Transformative Justice in Othello

Prominent Transformative Justice advocate Mia Mingus defines Transformative Justice as, “Transformative Justice (TJ) is a political framework and approach for responding to violence, harm and abuse. At its most basic, it seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence” (TJ, A Brief Description, 2020). It’s something that came to my attention last year, as conversations about racial injustices in our criminal justice system flowed into the mainstream. On a large scale, TJ attempts to establish an alternative to our punitive criminal justice system, going beyond traditional rehabilitative measures to solve problems at their initial source. Certainly large scale applications of TJ remain primarily theoretical, and most work takes place within communities.

On a smaller, community scale, TJ serves a similar purpose – to move beyond anger and arrive at a peaceful, agreed upon conclusion by all parties involved. In practice, this looks like a series of deeply honest conversations, sometimes with a mediator, about an event where harm or abuse took place. These conversations are informed by intersectional understandings of identity, including principles like trauma, race, gender, class, education, mental illness, and so on. TJ is inclusive by design, as opposed to most conflict resolution frameworks, which serve to “other” the victim or their abuser.

What does this have to do with Othello? The conflict in Othello essentially boils down to a misunderstanding, followed by an overreaction. I have paired quotes from Othello with quotes from adrienne maree brown’s chapter in Beyond Survival, “What is/isn’t Transformative Justice,” to highlight how Transformative Justice techniques and analysis would have benefited the characters in Othello.

“In my mediations, “why?” is often the game-changing, possibility opening question. That’s because the answers rehumanize those we feel are perpetuating against us. “Why?” often leads us to grief, abuse, trauma, mental illness, difference, socialization, childhood, scarcity, loneliness”

Beyond Survival – What is/isn’t Transformative Justice, adrienne maree brown. 250.

“IAGO 

Why, there’s no remedy. ’Tis the curse of service.

Preferment goes by letter and affection,

And not by old gradation, where each second

Stood heir to th’ first. Now, sir, be judge yourself

Whether I in any just term am affined

To love the Moor”

Othello 9

I am beginning with this pair of quotes because it’s one of the only examples of Iago’s relationship with Othello before the Desdemona drama begins. Iago is reacting to being passed up for a promotion. Why? Perhaps the promotion came with a pay raise and he could use the money. Or maybe the new job would allow him to spend less time with his wife (and more with Othello). Military decisions are deeply political, and are generally not based on personal reasons. Maybe Iago already had a reputation as a schemer, or Othello faced pressure from those ranked above him. The “curse of service” implies Iago is bound to Othello by nothing more than his job. As soon as they (allegedly) start sleeping with each other’s wives, the situation evolves beyond a workplace dispute.

Asking “why” questions regarding this piece of dialogue serves to rehumanize Iago and see him less as a villain, and more as a guy who got fucked over by his boss.

“Often we are well down a path of public shaming and punishment before we have any facts about what’s happening. That’s true of mainstream takedowns, and it’s true of interpersonal grievances.  We air our dirt not to each other but with each other, with hashtags or in specific but nameless rants, to the public, and to those who feed on our weakness and divisions”

Beyond Survival – What is/isn’t Transformative Justice, adrienne maree brown. 252

“[Othello] Has done my office. I know not if ’t be true,

But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,

Will do as if for surety.”

Othello, 55

“Till I am evened with him, wife for wife,

Or, failing so, yet that I put the Moor

At least into a jealousy so strong

That judgment cannot cure.”

Othello, 79

Iago addresses both of these passages to the audience, not his wife, not Othello. He trusts his suspicion so entirely that he feels no need to confirm the truths, and bases his following actions on not the actual situation, but the perceived situation. What separates Iago’s soliloquies from a nameless, racially charged tweet-storm? All it accomplishes is more confusion, more harm, and more violence. Imagine how simple Othello would be if, before jumping to public shaming, Iago talked to Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia. From Othello and Emilia, Iago could learn what happened between them. If they had had an affair, why? Are they unhappy in their own marriages? What could be done to fix that between the two couples, before cleaning the mess with the four of them. Sometimes, breaches of trust happen. There are ways to move beyond them without causing more harm.

“People mess up. We lie, exaggerate, betray, hurt, and abandon each other. When we hear that this has happened, it makes sense to feel anger, pain, confusion, and sadness. But to move immediately to punishment means that we stay on the surface of what has happened”

Beyond Survival – What is/isn’t Transformative Justice, adrienne maree brown. 251

 “My friend is dead.

’Tis done at your request. But let her live.

OTHELLO Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her, damn her!

Come, go with me apart. I will withdraw

To furnish me with some swift means of death

For the fair devil. Now art thou my lieutenant”

Othello 151

In Othello, there is a clear distinction between the events that are happening on the surface, that Othello is privy to and makes decisions based off of, and events Iago is orchestrating. From Othello’s perspective, Iago produced evidence that Desdemona was cheating, and that made him so upset that the best solution was to kill her. In reality, Desdemona has done nothing wrong, and Iago orchestrated everything to get that reaction. Iago manipulates anger throughout Othello, forcing Othello into a “fight or flight” state. Making decisions in that kind of heightened mode of functioning frequently leads to more harm. Othello choses to fight, rushing to procure a “swift means of death.” Alternatively, “flight” could present itself in two ways: first, Othello running away, feeling cast out by his friends and wife. Second, and ideally, it means stepping away from the drama and tense emotions to process the facts and adjust reactions accordingly. Instead, Othello verbally insults his wife before going off to kill her.

“Is this what we’re here for? To cultivate a fear-based adherence to reductive common values? What can this lead to in an imperfect world full of sloppy, complex humans? Is it possible we will call each other out until there’s no one left beside us?”

Beyond Survival – What is/isn’t Transformative Justice, adrienne maree brown. 250.

“OTHELLO I am glad to see you mad.

DESDEMONA Why, sweet Othello!

OTHELLO, striking her Devil!

DESDEMONA I have not deserved this.”

Othello, 189

To begin, we see Othello using force to punish Desdemona for supposedly cheating on him. He’s crossed the line into violence, and that can be hard for even the best community to bounce back from. His quick reaction with no regard for the truth isolates Desdemona, who has a perfectly reasonable explanation for everything. Othello literally creates fear based adherence to common values. What are the common values in violation? Infidelity within a marriage. There, however, is evidence that Othello wasn’t faithful either. Transformative Justice would suggest they abandon those values – clearly it’s not working for this community – and establish their own, agreed upon values and rules. These may include discarding monogamy altogether. Maybe relationship anarchy is more their speed. The important thing is the conditions are agreed upon by all parties, with protocol in place to address disagreements. Othello also shows the stakes. By the end, Iago has either alienated or indirectly killed everyone around him. There is no one left.

Creating transformed communities means looking beyond reductive common values (whose values are those anyway?) for peaceful solutions geared towards inclusion and respect of differences. In Othello, everyone messes up at some point, in one way or another. That’s because no one is perfect! We can’t hold imperfect people to perfect standards and expect success. Transformative Justice provides a guide to handle our imperfections without putting other people down.

Works Cited:

Dixon, Ejeris, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. AK Press, 2020.

Mingus, Mia. “Understanding Transformative Justice and Restorative Justice.” Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, 18 Jan. 2021, https://www.sace.ca/learn/transformative-restorative-justice/.

Shakespeare, William, et al. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017.

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4 thoughts on “Transformative Justice in Othello

  1. This is a really interesting topic! I found your analysis to be really insightful and dissects the complexities of Othello really well. One thing that you allude to that I have found to be a major origin of trouble in the play is the concept of communication. One of the most common hurdles in relationships is a lack of communication between partners and other people in their lives. This is something that, as you point out, is true for the characters in Othello as well. I think this touches on a broader concept of toxic masculinity and stoicism in culture and how it limits the abilities of men to express their inner selves. Because of this innocent people and relationships that could have been saved reach a different fate. Excellent work!

  2. This is amazing. I loved reading through your explaination of how Transformative Justice would have helped these characters. I often wonder things like this when I read old literature: “What if everyone talked? What if mental health help was more accessible for these people? Etc.”
    This line from your project, I think, is very important: “There, however, is evidence that Othello wasn’t faithful either. Transformative Justice would suggest they abandon those values – clearly it’s not working for this community – and establish their own, agreed upon values and rules. These may include discarding monogamy altogether. Maybe relationship anarchy is more their speed.” Maybe a lot of people need to rework their values, even if it’s hard to do. In a completely different area of comparison, this feels very similar to what I do if something is stressing me out a lot. I have a lot of stress related to school work because I hold it in insanely high regard, but what if I didn’t hold it in that high of a regard? I feel as though this is very similar to transformative justice, but in a more personal, less life-threatening way.

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