What does it really mean to 'hold someone to account'?

From cancel culture to finding an accountability buddy, we attempt to define the internet's most nebulous concept.

by James Greig
14 June 2021, 7:00am

'Accountability' has been a buzzword for some time now and, as with any buzzword, its meaning has been diluted. It's a lifestyle trend; the stuff of self-help books, relationship advice and Ted Talks about business. It's occasionally the language through which we litigate social media feuds, where it is used to lend a sheen of legitimacy to ill-tempered disputes. Sometimes it's the framework we employ to demand that racist police officers, authoritarian states or corrupt financial institutions be brought to justice; sometimes it's about texting your friend and reminding them to go to the gym. The New York Times recently published a piece titled "To Create a Healthy Habit, Find an Accountability Buddy", reflecting a growing trend for informal arrangements aimed at cajoling people into healthier behaviours or greater heights of productivity. I recently fled such an arrangement after a fortnight and am now, for better or worse, answerable to no one.

Accountability can mean just about anything. However muddled the language around it has become, there's something at the heart of the concept which is still worth salvaging. To consider what it represents and why it is important, I spoke with Zoé Samudzi, a writer and academic who has written about accountability, and particularly how it pertains to the failures of America's legal system to bring the perpetrators of police brutality to justice.

It might seem like "accountability" only properly arrived in the public consciousness within the last five years or so (there was a time when not a day went by without a demand for Donald Trump to be held accountable), but its history goes back much further. It was first used in English in the late 1200s and stemmed from the Latin words for to account and to reckon. "Even when you look at the etymology of it," Zoé says, "accountability has nothing to do with reciprocity and relationship building, and everything to do with record keeping and records management. Which means accountability is also not necessarily about me trying to make you a better person, but could be me keeping tabs on every bad thing you've ever done to me."

“When we see the Right attacking cancel culture, what they're attacking more than anything is the fact that there has been this democratisation of people rejecting things and actually getting positive results from a collective refusal to allow something to continue to exist” – Zoé Samudzi

The concept of accountability has become intrinsically tied with that of 'cancel culture' (in fact, it's been suggested that we should instead talk about 'accountability culture'.) While 'cancel culture' often describes legitimate criticism aimed at public figures or institutions, social media can often feel like a battlefield of individuals endlessly holding one another to account. It's unclear, to me, what gives anyone the right to demand this of a stranger. If I've taken issue with something you've said online, why do I have the authority to hold you to account as per my own moral or political standards? And what compels you to accept being held accountable by me? Does this process require some kind of third party mediation -- and if so, what could that possibly look like in the chaotic and disorganised online spaces we inhabit?

"The question about authority is an interesting one," says Zoé, "I think that ‘call-out culture’ is ok to some extent. When we see the Right attacking cancel culture, what they're attacking more than anything is the fact that there has been this democratisation of people rejecting things and actually getting positive results from a collective refusal to allow something to continue to exist. They're not talking about people having their lives and careers ruined for talking about Palestine. They're talking about black people or trans people being like, 'Hey, don't call us slurs in your stand up routine.'

"I don't think that you need a third party mediation," she continues. "But the problem with accountability processes and transformative justice is that someone has to be willing to be held accountable. Can you force someone to be accountable? You can punish someone for doing something wrong, but that's not the same thing." The distinction between punishment and accountability is important because there is often a degree of collapse between the two. While the desire to punish is often understandable, I think it's important to at least endeavour to be honest about our motivations when this is the case. "There needs to be clarity about accountability with a desire to punish", says Zoé. "I think that that's often how I see it happen, but we try to disguise it in this flowery language of transformative justice -- and I just think that is simply not what [people are] doing here.'"

Unlike punishment, accountability requires a willingness to engage on the part of the person who has caused harm. This means that it isn't always possible. "You cannot hold a police officer accountable," says Zoé. "But you can send them to prison for breaking the law and murdering someone. The real difficulty is thinking that racist police officers going to jail is justice - the idea that a racist system could possibly self-regulate. It's great that Derek Chauvin [the police officer found guilty of the murder of George Floyd] went to prison. But there are white supremacist gangs in prison; a lot of people who are racist and go to prison end up leaving more racist than when they came in. I don't think [Chauvin] is going to emerge more apologetic. I don't think he's ever actually going to be sorry for what he did. If you never acknowledge the thing you did as being a problem, are you actually being held accountable? No. You got sent to prison because you broke the law. I think that there is this real conflation of punishment, justice and accountability because within the carceral society in which we live, punishing someone is 'holding them accountable'."

“Without the promise of future change, 'accountability' is just a way of letting oneself off the hook while clinging to the appearance of contrition”

In order to achieve meaningful accountability, apologising and accepting blame is necessary but insufficient -- the key thing is that you endeavour to stop causing harm. This is true whether we're talking about state violence or people behaving badly in their personal relationships. Without the promise of future change, 'accountability' is just a way of letting oneself off the hook while clinging to the appearance of contrition. Zoé offers an interesting example of what could be deemed an accountability process gone wrong: She has been researching the genocide committed against the Ovaherero and Nama people, which took place in Namibia in the early 20th century. At this time, the area was under the colonial rule of the German Empire and designated 'German South West Africa'.

"Recently, Germany was set to finally recognise what they did to the Ovaherero and Nama people as a genocide. It was interesting to see how on one side, the Germans were flipping out and excited: 'we're on our way to reconciliation; it's going to be great!' But talking to Namibians, and specifically the Ovaherero and Nama people, they're just like, 'this has nothing to do with us. You are apologising to the government; you are not apologising to us.' So how are we supposed to celebrate any kind of atoning or accountability or whatever you want to call it, when you are not even directing any of your comments or money to the people that were harmed? The affected community has been asking for the same things for years: reparations and an apology. But they have been completely cut out of the deal -- the government has made it so they're just not even at the table at all," says Zoé. In a situation like this, 'accountability' assuages the guilty conscience of the perpetrators while doing nothing whatsoever for the people who were harmed, and failing to offer them the respect of genuine engagement. Which means, of course, that it's not true accountability.

Having spent a week researching accountability, I am still no closer to arriving at a concrete definition. Maybe it's a cop-out, but I think that in itself is the answer: there isn't one. It is used in such a wide variety of ways that we have to be specific and avoid using it as a smokescreen for vague and insubstantial demands. If we're saying, "This person/ institution/ state must be held accountable", we should go a step further and outline what actually needs to happen.

As a final question, I ask Zoé what accountability means to her. "There just has to be a real explicitness and clarity about what exactly accountability means in a given relationship. You can't just say accountability and expect me to understand what that means. There has to be specifically articulated things that happen. If you just want to punish someone then fine, but if you're talking about genuine accountability, there has to be good faith, mutual acknowledgement of what happened, an apology, a promise and a demonstration of the promise to change the harmful behaviour."

The language of 'accountability' might be over-saturated, and its usage might occasionally be annoying, mean-spirited or lacking in substance. Like all buzzwords, its time in the sun will come to an end. But if we care about working towards a more just world, it's too important to discard altogether.

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