What is Accountability?

Originally published on Instagram on November 18th

I notice a lot of calls for accountability in social media, whether calling on people to hold the new administration accountable or “make” content creators who’ve caused harm accountable for their actions.

That’s not how accountability works. The definition of accountability is a “willingness to accept responsibility for our own actions.” No one can make us do that. Any attempt to coerce or force accountability on another person is a violation of sovereignty. We can only hold ourselves to account and choose our response to other people’s actions.

Punishment, banishment, canceling, and call outs are not accountability. They are coercive, punitive, information sharing, or boundary setting responses to someone who causes harm. They will not make a person stop causing harm or take responsibility for harm, they are consequences that may or may not have an impact. There are people who commit harm who are harshly punished and yet never take accountability for the harm they caused. There are people who are canceled/banished who move on to other communities to continue their harmful patterns.

What does accountability actually look like? It’s a willingness to account for our actions. When our adoption triad had our accountability session, we committed to accounting for the ways we caused one another harm. All four of us came to the table with lists identifying our harmful actions. We took turns accounting for our incidents of violent communication and withdrawal (shutting down to our relating partners is violence, too) and listening to how our actions impacted the person we hurt.

We actually did so well at accounting that no one had to ask for accountability, which would be the other step in the process if needed. We intimate with our partner by telling them how we experienced hurt or harm and they respond with accountability if they so choose. If they choose not to, then we take responsibility for choosing how to respond to keep ourselves safe.

We use a tool called the “kernel of truth” to validate our partners. If we’re open to accountability, then we should be able to see some truth in our partner’s sharing of their experience of us. The kernel of truth is an empathy bridge to repair. It doesn’t mean we fully agree in our interpretations of what took place, but that we can look at ourselves through our partner’s eyes and see how our actions caused hurt or harm regardless of our intentions. Being willing to see and acknowledge the kernel of truth is the opposite of being defensive.

In response to accounting we make agreements for how we will relate more safely in the future. And this is the crux of why accounting can’t be forced. A person has to be willing to make agreements to make themselves safe to be with. We can call out and punish a person, but we can’t force them to make themselves safe to be with.

We can’t actually force Biden to govern differently or force a privileged influencer to stop harming marginalized people. What we can do is choose how to make ourselves safer amidst their violence. With individuals we can have boundaries and choose not to relate to anyone who is committed to being unsafe. With governance, rather than fight people committed to their violence, we can put our energy into organizing community and legal safeties to minimize their harm. Our power lies in creating safety for ourselves and others, not in the impossible goal of forcing people to make themselves safe to be with.