamics when those who participate in abusive behaviors demonstrate an unwillingness (a practical inability) to change or acknowledge the impact of their own actions. Private and public demands from victims and survivors should concern the communities they are a part of, but mass abuse apologism reassures people that it is sufficient to simply judge from the sidelines whether the survivor is good and properly demonstrates “TJ,” or is bad and has succumbed to carcerality.

Before going through some examples of what disincentives look like in practice, apologism has left me with no choice but to state that all words, ethical systems, and collective practices can be used to target victims and survivors. Counter-callouts exist and those who intend to speak out are oftentimes ostracized before they can say anything. Now attempts at accountability processes more commonly defend against all forms of consequence, rather than ensure that active harm situations and patterns of abuse end. Apologism has truly multiplied the forms of harm that can happen in movement spaces and it accomplishes this primarily by redefining safety and care for survivors as carcerality and retaliation. The goal post has been moved backwards to where we are now, in the midst of multiple pandemics and crises that have dramatically increased the instances of interpersonal violence and abuse.

Conversations about whether an abuser or someone who’s caused harm should move out of town, or out of state often lead to mass abuse apologism interjecting its faux concern about whether their abuse will stop after they move. As is always the case with liberals, this is an empty gesture and a victim-blaming one at that. This example again demonstrates contempt for victims and survivors by making it their responsibility whether their abusers’ behaviors change. The question isn’t whether an abuser will change their behavior, it is whether they will be inconvenienced if they continue to abuse. From making victims and survivors out to be today’s prison guards to endlessly mining them for patience and compassion in the face of their abusers, mass abuse apologism truly has its bases covered from any collective threat.

For those who found spaces that allowed them to make other people the target of their abusive behaviors, not being able to access spaces where people made others the target of their abusive behaviors for as long as there is no public commitment to change those behaviors (or longer) is a natural consequence and it lessens opportunities for that harm to continue whether that behavior comes from the banned individual or not. Committing to giving back what was taken or exploited is a natural punishment for exploiting or taking in the first place and it helps those who were the targets of those actions mitigate how they were negatively impacted. Having to disclose past harms to groups or even new partners is a logical and compassionate consequence for those who have had a history of manipulating groups and/or multiple people who are in a shared network. In each of these examples, the punishment selected is something that could have actually prevented abusive behavior in the first place if their respective communities had established vigilant discernment about these dynamics.

But abuse cannot happen without taking advantage of incomplete notions of where safety can be found. Just as people who believe not wearing a mask outside does nothing to transmit viruses, many people implicitly and explicitly believe that abuse only comes from one identity category. Likewise, some people believe that reciting the same values every day means that those values are never being violated.

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Estelle Ellison

Time dissuades us from getting free... Black Trans Disabled Writer (She/They)