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  • Kacen Callender

WIP: Accountability vs. Shame

The threads of accountability and shame are tangled in a confusing mess, and taking a step back from social media allowed me to see some things a bit more clearly:


There are people on social media who ask for accountability. They see something wrong, such as racism or anti-queerness in a novel, and they ask for accountability with an apology, having those errors corrected if possible, and asking that the person who made the mistake learn and change so that they won’t continue to harm others in the future.


There are also people on social media who shame others. They genuinely request accountability, but sometimes the wrongdoing is actually hurt feelings because of an interaction, which isn’t automatically a mistake. (For example, it’s well within someone’s rights on social media to block another person for boundaries. The blocked person might have their feelings hurt, and then say that the person who blocked them needs to take accountability. Accountability for what? What, exactly, was the mistake?) Sometimes, a person does make a mistake, and even after holding themselves accountable, they are shamed. But more on this in a bit.


There are people who are being asked to take accountability and feel shame for their mistake. They then think that being asked to take accountability means they are being shamed. This isn’t so. Period. We are responsible for our own feelings when told we have made a harmful mistake.


There are also people on social media who correctly see that there are some who are shaming others, but then lump in the folks who are asking for accountability into the same group because they can’t see and don’t know the difference between accountability and shame. More often than not, in my experience, women of color and especially Black women are accused of shaming and bullying, when they’re actually asking for accountability. They are then openly attacked, their lives put at risk, making this entire topic even more emotionally charged and really requiring careful nuance. (I’ll do my best.)


To make matters even more confusing, there are people who manipulate their shaming into a mask of requesting accountability. This is where things get trickiest, I think. Anyone can claim that their hurt feelings are because of wrongdoings that need accountability. Anyone can use the language of accountability and claim that others who refute them are gaslighting them and are toxic. There are some people who have, in my opinion, managed to manipulate the language of accountability so that they will never be seen as in the wrong. This is the gray area where things feel most dangerous on social media. If I asked for boundaries, such as not tagging me in negative reviews, I was at risk for people to use the language of accountability—to say that I’m toxic for not wanting to hear their opinions, or say I’m gaslighting if I say they are dehumanizing me by ignoring my boundaries. I saw I was added onto someone’s blacklist for writing a post about the dehumanization of authors. What harmful mistakes, exactly, have been made that requires accountability?


I’d like to break down some language further: shame is the shaming of a person to their core, suggesting that they’re unworthy of love. When we feel ashamed of ourselves, we feel shame for who we are, not what we’ve done. Accountability is asking a person to look at their actions and do better, without suggesting that they’re a person unworthy of love. A person who has made a mistake and needs to take accountability should, in my opinion, feel guilt, not shame. We all make mistakes—every single one of us. Should we all hate who we are as people because of the mistakes we have made? No, not at all. And so when we make a mistake, we need to focus on the guilt that we’ve done some wrong and do what we can to fix our mistake. This focus on the guilt and the mistake also ultimately takes our emotion/ego out of the equation, allowing us to focus on our responsibility and limiting harm, while knowing with confidence that we’re still worthy of love.


“Being asked to take accountability isn’t the same as being cancelled,” yes—but accountability is also not the same as shaming. So, what does shaming look like? What does accountability look like?


Brené Brown says in her podcast Unlocking Us, “Shame isn’t a social justice tool. It’s emotional offloading, and it’s self-indulgence.” Let’s say someone on social media has made a harmful mistake. They apologize. They do what they can to make up for the error. They understand that they’re owed nothing, and that people don’t need to feel safe with them or accept their apology. They have genuinely learned to do better, and will do everything in their power to make sure the mistake never happens again. They have taken accountability.


Shaming, then, would be the folks who, even after the accountability is taken, will never stop in the suggestion that the person who made a mistake is a bad person. I’ve witnessed this on social media multiple times. Years can pass, and people will say, “The internet is forever. Don’t think we've forgotten what you did.” Blacklists are created of people who should never be supported, even after they’ve taken accountability. The fact that this person’s mistake will follow them forever, as if it’s a part of who they are and their identity—as if they are wrong to their core—is shaming, not accountability. If a person does not take accountability, and others say that this person has not made an effort to learn and grow, then this is a legitimate warning to minimize potential harm of that toxic person. But what is the goal of reminding others that someone made a mistake in the past, when that person has made efforts to change?


I believe that if there was more openness to guilt rather than shame, people would be more willing to accept the fact that everyone makes mistakes. Yes, it should be acknowledged that there are different levels of harm. If someone spews racist abuse, it’s going to take a lot of accountability to make up for the harm, to prove they have learned and grown and are a safe person (with the understanding that perhaps the victims will never feel safe with them again, and don’t want to be around that person again because it triggers trauma). Should this person feel shame for themselves as a human being, incapable of learning and growing? With this specific example in mind, I’d personally like to believe that every racist person has the capacity to realize that their racism is wrong, and that they can learn and grow and become empathetic. If I didn’t believe this, I’d have to think that racism is somehow inherently a part of the human soul. But as we know, racism is taught. Should racist people feel guilt for what they’ve done, and should do everything in their power to make up for their mistakes and take accountability so that we can move forward as a society? Or should they feel shame for the rest of their lives, not actually learning and growing and not contributing to concrete change and the ending cycles of harm?


What about smaller examples? The people who simply disagree with something someone’s said online, perhaps? Why are they expected to feel shame for who they are and their opinions, when those opinions don’t have levels of harm that require accountability? I’ve seen this multiple times on social media as well. I think that the tendency to call out others has more to do with a desire to not look at ourselves fully. I think it’s important to look at our own guilt, because it opens the doorway to our own internal shadows, the things we’d rather see in others than in ourselves: what have we done that has hurt another person? Do we deserve to feel shame for who we are as a human being because we’ve hurt another person? Do we deserve to feel lesser than and unworthy of love, for harm we’ve caused? Or do we deserve to feel guilt—knowing that what we did was wrong, and taking accountable, actionable steps to make up for the harm? Allowing that grace for others also allows that grace inside of ourselves. This might be even more important—that grace we give ourselves for the mistakes we make, letting us not feel such biting shame when we recognize those mistakes, allowing us to see the shadows and learn and grow.


But even me saying any of this, and writing this blog post, will introduce the bit that’s yet another added layer of confusion: some folks will say that I’m tone policing, or gaslighting, for suggesting that a person should be left alone after they’ve taken accountability. “We don’t have to accept their apology.” Yes, this is true. But not accepting an apology also doesn’t equate to shaming. A person can decide not to accept an apology, and let it end there—boundaries set in place, no more communication or interaction, etc. Not accepting an apology doesn’t equate to having a free ticket to perpetuating harm in attacking and shaming others.


I would suggest that the act of shaming is actually something that is harmful, because it creates a system that is dehumanizing to us all: none of us are allowed to make mistakes without being shamed for that mistake. The shaming takes away focus from accountability: the guilt for the mistake made, the action that’s required to do what’s possible to fix that mistake, the learning and growth that must follow. We must all learn and grow. Every single one of us. Shaming suggests that we can’t learn and grow—that our mistakes are forever. The goal of accountability is to end harm through learning and growth. What is the goal of shaming? I think shaming is more about the person who shames, and their own ego.


I can honestly see where the desire to shame is rooted. Understandably, it’s emotionally raw and painful and unbearable for a group of people to be traumatized daily and be told by others that our pain of racism, anti-trans and anti-queer rhetoric and systems, etc., isn’t real, or doesn’t deserve change or an apology. We ask for accountability for police brutality, for slurs, for systems that harm, and more, and are dismissed and ignored. What other course of action is there, then, but to shame, when the people we try to hold accountable refuse to take accountability? I understand. But I also offer that this is ultimately not the answer. Especially as the language of accountability has been so warped and is being used to manipulate.


As I mentioned above, it sometimes feels like people have appropriated the language of accountability by using buzz words and phrases. I want to be extremely careful here, because the nuance really needs to be acknowledged: yes, of course there are people within the movement for justice who use the language of accountability and are actually asking for accountability. Their work and energy in asking for change, often putting themselves in danger, needs to be praised and acknowledged. But, multiple things can be true at once: and, yes, there are also people who use the same language for personal gain and for their own egos, rather than for the goal of ending harm.


I’ll use a hypothetical example of myself—this didn’t happen, but I want to be specific in my meaning here: let’s say an editor read a book by me with a trans character. They don’t like the main character’s arc. He doesn’t learn and grow, and the story doesn’t have any consequences for his refusal to change. The editor can say that the main character is a bit flat because of this. These notes could easily bruise my ego. But I don't look at the hurt I’m feeling as a person with a bruised ego. I’d rather ignore the emotions that are my own responsibility. I could instead say that the editor doesn’t understand trans culture. “We’re chaotic people,” I could claim, “and we don’t need character arcs.” If the editor doesn’t understand this or agree with this general claim, and I refuse to edit the book to that editor’s standards, my book could be pulled. And I could very easily go onto Twitter and say, “This editor and publisher is transphobic. They didn’t understand my trans character’s culture, and they cancelled my book.” Not knowing the details of what happened—that the editor specifically did not like elements of the character’s development, unattached to the character’s trans identity—I’m betting most people would jump on board with this statement without a second thought or any discernment.


In comparison, I’ll use a real example of myself: as some of you already know, Kirkus published a transphobic review of Felix Ever After, which they never took accountability for. I wrote about this here: https://medium.com/@kacen.callender/re-kirkus-ddea3d7b8d2f. I gave specific examples of what was said that was harmful and detailed actionable points of what could be done in response. Within the book community, there are many other examples online of people who point to specific lines in novels or problematic reviews, where people have receipts of conversations where harm was caused. While I know many would not agree that it’s always necessary to point to the harmful specifics and details that need actionable change, I think it can be helpful in figuring out when accountability is actually required.


Another gray area of confusion is the sort of silent bias that so many marginalized writers face. It’s just that thing. We know it when we see it, but can’t always find specific evidence for it. To me, I think this is something that is usually accumulated after multiple examples, understanding intrinsically that, after a while it isn’t just a coincidence that so many white readers didn’t “connect” with your Black main character, or it isn’t just a coincidence that you’ve been uninvited from a school event with no explanation given, but you and your main characters are queer, and the same has happened to many other queer authors, too. This isn’t something that should be dismissed because there isn’t specific evidence. But, using the hypothetical example above, is the silent, constant bias the same as a single person specifically saying that they didn’t understand a character’s arc? Is it possible that, sometimes (again, to be clear, not all of the time, and I’m betting pretty rarely), it’s actually our hurt ego that makes us want to claim that we’re facing systemic bias, shaming others so that we, again, don’t have to look within ourselves?


And, oof—yeah, I can feel how dangerous it is to say this. Because damn, so many of us do face racism, transphobia, anti-queerness, ableism, and so much more every single day. It’s painful and harmful and damaging. No, I don’t think that people who call for accountability when stating they’ve been harmed by systemic bias should automatically be dismissed as having a hurt ego. And, as multiple things can be true at once: yes, I also think it’s possible that some peoples’ calls for accountability can sometimes be manipulative techniques of shaming, making it difficult to discern the truth from what is already a confusing culture where shame and accountability are so often mistaken for the other.


To help me with my own discernment of whether a person is using the language of accountability to shame others, I like to look for the details (except in cases of sexual assault and abuse, when the details can actually be even more traumatizing). What, specifically, was said and done that was harmful, and needs accountability? Is it actually that the person’s ego was hurt in an interaction, and so has decided to demand accountability? I can think of many examples where amazing women of color and especially Black women in the book community were incredibly specific with the actions taken that were harmful to themselves and to readers. I can also think of examples where a person will claim, vaguely, that another person is harmful, without really being able to say why. Perhaps because they know, consciously or subconsciously, that the harm is actually their own hurt feelings, which is something that they ultimately need to take responsibility for.


In the calls for accountability, is a generalization made involving past, vague events? Another hypothetical example, re: boundaries. “That person is toxic because they don’t listen to criticism. They only block others.” Were the criticisms about mistakes the person made? Actions the person specifically took, things that were specifically said, that also need accountability? Or were the criticisms about the person’s hair, or clothing, and they didn’t want to hear it, so they blocked the person criticizing them? Would we, not knowing the full story, immediately assume that, yes, this person is toxic for blocking to not have to deal with criticisms? It’s so easy to make general statements that can make a person seem toxic and abusive without actually knowing the details or the backstory. It’s been important for me to practice more discernment in this area, always with the goal of seeing the end of harm through necessary learning and growth.


I know that people will automatically want to say that I am toxic for writing this blog post, so I’d love to put my thoughts on this topic to the test: what, exactly, have I done that is harmful? What statements and what actions need accountability so that this harm isn’t perpetuated, and so that I can learn and grow and not make the same mistake again? Or—and I really do ask that we all take a breath and openly consider this—is it actually that the ego has been bruised, so our gut reaction is to call out another person as toxic, so that we won’t have to explore the toxicity within ourselves? Is the gut reaction to shame, and continue shaming others who made a mistake, because we don’t want to feel the shame we have for ourselves?


Like I said, this entire topic is such a tangled web of confusion that I’ve wanted to return to the basics: first, love. Yes, yes, I know, but hear me out—love for others when they make mistakes, knowing we deserve that same love when we make mistakes, too. (Compassion, I think it’s generally called.) And really trying to simplify call outs: what was the harmful statement and action, and how can the harmful statement and action be fixed? How can the person learn and grow, and how can I—all of us—learn and grow with them? Focusing on accountability is the path away from shame. I understand this isn’t everyone’s opinion or path, but I hope sharing my own might resonate with some of you, too.


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