Considerations when creating public accountability for social change

First I am providing some personal context behind this post. Scroll down to skip this section if you prefer to get straight to the 3 points (which are long themselves).

“In the context of social change, where is the line between pandering to fragility, and empathy? ”

I was doing this, I felt, out of some sort of Biko-esque duty to engage a fellow racist-in-recovery (who was willing and open to such engagement, mind you):

Rather, all true liberals should realise that the place for their fight for justice is within their white society. The liberals must realise that they themselves are oppressed if they are true liberals and therefore they must fight for their own freedom and not that of the nebulous “they” with whom they can hardly claim identification. The liberal must apply himself with absolute dedication to the idea of educating his white brothers that the history of the country may have to be rewritten at some stage and that we may live in “a country where colour will not serve to put a man in a box”.

The blacks have heard enough of this. In other words, the liberal must serve as a lubricating material so that as we change the gears in trying to find a better direction for South Africa, there should be no grinding noises of metal against metal but a free and easy flowing movement which will be characteristic of a well-looked-after vehicle. — Steve Biko, I Write what I like

Despite my best-white images of myself, a friend told me that, actually, all I was doing was pandering to this guy’s fragility and, in the guise of empathetic engagement, delivering unpaid emotional labour. Should I have just told him where to get off in 140 characters or less, blocked him, and been done with it?

Would any of it (and even this post?) been anything more than liberal virtue signalling or voyeuristic anthropologising (status quo protecting anthro-apologising?) in the guise of liberal empathy?

In addition to my own uncertain role in social change — where I am fluctuating between vocal outrage, quiet dialogue, utilising institutional processes and disrupting them - each time there is an instance of viral public accountability, I return to this draft blog with a new reference or thought about whether to join the outrage naming and shaming, or engage in quiet dialogue, or both/and.

Until now, I have not had the courage or clarity of conviction to finish this post. I tell myself it is because I am constantly changing how I think about this issue. Moreover, as a white person, I am cautious of claiming some sort of moral or intelligent superiority in how social change should or could be achieved, what tone and tactics can /can’t be used.

I have decided to publish this now, because I realised that if I am really honest, it is none of the above concerns that ultimately stops me. It is my own egotistical fear of a viral take down (a small risk given how few of yall read me, I mean, who do I think I am even??). How can I personally not be open to a process that I am inherently acknowledging as necessary for social change?

Considerations in creating public accountability for social change

I am using “public accountability”.

This is a deliberate choice which already hints at my for-now-conclusion: that the intent behind these moments should be one of accountability and change; rather than polarization and punishment — but these are not mutually exclusive, and not definitive scales.

In all my quiet returns to this post, three areas of consideration have repeatedly emerged. They are:

1. To what extent are we seeking restorative and/or retributive justice?

Restorative justice seeks to deal not only with the victim and the offender, but with the society. Retributive justice places a primary emphasis on punishment of a wrong committed.

Another way of phrasing this dilemma is:

Are we focused on structural/systemic change, or individual accountability, or both?

  • By reducing structural problems to personal morality, we ignore that the personal is the symptom of the political
  • The call-out act itself has become pop-culture-like, performative politics used for virtue signally, self flagellation and lib-group belonging
  • All of this is a symptom of individualised societies, alienating us from any real sense of community, collective responsibility or systemic complexity

However, everything is political and contextual. As a former social worker working with both victims and perpetrators and perpetrator-victims I bare a tattoo whose intent is to remind me that all individuals exist in context. Offenders of even the most heinous violations of others are often victims themselves, and yet we punish them (ideally, but often not, as but one tool in our toolkit of addressing crime; and often to centre the interests of the victim (where there is/are an identifiable victim/s) in “seeing justice done”; and to protect any potential future victims.

Under these circumstances, when people sense the total hopelessness for change on a systemic level, it is understandable that they focus instead, and only, on personal injury, individual infractions, and the therapeutic level of social justice, rather than systemic analysis which makes possible solidarity and authentic revolutionary consciousness. — Social Justice, Identity Politics, and the Liberal Fundamentalism Poisoning It

Where and how we are are using call-out culture both as learning, restorative, empathy- and solidarity-building moment; and for direct personal accountability and justice for victims is not always clear to me.

In instances of viral outrage there are countless side convers(at)ions happening where people are “getting it” — i.e. waking up to the structural. These are often one-on-one or drowned in a million uses of the same #, but every now and then someone dissects the cause of the outrage into meaningful societal lessons.

One of the most profound examples I can call on was how “the Spur incident” was used to illustrate structural power issues by Sonke Gender Justice

  1. An incident went viral which presented an opportunity to a) call for direct accountability from the offenders as well as Spur and b) for national dialogue on gender, race and power
  2. A white man spoke to other white men about why this incident held lessons for men like them

There was both individual accountability and societal learning. In the end, for me, this instance actually became less about the personal accountability, and more about social change; but personal accountability was a necessary factor in allowing that change to happen.

My principles is thus: if we acknowledge that incidents of racism, sexism or other prejudice or even assault are systemic; it is our responsibility to leverage moments of individual accountability for systemic learning.

2. To what extent are we tolerant of moral relativism? What about false equivalence?

There are early-uptakers and evangelists, and then there are some communities who lag in these shifts. Sometimes it is less global (rural?) communities. Sometimes its older generations. Often, its those who are in power.

Most often, it is those who cannot confront the idea that the moral view they had of themselves was possibly inaccurate. As humans, we are riddled with cognitive biases and processes that justify retrospectively why we were right, even when we weren’t. After all, both Republicans, and Democrats, think of themselves as righteous and moral. We are gifted at twisting nuances and memory and intent vs outcome to protect our view of ourselves as righteous, fair, rationale… good.

Image result for elephant and rider
The elephant, the rider and the path: a useful metaphor in understanding cognitive processes and biases, especially around morality. Often the elephant acts first, and the rider then justifies why this was the rational move, rather than the other way around. In working on change, we need to build paths for the elephant to take together with the rider.

Sometimes we even do this on behalf of other people (who are similar to us in some way?). We will hear “Ag shame, but they grew up in a different place/time” or “I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way” or “I don’t think we have the full picture”

There is empathy in that — bringing understanding into our efforts determine what is reasonable for a person who grew up under certain norms to think or do today, or what might have been intended or what might have transpired prior? Further, by centering the place/time, we can learn about systems and processes that create prejudice or oppression, and better learn to untangle and prevent them.

But it can also be used to excuse behaviour that a) infringes on the rights of others and b) is transferable to future generations. So how do we intercept that inter-generational cycle? What punishment fits a crime committed today, by a person of a relatively different era? This was an argument for #PennySparrow, but not for the generation people like her raised:

(I agree Trevor, don’t be a racist!)

The question of whether or not we apply new moral frameworks retrospectively (i.e. to actions taken before seismic moral shifts) has come up in South Africa’s own “#metoo” moment (as did mention of restorative vs retributive intent). Have a listen:

One of the reasons that I am cautious of moral relativism is that you can end up creating false equivalence among (sometimes) mutually exclusive moral frameworks.

In an attempt to better understand Republicans (because I am still battling with the alt-right), I recently read The Righteous Mind. It challenged me on many levels, and brought into view a range of moral foundations that are rather foreign to me — or concerns I may have scoffed at prior to learning about their origins and transferability from the perspectives of evolutionary biology, social psychology and philosophical disciplines. I now have a clearer udnerstanding that both Republicans and Democrats have an interest in communal stability and progress, but Democrats prioritise fairness and care as moral foundations to achieve this, while Republicans prioritise sanctity, authority and loyalty.

I believe that these insights have equipped me with better tools to engage across difference, but it did leave me constantly questioning the line at which we start awarding moral relevance to concerns that then are used to justify harmful, unjust actions. What are the boundaries to communal interests? Can sanctity within one tribe trump care toward another?As left-y I don’t think so, but perhaps better knowing the language of sanctity will help me not just unfriend people out of my own inability to fathom where they are coming from…

From: The Righteous Mind

My principle emerging from these tensions is to avoid outcasting a person when their construction of themselves is not one where they are breaking any moral code. If they’re just an psychopathic arsehole, or at risk of repeatedly infringing the rights of others, go ahead and outcast, probably even through formal justice institutions. But if they genuinely seem to believe that they acted reasonably, try and start where they are, and build a new path (or learn something yourself).

Some of the best engagements that have caused me to acknowledge a prejudice or form of power I had not previously acknowledged involved deep pain, anger, fragility on my part. Many of them involved deep empathy and kindness from others, but not all. Some just involved a totally new experience while actively reflecting on biases or voices making unjustified racist/classist assumptions (an ever continuing process).

Some involved outright ridicule or rejection — startling enough to force me to reflect.

I guess I have no clear resolution on this one, but a reminder to consider this theme when I am responding to specific public accountability cases. Perhaps sometimes the interests of social change are best met when the individual “offender” is outcast, while their defenders are engaged?

3. What is the best route with the above intents?

  1. In each instance, always ask what is my inter-sectional position relative to the victim in this instance, this person being called-out, and the systemic issue at large?

The actions I should or shouldn’t take are relative to my own power. Sometimes, it is helpful to add your voice to the outrage, other times its put to better use through quiet dialogue.

Always consider what is in the best interests of the victim(s) and in the best interests of systemic learning and change, rather than what is in the best interests of my own emotions or image.

2. Start at home.

My sphere of influence is almost always strongest closest to “home”. That is, amongst people who are similar to me in race, gender, class, sexuality etc. This is also often the hardest.

How many of us have “just don’t talk about politics” rules amongst certain life-long-friendship groups or family circles?

Our interest in shifting global norms becomes trumped by our interest in direct communal stability.

There is a question in here about emotional labour and where the burden to educate lies . There are people on the “practical” side of this debate who say that we must all be kind and empathetic and listen and educate(how far do we go? Pander to fragility? Obey even tone policing in order to meet them where they are?) … and there are people on the other side who say fuck that why should anyone have to put in the time and emotional energy to do that work with someone else?

As a privileged person I do think I have to take on the burden of constantly challenging myself and others like me… I flip flop on how far along the shaming — pandering continuum that is depending on my mood and, yes, also depending on my relationships to the people involved.

Sometimes it feels like the target/perpetrator/defender/apologist becomes the centre of the conversation — their emotions, their position, their ideas are used to dictate the terms on which we engage, and detract from actually addressing the issue at hand.

But, we need to have these tough conversations.

Meeting people where they are without giving over power in a way that re-creates and re-enforces existing power dynamics is a skill we are not all equipped with, and learning that skill requires an investment in itself — in reading, talking, asking, practicing and reflecting on our best and worst practices. (If anyone has any reading or case studies to point to on how to do this, please send my way!)

3. And start at work.

Many organisations — those with an explicit social purpose (justice or innovation) but also those with commercial purposes — espouse values of non-racialism and gender equality; and some are actively trying to achieve that change through their work (or social investments). These organisations can do well to start their practice of change at home.

Individuals and organizations must follow a constant, reflective and adaptive practice of “inscaping”:

“Part of the answer may be that, in the end, there is no “out there.” The cultural, economic, technological, and moral complexities that social innovators confront don’t respect organizational boundaries. As members of an organization speak honestly with each other about their experiences of life and work, they come to understand that the social realities that they seek to change are not purely external. They are in the room.

Socially innovative organizations draw on member experiences to generate the raw material of social change. They do so not just in special retreats or workshops, but in the routine meetings and conversations that make up most of organizational life.” — Social Innovation from the Inside Out


Archive of thoughts. Imperfect, incomplete and not assumed to be my final position. My actions speak louder than my words. Learn more: