Barriers to accountability

James Gilligan, in his important book Violence:  Reflections of a National Epidemic, says that all violence is an effort to do justice or to undo injustice. That is, violence – and much offending behavior in general – is a response to experiences or perceptions of victimization. Experiences of victimization or trauma, in short, can help explain why people offend as well as how they rationalize their offending behavior. Prior victim experiences also have important implications for the practice of accountability, a central focus of restorative justice.

These implications are explored in a recent article by Anne Coelho, based on her Ph.D. researach. Coelho defines accountability as “the ability to respond in relationships and obligations when mistakes and failures cause harm.” Such accountability involves an experience of empathy – an understanding of the other and the impact of our actions upon them.

This is often painful; it challenges our sense of who we are. To avoid shame and maintain self-respect we are all tempted to put up defenses. But when the one causing the harm has themselves experienced victimization the barriers are especially robust. Because offenders have so often been victims themselves, such barriers need to be understood and addressed in the practice of restorative justice.

As Coelho puts it, a victim identity prevents the one who caused harm from experiencing empathy and thus from being authentically affected by what they have done. The prior trauma blocks them from embracing experiences that may re-activate or amplify their pain.

This victim identity may fall into either of two categories:  unaware, and self-rationalizing. Unaware states reflect trauma that has not been adequately addressed. The person then may try to avoid the feelings and shame that will be awakened by confronting the harm they have caused. They may dissociate from it or they may dismiss the significance of the harm.

Self-rationalizing responses are defenses intended to minimize responsibility in order to avoid re-activating the past trauma. These rationalizations look much like the “neutralizing strategies” or rationalizations for offending behavior categorized by sociologists Sykes and Matza. The one who has harmed may minimize the impact of their actions, blame others, scapegoat, deny that they had the power to avoid the behavior, claim it was for their own good or otherwise justify it.

Citing Aftab Omer, Coelho notes that another significant barrier to acknowledging harm is what Omer calls “gatekeeping” – restricting one’s experiences in order to mitigate the harsh self-criticism that would accompany empathetic accountability.  The one causing harm may be so caught up in narcissistic suffering that they cannot empathize.

Coelho explores these responses in more detail than is possible here.  What is important to remember as practitioners is that these defenses are a strategy, conscious or unconscious, for self-preservation, and that this reality has important implications for accountability.

True accountability can be painful. We can resist the pain involved or, Coelho argues, we can embrace it as an invitation for self-growth and maturity. This is true for both the one who harmed and the one who was harmed, and she argues that both have responsibilities in this. But often what is required is a source of “passionate objectivity.”  I take this to mean trusted, empathetic but truth-telling listeners.

These victim experiences and identities may need to be addressed before a restorative encounter can be truly successful. By addressing prior experiences and perceptions of victimization barriers to accountability may be reduced. Moreover, a recognition of these experiences by the one causing harm may serve as an aid to empathizing with the harm experienced by the other.

Coelho outlines the steps that are required to transform harm into growth. Drawing upon Omer, she also draws upon the Hebrew concept of teshuvah to help understand the four steps in the practice of accountability:   1) to acknowledge the harm, 2) provide an apology, 3) provide reparation, and 4) make a commitment to remember and prevent future harm.

Entitled “The Eroticism of Accountability:  A Psychological Approach,” the article may be found in ReVision:  Journal of Consciousness and Transformation (June 2009; Vol. 31, No. 1 & 2). Thanks to my friend Rita Alfred of RJOY (Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth) for bringing this to my attention.