Understanding ‘accountability abuse’

‘Accountability abuse’ is an abuse of power pattern that happens when we take on self-policing roles within a community without the appropriate checks and supports for ourselves.

For me, accountability abuse is a more succinct way to define violent behaviors that tend to be categorized under ‘call-out culture’ or ‘cancel culture’, spanning from brutal accountability processes to covert campaigns to exile individuals, usually without any kind of due process.

It often takes survivors of accountability abuse a very long time to recognize that they have been abused, and even longer for those around them to fully recognize it. This is because conversations around accountability inevitably hit us where we have a lot of shame for past actions (including collective actions such as our ancestor’s actions or same-gender people actions) and can cause a lof confusion in how to best respond without negating concern or invalidating the internal experience of others.

I’ve personally had the experience of being requested to participate in problematic accountability processes for patterns that I had already accepted the need to address and have been working on personally. In these cases, it was very confusing to sort out how to deal with the reality that the process that I am being asked to be a part of is violent in nature, while the issue itself that is being brought up is one that I am committed to and already exploring independently.

I decided to write this article in the hopes that it supports people who have been in spots like me, close to people who are going through something similar, and people who want to address an issue in their community but are wary of their own capacity to do it in a healthy way. In particular, I hope I am able to offer some simple tools that help us reorient and gain more clarity.

To start, I want to discuss why accountability abuse is hard to identify as it is happening: because in social justice communities, we tend to talk about power dynamics that form around identity lines, such as race and gender, but NOT talk about the responsibilities that come with social power and role power.

Here are a few examples that plainly show how this is a problem:

  • You can be a trans person, with very little socioeconomic power in the world at large, but able to access ample amounts of social power within your own community by leveraging community opinion.
  • You can be a WOC in a facilitator position of a group with mostly white women but have a ton of role power to define what is right or wrong behavior in the facilitation space.

By in large, analysis of power in social justice discourse misses that in real human interactions within small communities, social power and role power can often eclipse identity. A lot of relational violence is enabled because we are unwilling to face this reality.

Recognizing the above is especially important in the case of community-based justice processes. Every time we initiate an action that is founded on the rationale of doing what is best for the community we are in, we are exercising both social power and role power.

In my view, if a justice process lacks an innate consideration of how it is accessing social power and role power, it is problematic at best and abusive at worst, regardless of whether it is public or private in nature (let’s collapse the call-in vs. call-out conversation because frankly, they can both be abusive).

Simply put, there are no conditions by which we can initiate a credible justice process without checks and balances in place for our use of social power and role power. This is extremely important to understand because social power and role power are often there for the taking – it is not a consensual power dynamic that is being enacted. The moment we decide to initiate a justice action, we are taking hold of power and need to know what our responsibilities are.

So how do we know what responsibilities exist when social power and role power are taken up in the name of serving our community?

Here are two essential elements, that I believe is required of a justice process that has integrity. Of course, there may be more but I hope this is a good starting point for many of us.

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Transparency

Transparency may be both ‘administrative’ clarity on what the issues that are being brought forth are and what the processes is, as well as clear communication of how the persons initiating the process are emotionally affected by what is happening.

In particular, I hold that it is incredibly important to recognize the responsibility of the persons taking up social power and role power to model vulnerability and show up with a commitment to owning their emotional experience.

If we do not feel enough embodied safety to be vulnerable and hold our own emotions, we are not ready to initiate an accountability process.

Accountability

It seems obvious when it is in writing but justice processes themselves need to be accountable.

A healthy process provides and protects ways for participants, regardless of who they are, to feedback to the ones who are leading how they are holding their role. This necessarily requires that there is transparent communication of the values that are driving the process.

Here are some values that I believe are essential to a healthy community-based justice process:

  • Trauma awareness, applying to care for the trauma of ALL participants, not just the ones claiming harm. (You can read more about what I think about this subject here and here.)
  • Good faith commitment to relationality. A healthy process has the foundational desire to hold space for the healing of relationships.
  • Unconditional positive regard for all participants.

In many conversations about accountability, there is never explicit or even implicit communication of the values that are meant to support the process. This means that people are left with very little means for appealing the responsibility of the initiating persons that are wielding social power and role power.

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Understanding the central role of social power and role power in accountability abuse and the need for transparency and accountability as safeguards to prevent it, is important to me because it gets away from confusing conversations about call-out/cancel culture and what constitutes a healthy justice process.

Too often, we get trapped into looking at the resultant suffering in someone’s life, including loss of status, as the marker of whether a process was compassionate/restorative/transformative or not.

Basically, it is not the experience of pain and loss that signifies accountability abuse. Rather, it is the lack of intentional elements such as transparency and accountability, which are essential to maintain the integrity of justice processes, that indicate abuse of power is happening.

This is critical to me because I believe what is exactly healing within a justice process is integrity itself.

Thank you for reading.

While this article might have felt critical, I hope it also genuinely inspires us to think harder about what makes community-based justice processes be truly enlivening to us.

When we learn what to say NO to, we can also learn what we can say a big YES to.

NOTE: The situations I described above are mostly applicable to situations where the person who is initiating the process has clearly more social power and role power they are accessing. It does not speak to cases where it is the reverse, or at least more complicated e.g. when an employee is calling out the harm of an employer. Even in these situations though, it is important for us to remember that having a less powerful role in a hierarchy doesn’t mean we have no social power or role power and responsibilities that come with holding these powers.


Are you a therapist, facilitator, organizer or healer called to a deeper exploration of subjects discussed in this post?

I provide coaching and consulting services for individual practitioners, enterprises, and organizations that are committed to intersectional cultural healing. You can find more information here.