Notes on Accountability - Practice Makes Progress
By Rus Ervin Funk
We have have examined various issues related to accountability over the past three issues of the NAMEN newsletter. In the first (May, 2017), I offered some initial thoughts on What We’re Learning about accountability through the the lens of on the ground practitioners and efforts. In the July issue, Chuck Derry, Cliff Leek, and Humberto Carolo joined me in exploring experiences we have had individually, and collectively, seeking to hold other men and men’s groups accountable. In this issue, I will explore some additional issues related to our attempts to be accountable--and hold others accountable--as well as offer some ideas about practice.
In practicing accountability, at least three common threads emerge that deserve further exploration and attention. I’ll touch on each of these in this article:
- dynamics of shaming and blaming
- our relationship with women, and how those who attempt to hold men accountable treat us and
- our response to this treatment.
Shaming and Blaming
It’s hard to have a conversation about accountability and not address shaming and blaming. In the US context, our ideas about accountability are overly influenced by the criminal legal system/perspective. We are mostly used to the notion of “holding someone accountable” being associated with judgement, punishment and blame. To a large degree, we understand being “held accountable” as synonymous to receiving some form of punishment. Judging, punishing and blaming are inherently shame-based behaviors. This frame make is difficult for us to willingly accepting being accountable, and can also create barriers in our ability and willingness to hold others accountable.
As men we often seem most comfortable with shaming and blaming tactics for holding other men (including other men’s groups) accountable. We don’t seem to need to be taught how to start holding others accountable by being accusatory -- “You did something wrong; this is what you did wrong and this is what is wrong with you…”
Even when trying to engage other men, our messages and tactics that are inherently shaming. Consider the “real men don’t rape” kinds of campaigns. Inherent in the message that “real men” don’t rape is that the men who do rape are somehow not “real” men, i.e. they are less than “real” men and/or that there is something inherently wrong with them as human beings. Suggested in these campaigns is a parallel assumption -- “there is something wrong with you as a man, or with your manhood if you don’t speak out against rape.”
Shaming and blaming tactics, however, rarely lead to sustained change (individually or organizationally). Rather, they tend to invite defensiveness, entrenched behaviors and backlash. While shame and blame may succeed in interrupting specific behaviors or actions, that short-term interruption is not the same as accountability. Accountability necessitates taking responsibility for one’s actions (or inactions) and making amends -- goals that are typically missed and which tend to be discouraged when using shaming and blaming tactics.
While this is true, there is also some degree in which holding others accountable is inherently shaming. To suggest that we’re not shaming seems unrealistic and is likewise (although differently) ineffective. Holding someone else accountable means, in part, “holding” people to see the consequences of their action (or inaction) and inviting them to change these behaviors. It is not our responsibility to shame someone for their behaviors, but neither is it our responsibility to protect them from the shame they may feel for recognizing the consequences of what they’ve done. For perhaps most of us, coming to recognize the ways that our behaviors have caused harm (especially when we have harmed someone we care about) we feel some shame. Feeling some shame isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Furthermore, and related, as we reflect on our process of change, we likely experienced periods of shame in regards to how we treated others. My consciousness has increased over the years regarding understanding privilege and the ways that I engage in privileged behaviors. As my consciousness increased, I have been aware when I was not yet living up to what my consciousness was telling me. There were times when I was ashamed of myself for that gap, and that shame turned into a motivating force propelling me to get my act together. Had someone protected me in those moments when was experiencing shame, I may well have avoided the growth opportunities before me.
One way to encapsulate this lesson is this -- learn the lesson you need to learn, clean up what you have to clean up, and them move on. Looking backward at the ways we’re ashamed doesn’t propel us forward -- either us as individuals, or us as a movement.
Since shaming and blaming are widely recognized as largely ineffective strategies to create sustained individual or organizational change, and shame seems to be relatively inherent in the process of being and holding others accountable, then what are we saying about shame? The lesson?: be mindful. With rare exception, the point of being accountable is not to feel bad about ourselves, and the point of holding other men or men’s groups accountable is not to make them feel bad about themselves as human beings. Ultimately, the goal of accountability is two-fold: ensure/promote the safety and well being of folks who have been harmed or who have a history of oppression/dominance; and to encourage growth, development and movement forward towards being a better ally, human being, activist…(fill in the blank.) When we attend to these goals in the process of being accountable and holding others accountable, we find ways to manage the shame, blame and accountability.
Our relationships with women
Men’s accountability often involves women. Most of us as men know and love women who we count on to support and challenge us; and most of our organizations have women in leadership who both encourage and challenge us and our efforts. How men use our relationships with women when we attempt to be accountable -- and when we’re being held accountable -- is worthy of deeper exploration.
Are we (both individually and organizationally) using the women with whom we have relationships to justify and excuse our behavior or as monitors of our behavior and actions? When challenged we have seen a tendency to refer/defer to our women supporters. In other words, when a woman holds me accountable for something I’ve said or done, as part of examining my behavior and being accountable, I quite often “check” myself with other women in my life. This isn’t inherently problematic but can be if we use these relationships to excuse, justify, or minimize our behaviors. When I go to women colleagues and friends saying, “I was called out for doing thus and such at this meeting. Here’s what happened… that wasn’t so bad was it?” I invite collusion with my minimizing. This is not to call out the women who support us, but rather to focus on how we use our relationships in ways that may justify sexist or abusive behaviors.
How others who are holding us accountable may treat us
All of us are flawed, including those folks who we have harmed in some way. This means that there are times when we’ve all (individuals and organizations) been held accountable in ways that felt hurtful or mean.
Sometimes what we’ve done, or how we’re experienced it, is so hurtful, alarming or triggering, that people react with emotional reactivity at the time they’re holding us accountable. In these moments, it is tempting to try and completely dismiss their charge rather than listening to what they are saying beneath the emotional reactivity. For many of us who are white, this seems particularly true when Black, Latina, Asian or Native women are the ones being emotional. It is also tempting to jujitsu the situation and make ourselves (individually or collectively) the victim of their “emotional outburst.”
It seems critical in our efforts to be accountable to expand our capacity to non-defensively respond to these situations. This means not only developing our own abilities, but also helping to develop our collective capabilities. Since there is usually a legitimate reason we’re being called out, holding ourselves accountable is necessary even if we don’t like the way someone is holding us accountable.
Still, as human beings who don’t want to be emotional punching bags, we have the right to set limits on the ways we are spoken to and treated. It is precisely those times when I am feeling most defensive or anxious that I often have the greatest opportunity to learn about myself. So when someone is coming after me with some heat about my behavior or words -- and I start feeling the most intense desire to avoid or defend -- that is exactly the moment when I most probably need to do my best listening. That is most likely exactly the moment when someone is telling me something that I most need to hear (especially if I don’t want to.)
Being accountable, both individually and collectively, is a process of learning for us all. We learn best, it seems, when we are transparent about that process, including those aspects of learning that are particularly difficult. As long as we continue to understand being accountable as a process, rather than an endpoint, we increase our chances of continuing to make progress on how we understand and practice accountability.