Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Beloved flock in murmuration with me, I keep finding myself saying to myself and anyone who will listen that healing is the victory. Healing from cycles of harm, healing from the inside out, healing so that we have internal integrity to the values most compatible with our beloved home planet and all the other life on it—that’s the win. Seeking to dominate others leads to contention, violence, and a disconnection from reality. No one wins in that scenario. In fact, the most likely outcome of our currently ruptured society is that humans go extinct. And I want us to continue as long as we are meant to, which I believe means breaking cycles of harm. I have so much to say about healing as our greatest victory that I am offering a series of columns here that explore what it looks like.
I want to begin that exploration with internal accountability. In my own healing journeys around trauma, food, relationships, and giving my body the care and love it deserves and needs, my internal accountability was required for the necessary changes to take place. I had to change how I thought about things, what I believed, and what I was willing to practice. I had to learn to see the difference between what I’d been socialized to believe (my fat body is bad and deserving of ridicule and punishment), and what I’d been politicized and liberated into understanding (my fat body is gorgeous, glorious, normal, desirable, and deserving of my attention, care, and worship). I had to learn to be accountable from the inside out, accountable when no one was watching.
I’m still learning.
Who or what do you feel accountable to?
Your community? How do you define that, who is included? Family? Immediate or extended or chosen? Or perhaps friends? People with whom you are unified by identity? People who follow you on the internet? People you work with? To the government? To a religious institution, or to a deity?
And when you feel accountable to them, what does it feel like? How do you know you are being accountable? Has anyone ever said directly to you that you were being accountable, that you seemed like an accountable person?
I ask y’all these questions because I want us to be on close to the same page. I am contemplating the same questions these days, both as a human attempting to live an accountable life, and as someone to whom people often turn when they want to become more accountable.
It is time to deepen our practices of internal accountability.
As I reflect for myself, one of the biggest patterns I notice is that accountability is often discussed as something that lives outside of us. We have to be accountable for things we do to others, and things we said we would do that we didn’t. We are generally held accountable by others: accountable for harm we have caused, or for patterns of trauma, pain, and abuse that we have participated or been complicit in.
For most of us, it is easier to see accountability as it relates to others, to see their beauty and flaws, to see their victories and missteps, to see ways they seem to be better or worse than us. In this era of internet society, it is especially easy to see what someone else has done wrong, or hear the rumors, and then to tell them about it publicly. And whether you have ever been publicly held accountable or not, these days it feels like constant pressure, the anticipation of external accountability from the world beyond our own knowing and feeling.
But I think this kind of external living creates in us a collective fragility. If we are constantly tracking each other for things that need accountability, always operating in pursuit of the approval of others, or being held to standards set by others, how can we trust our own choices? If accountability happens outside of us, and is judged and corrected by others, how can we learn to recognize, let alone honor, our own needs and values?
I suspect that this externalization of accountability, especially the structural outsourcing of accountability from the self or community to the government or religious institutions, is part of what feeds cycles of harm. When we are not able to choose accountable actions on our own, when we are only held accountable once we are caught by another body, many of us can get caught in a state of arrested development, childlike, acting from a place of reckless abandon, instant gratification, and short-term thinking.
When we are stuck in this collective fragility, outsourcing our accountability, we often expect others to do the labor of not harming us, while also not being harmed by us. We are fragile because we are not living with internal clarity around what feels right to us, so we lack the internal capacity to assess the potential harm of each action. Too many of us are living according to an amorphous, highly adaptive and reductive external standard for accountability. Instead of rooting our choices in what we truly believe and value, we end up making choices that conform to a variety of external values and standards.
I believe it is time to deepen our practices of internal accountability. How do we answer for our own impacts and choices? How do we discern what deserves our attention, what boundaries we honor, what we communicate and how?
I want to focus on this because I think too often we claim a victory based on some external public declaration, campaign win, or shift in social standard. The thinking is, now that we have articulated a commitment to this standard, we have some way to hold others accountable to it.
On one hand, this is true. I am grateful for any external standards against sexual assault and harm, against homophobia, transphobia, racial discrimination, ableism. But these standards alone don’t go far enough to address the issues. If we don’t cultivate internal accountability, nothing really changes. If I act like I care about equal rights for everyone, but internally I believe I hold a superior position to one group of people, that internal superiority will find a way to surface. I see this often with men who rush to use the language of feminism, but still operate in harmfully patriarchal ways behind the scenes—until they get caught. Or White people who have Black Lives Matter signs in their yard but are racist to the Black people in their lives—until they are called out.
If the only thing keeping us accountable is the external call-out, if the only way we choose to be accountable is when we are caught, then we necessarily have to police each other, constantly watching one another for the latest transgression. This is sometimes presented as solidarity, or allyship, and you can feel when the correction or lesson comes with a sense of humility and compassion. But more and more often, especially in the public sphere, what we are up to is not solidarity, but mass policing. The subject of our policing is determined by whichever issues we are willing to surveil.
Part of truly learning a lesson is the embodiment of it, knowing it from within, knowing it so deeply that it can guide your next choices and decisions. What we have learned to do really well is to police each other. We are in a constant state of division, conquered by those who benefit from our inability to think collectively and structurally.
So a first step toward ending cycles of harm, toward deep healing of some of the systemic wounds we carry, is honing our internal sense of accountability. Not “Let me be careful not to offend” or “Let me do this messed up thing and hope I don’t get caught,” but “Let me act in alignment with my values.”
In my next column, I will talk about the practices of internal accountability.
adrienne maree brown is a writer, editor, activist, social justice facilitator, coach, speaker, and doula. Her books include Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, which she wrote and edited, and Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, which she co-edited. She is a YES! contributing editor.