Pop Theory: On Accountability

In the season finale of The Good Wife, Kalinda packs her duffle bag (which she fills money and guns, of course) in order to leave town before her husband’s arrival.

But something changes in her.

Instead of running, she returns to her apartment, throws her bag onto the bed, and takes a seat (with gun stowed between the cushions) in a comfy armchair that she’s pointed at the door.

Kalinda decides not to run. And she decides to face whatever the hell that freaky-ass shadow was that eclipsed the eyehole of her door (and that we’re left to have nightmares about until the premiere of Season 4).

She has decided to hold herself accountable, not only to herself, but to her friends as well, whose lives are in jeopardy because of their association with her.

In this week’s column I want to think about accountability, not just how we personally hold ourselves accountable to our individual persons, but more pointedly how we come to hold ourselves accountable to others, in the name of friendship, partnership (marriage), and community.

The stalwart Nietszchean and social realist in me knows that the self is selfish—the self always puts her self first. The ego, in Nietzsche-speak, guides us; there is no such thing as an absolute selfless action. Actions are never purely altruistic. Or, for Nietzsche, the person who submits himself fully to another embodies a countenance of a “slavish” mentality and negatively compromises his own being:

…no man has ever done anything that was done wholly for others and with no personal motivation whatever; how, indeed, should a man be able to do something that had no reference to himself, that is to say lacked all inner compulsion (which would have its basis in a personal need)?  How could the ego act without the ego?— Human, All Too Human, Sec. 133

We are ultimately accountable to our self and to our own well being; only by being as such can we be indirectly beneficial or helpful to other beings.

Reading Nietzsche is always cathartic in the sense that it re-enforces one’s own self worth. Reading Nietzsche is great for a self-esteem boost. But Nietzsche, like Foucault after him, doesn’t quite offer a thorough or contemporary (pertaining to the realm of lesbian relations) account of ethical relations. Because while many of us value solitude and hermitage (I know I do), we are born into and live in world of pre-existing societies (and societal codes that we challenge and are regarded for doing so as “queer”) comprised of networks of relations. Judith Butler is very clear about this in Giving an Account of Oneself: “We are not born into solitude but into a pre-existing society, whereby we are “implicated, beholden, derived, sustained by a social world that is beyond us and before us.”

Translation: we always exist in (ethical) relation to others; we have an ethical responsibility to our self and to our society by the mere fact of our existence.

That responsibility is what we are born into. And we can choose to understand and accept it, feel guilty about it, or try in vain to divorce ourselves from it (and instead drown in our childish naivete by hiding out in our parents’ basement and abusing whatever-substance-of-choice in order to forget our place in the real world).

Kalinda was going to run away. But, believe me, running doesn’t work, because one can only run for so long or so far. The fact that she decides to stay to encounter her husband is a decision she made primarily to her benefit. It has secondary, (hopefully!) beneficial results for her friends.

The acknowledgement of one’s responsibility as a member of society renders that person accountable to others.

Or does it?

The problem with this positivist logic is that, while we are all objectively and ideally ethically responsible beings and therefore are accountable to others, we each have different understandings of our own positions within society and how much or the extent to which we hold ourselves accountable not only to ourselves but to others.

This question of the extent to which we should hold ourselves accountable to each other transgresses into the realm of ethical morality: how we should act according to a larger, transcendental or idealized dictate. It’s a bit slippery, to be honest—for how can we impose our ethics on others? How can we expect them to appropriate those ethics in order to work towards a utilitarian, “common good,” especially when we are all, at heart, naturally selfish creatures?

When these relativist, Nietzschean thoughts bubble to the surface of our minds, we must remember, as Butler explains, the actuality of our existence as “always already” ethically bound and responsible to each other by the fact that we are born into a pre-existing society, filled with people, culture, and ideologies.

The contemporary thinker who most readily and most accessibility writes about our ethical responsibility and accountability to others within the specific LGBT community is Sarah Schulman, particularly in her work Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences and her more recent The Gentrification of the Mind.

Perhaps it’s because she’s lived through the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but Schulman is without a doubt, one of the most queer community-oriented people that I’ve ever known. In Ties That Bind, she tries to think about how we can be held accountable to each other without legal intervention:

If the community could really take responsibility about us being honorable to each other, then it doesn’t matter what the legal system does;…there’s actually more certainty and less wrenching if there is a sense of responsibility. We are responsible for the decisions we make with each other.

She talks at length about how we should make more of an effort to intervene in moments of homophobic violence—especially within our own community. If we let the perpetrators of verbal or physical violence continue their actions without intervening, our silence functions to condone those actions. We become complicit with the perpetrator because we have knowledge about what is being done, intentionally or not:

…information allows people to create choices, explore consequences, and act with awareness. But also that knowledge creates responsibilities. Lack of information allows impulsive acting out … People who want to pretend that they do not have responsibility to others try to refuse the information that would make them conscious of this responsibility.

So, how do we hold people accountable? Through articulate, calm discussion; by making them aware of their actions and informed about the repercussions of those actions. Here, we strong and mentally capable (Mantra 1: Don’t bring THE CRAZY!), to use Schulman’s term, function as “third-party interveners.”

We hold people accountable by rationally conveying to them that their actions have consequences, for others, and for themselves. Reciprocity exists in ethical relations: what is good for us is, usually, good for others, and vice versa. (Hence the adage, “violence begets violence,” etc., etc.) The condition is that the individual must understand her place in society as a fundamentally ethical one.

For those of us in the queer women’s community, to be accountable to each other entails that we learn about our histories, about where we come from and what past events made our present condition available. It is because of the activism of our queer foremothers that my friend could ask me, just last night, “Why would I go to a Dyke March?” Her ability to be ignorant is a privilege born out of struggles of the past. The task, when encountering a question like this, is to create awareness — so, through a lengthy discussion of what the dyke march does (actively claims space, for one) and has historically done, my friend was able to understand its import and willingly volunteer herself to join our cadre of friends at the march next month.

How do you think we — we queer women — can be held accountable to one another to strengthen our community? What is the quintessential element that ties us all together?

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