When it comes to social justice, calls for accountability can feel like a threat. The idea that our own actions can harm someone else, and especially that we might be unconsciously acting out the scripts of unjust systems, doesn’t sit well in the human mind. And when people set healthy boundaries, and say, as they should, “You have to stop; you can’t do this,” the human mind can easily experience that as social rejection. What is being said is, “We are committed to creating community that is safe, supportive, and empowering for every person.” But what we, in our defensiveness, may hear, is, “We will cut you off if you don’t change, and don’t kid yourself if you think you are somehow so special or important that you can avoid the consequences of bad decisions.”
Reframing Our Defensiveness
There is a natural defensiveness that lives inside of us: we want to be the exceptions; we want for bad things to not be the result of our bad decisions; and we want to have a good reason why we shouldn’t be held responsible for the ways we’ve been complicit in a rotten system. But growing healthy communities means we have to be committed to cultivating health in ourselves, and so no excuse is good enough to get a pass. Instead, we are invited to see how the oppression is actually at work in and around us, and given the opportunity to be reconciled and resist in solidarity.
It is a discipline to reframe our defensiveness, so that we can be open and change. It takes practice to understand that calls for accountability are only a threat if we are attached to a rotten system. If we shift the norm, we can find ourselves asking, instead, “Why not rejoice that the systems are coming to an end? Even better, why not help out?” We can transform our defensiveness into insight, and our insight into action.
Calls for accountability are not meant to scold us. We aren’t trying to get folks to fall into line here; we want folks to disrupt the system. This is radical solidarity, aligning ourselves with the commitment that everyone’s voice is heard and needs are met. Domination systems can’t survive in that kind of environment; they thrive on setting exploited folks against one another and they are counting on the idea that our fear of scarcity will drive us apart. We have, and are growing into, a different vision: we insist on all of us having access to the basic necessities of life, including the need for compassionate and just community.
The Roots of Our Defensiveness
I suspect that a great deal of our fear also stems from the ways we have been accustomed to dealing with threat as a society. When order is imposed by empire, we encounter a so-called peace that values stability because stability supports their systems of power and wealth. It also worships the monument of empire, in order to hide the blood and bones of those it crushed. Like all oppressive systems, imposing order from above often requires threats and false accusation.
In our own time and context, we can see this at work in a US criminal justice system that threatens and falsely accuses again and again. Perhaps this is most clearly demonstrated in the way people have been increasingly motivated to give up their right to a trial and simply plead guilty. During the last 50 years, the number of folks entering a guilty plea has grown to 97%. As a report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) explained it,
“Guilty pleas have replaced trials for a very simple reason: individuals who choose to exercise their Sixth Amendment right to trial face exponentially higher sentences if they invoke the right to trial and lose…This [trial] penalty is now so severe and pervasive that it has virtually eliminated the constitutional right to a trial. To avoid the penalty, accused persons must surrender many other fundamental rights which are essential to a fair justice system.”In other words, innocence and guilt do not matter. And the innocent, falsely accused and threatened with punishment, make a strategic choice to capitulate:
“There is ample evidence that federal criminal defendants are being coerced to plead guilty because the penalty for exercising their constitutional rights is simply too high to risk.” (https://www.innocenceproject.org/guilty-pleas-on-the-rise-criminal-trials-on-the-decline/ )To this dynamic we can add the list of police militarization and brutality, the criminalization of poverty and the re-emergence of debtors’ prisons, the school to prison pipeline, the role of private prisons, and countless other issues. Domination systems wither without the power of coercion, operating at the behest of greed. To all of this and more, we say: stop making threats and accusations; return to our common and shared humanity. We refuse to participate in coercing one another. We commit that we will learn to love and live honestly, generously, contentedly, and compassionately.
Examples like this can awaken in us the ability to see both what is unjust and life-denying in the world, and a way to subvert it. Little by little, we recognize how we are complicit, and we resist. Little by little, we cut away at the tree, until it’s own weight pulls it down. So what is left to threaten us? Only if we want to uphold systems of domination does any of this threaten us.
In contrast, we can find an invitation and an opportunity: we are invited to reclaim power, to choose partnership instead of domination, to choose life instead of death, to choose love instead of hate, to subvert the oppressive systems and make space for true community to grow.
Meeting Discouragement with Imagination
This second part is so essential and important. We are not merely cutting down the tree; we are creating the space for something new to grow. And we nurture that shoot, caring for it as it puts out leaves and fruit. But this is hard work. In March of this year, the Pew Research Center released data that show the majority of respondents:
“predict that the economy will be weaker, health care will be less affordable, the condition of the environment will be worse and older Americans will have a harder time making ends meet than they do now. Also predicted: a terrorist attack as bad as or worse than 9/11 sometime over the next 30 years.” (https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/03/21/public-sees-an-america-in-decline-on-many-fronts/ )Discouragement is not an unreasonable response to all the injustice, violence, and other bad news we hear each day. What we have to be aware of is when our discouragement becomes deterministic, when we come to believe that the worse case scenario is now inevitable.
A few years ago, Naomi Klein offered a reminder of this theme, a theme that has been and must be repeated across the generations. It is not enough, to use Paulo Freire’s terms, to merely denounce what is wrong and unjust in the world. We must also announce what it is that will replace it. We must be able to imagine, dream, envision that different way. In Klein’s words,
“We have collectively imagined (an) extreme winner-and-losers ending for our species so many times that one of our most pressing tasks is learning to imagine other possible ends to the human story, ones in which we come together in crisis rather than split apart, take down borders rather than erect more of them.” (https://theintercept.com/2017/06/10/the-worst-of-donald-trumps-toxic-agenda-is-lying-in-wait-a-major-u-s-crisis-will-unleash-it/ )She went on to say that, while we do not have, and never have had, a “godlike” power to make everything right, we can learn to:
“live with the messes and mistakes we have made, as well as within the limits of what our planet can sustain. … we do have it in our power to change ourselves, to attempt to right past wrongs, and to repair our relationships with one another and with the planet we share.” (ibid)When we look back at human history, it sometimes surprises us that our species has survived. And when we honestly face our collective mistakes, it is easy to imagine all the terrible ways our world will end. And when we encounter the injustice within ourselves, and come face to face with our complicity, we can react in ways that just make things worse.
But we can practice liberation. As we face each day’s bad news and inexcusable choices, we can resolve to remember that the story is not over. Being neither destined to succeed, nor doomed to fail, we can embrace the challenge and the gift: of imagining, and then creating, a future where we can peacefully and joyfully live in equality, with each other and with the earth that sustains our very lives.