Posted by Hannah Stephen
Apologies, accountability, remorse, repentance, action, intent are just some things that the Internet largely seems to have time for, in between the extremities of cancel culture and pedestalisation. We find ourselves lacking patience with survivors who take their time to tell their story and we lack tolerance with a perspective that exposes harm. We lack all of these things not just because the reactionary platform limits our humanity, but because the punishment-centered world we live in is all-pervasive and encroaches on our humanity every day.
The desire to punish feels instinctive and inherent, even though it has never been. When hurt, we reach for the first avenue to inflict hurt back not because we don’t want to do better, but simply because we fear conflict. As members, we have only antagonised the presence of conflict. The slightest hint of its presence is met with judgment and alienation. But what if we embraced conflict, gathered around the table to address it, and let it transform how we do relationships every day?
Conflict is inevitable, so why run from it and not towards it? When your partner fails to do the dishes as they promised, how do you respond? Do you do it yourself, comment on it passive-aggressively or address it? In these moments our relationship with apology and accountability is forged. When your friend forgets to show up for something they promised, how do you respond? Do you decide to never trust their word again, do you shrug it off or do you tell them how it made you feel? When we let go of an opportunity to hold each other to the respect and love we deserve, we miss out on transforming for the better.
Harm (not abuse) is inevitable, so why not learn how to heal and repair? We are bound to hurt and cause harm to those around us. Ignoring it and letting the state dictate how that harm is addressed is part of the ongoing cycle of violence we inflict on our humanity. Wanting those you trust and hold dear to do better is never the problem. Refusing and denying an opportunity to heal and repair is the greatest threat to communities.
To embrace conflict and heal from harm, we need to envision and rebuild our communities on the building blocks of accountability. To begin taking accountability, we start with an apology. Since an apology is made by the one who caused the harm, it can carry resentment, shame, and defensiveness and that can often make an apology ineffective and sometimes result in a continuation of harm. But apologies serve a purpose, and that is to acknowledge that harm was done. To make genuine apologies, one needs to recognise the harm without being shamed into it. When shame is used to force an apology, it will be self-serving. That apology then has one purpose: to rid the one who caused harm from the self-resentment that comes with shame. Apologies should be encouraged and normalised because it is an expression of wanting to do better, to be better, and to love better.
How do we do that? An apology should always be unconditional, without excuses, and center the one who was hurt. To prevent an apology from becoming another avenue to gaslight the victim, the person who did harm shouldn’t blame the feelings of the one who was hurt. Instead of saying “I’m sorry you feel neglected”, say “I’m sorry my actions caused you to feel neglected.” The next step is naming the harm that was committed. It should always be “I lied to you,” and never “You left me no choice but to lie to you.” Centering victims cannot become a way to victim blame. Once the harm is addressed, there is a need to offer assurance that the harm will stop, immediately. An active, intentional assurance looks like, “I will take every step to stop manipulating you” and never, “You should trust me now that I have apologised.” The responsibility to provide assurance cannot be on the one who suffered.
But apologies have limitations. They may not be accepted immediately due to the gravity of the hurt or the ingenuity of the one apologising. An apology may need a rework and go through several rounds of improvement before it does justice to the one who suffered. An apology may not be reciprocated with forgiveness. In some cases, it may not be welcome at all. And in such cases, the one who caused harm can only reflect on their actions and work with those who wish to be there to do better and break that cycle of harm. The person who is harmed owes nothing to the one who caused harm merely because they are ready to apologise and be accountable. Centering victims also includes respecting their decisions to participate in the healing process (or not).
Once we cross the hill of apology, we arrive at Mt. Accountability. The Cambridge definition of accountability is “the fact of being responsible for what you do and able to give a satisfactory reason for it or the degree to which this happens”. The definition obviously doesn’t do justice to what accountability is. My favourite way to describe accountability is from Shannon Perez-Derby. Imagine a scale of 0 to 100. Zero being our society’s solution to harm: Impunity and 100 being: Shame. In the middle somewhere, we find our friend Accountability.
It is not just being responsible but owning up to the consequences of one’s action and submitting to the work that repairs the harm done. It is essentially saying, “I made you feel unsafe, how do you think I can make it up to you for the harm, pain and trauma I caused?”
How we approach accountability also plays an important role in it being effective. While it is important to have the victim decide what reparations they need, it cannot become a reason to make the victim labour in the process. Those with privilege should ensure that the accountability process does not further the cycle of exploitation. The one who harmed should put in the work to show up with reparation methods of their own and be an active part of the healing process and not a passive participant. Accountability should always involve more than just the one who harmed and the one who was harmed. Growth can never happen in isolation and loved ones, friends, as well as the community should show up with love to be transformed in such processes.
When the harm is a result of systemic oppression–sexism, casteism, anti-LGBTQ+, capitalism–one can make themselves aware of their own complicity in these oppressive systems. Reading, reflecting, and educating those of your own community are some ways. However, it must not be the responsibility of the oppressed community to educate or put in the emotional labour to make the abuser aware. One may be asked to donate time or money as a part of making reparations. They may be asked to no more hold on to a position that they abused. Throughout the accountability process – for it to be effective – being open to criticism is critical to providing justice and healing.
“This change is not about being “good people” in an individualistic sense. It is about strengthening our understanding of our position within these massive systems of power and oppression that structure social existence,” Nora Samaran says. Taking accountability is our show of humanity, that we are capable of transforming for the better and valuing each other with dignity and respect.
Please find below a list of readings and social media pages collated by the author for those interested in understanding accountability and how it functions better:
- Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective: Pods and Pod Mapping Worksheet
Creative Interventions Toolkit: A practical guide to stop interpersonal violence
bell hooks: All about love
Nora Samaran: Turning this world inside out
- Nora Samaran: The opposite of rape culture is nurturance culture