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Understanding Modern Accountability

Depicted is a person standing atop a crumbling pedestal. Illustration by Pearl McNames

The application and purpose of accountability have widespread interpretations; from showing integrity, punishment, showing up, and seeking justice. Accountability can look vastly different depending on the purpose and the situation in which it’s being applied. Framing accountability in the lens of integrity can look like realigning actions with morals and values, and acknowledging when actions have drifted from values. Through the lens of showing up, accountability can look like being ready and willing to have hard conversations in which an individual may or may not be asked to take ownership of their words and/or actions. Accountability in the lens of seeking justice can look like someone acknowledging their wrongdoings and actively making efforts to rectify their actions with those who have been wronged or harmed by their choices. All of this is to say, the specific situation in question, as well as the reason for holding someone accountable, greatly influence what accountability will look like. For example, holding someone accountable for not finishing their portion of a group project or for causing a hit-and-run are going to have greatly different rationales for approaching accountability. In both situations, someone may be held accountable, yet those two situations aren’t necessarily directly comparable because the harms that they cause are widely different.

Although accountability can be applied to nearly any situation in which there is a (perceived) wrongdoing, a particularly contentious context for analyzing accountability is instances of sexual assault, particularly among young adults.

An example of a sexual assault case which stirred media attention due to the apparent lack of accountability was People v. Turner. The case involved Brock Turner, the assailant, who sexually assaulted Chanel Miller, who was unconscious during the attack. Turner was convicted of three counts of sexual assault by a jury. He was sentenced to six months in jail followed by three years of probation, and was registered as a sex offender. For context, the maximum possible sentence for this offense could have been up to 14 years. After serving three months, Turner was released for good behavior. The original shortened sentence and subsequent early release of Turner have led to heavy debates regarding the extent to which Turner was and should be held accountable for sexually assaulting Miller. For many, this case, which garnered a lot of attention, was disillusioning because of the lack of accountability.

The absence of accountability, specifically in the context of the pervasive issue of sexual assault, can lead to the sense that there is no recourse for victims, and that actions like sexual assault are permissible, both socially, morally, and legally. By not holding ourselves and each other accountable, it implies that doing things to harm others is permissible, when, as all young adults presumably know, that is not the case.

Although both teenagers and adults should be held accountable for their actions, teenagers are held accountable differently than adults. The key difference between accountability for adults versus teenagers is that while the moral standard might be the same, it’s socially understood that teenagers’ brains are still developing. Since teenage brains aren’t fully developed, this is often used as an excuse for not holding them accountable, when in reality, the importance of accountability for teenagers is even greater. Not only is there a moral obligation, but there’s also a learning opportunity for teenagers. Accountability for adults is an inherent expectation because they have presumably already learned how to be accountable for their actions, whereas teenagers are (supposedly) still learning the ropes of accountability.

It’s necessary to think of accountability as a skill that is learned and not an inherent value. Learning accountability looks like taking the opportunity when wrongdoings arise to discuss the ‘why’ behind actions. Putting in the time and effort to make sense of why things are right and wrong is the key to starting conversations about accountability, as is thinking about the implications and harms of actions and words. In order to learn accountability, being prepared to have uncomfortable conversations and take ownership of actions is vital.

Often, accountability and punishment are viewed as intertwined; however, they are not mutually inclusive. Punishment has the ability to deny someone the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions and instead gives them a consequence for what they’ve done. On the other hand, accountability can provide opportunities for learning, growth, and ownership of someone’s actions. Accountability, unlike punishment, offers a crucial opportunity for growth, ownership, education, and social learning.

Accountability lends itself as an educational framework for teenagers in the sense that it can be used as a learning opportunity. The act of holding someone accountable teaches responsibility, ownership, conflict resolution, active listening, honesty, the ability to apologize, and self-awareness. By holding others and ourselves accountable, it enables an ability to learn from perceived wrongdoings instead of responding with a punishment that ultimately kills the cycle for change. By punishing someone and limiting them to the idea that what they did is wrong, you deny them the opportunity to have meaningful conversations about why what they did might be wrong and what the impact of it was. Punishment can close the opportunity to try and take ownership of their actions in an attempt to resolve conflict. By discussing and exploring why things are wrong and how to make them right, skills such as compassion and critical thinking are fostered. Accountability is not only ownership; it’s actively being a part of a  conversation to make an effort to atone for your actions and/or words.

We have an inherent expectation that adults presumably already know how to be held accountable for their actions, yet if we aren’t teaching teenagers how to be accountable, that expectation can not be justified. Oftentimes, schools don’t make a conscious effort to teach and instill an understanding of accountability into students. School settings offer an invaluable space to teach and build the foundations of what it means to be accountable. 

Accountability looks different depending on the context of the situation. If accountability can be applied to students on more simple levels like turning assignments in on time, why does it get lost when we talk about it in the context of sexual assault? Sexual assault is a much more activating, emotional, and nuanced conversation than whether or not an assignment got turned in on time, and is an important conversation that should be held among not only adults but teenagers as well. In the context of sexual assault, accountability for teenagers offers the ability to learn about consent in an attempt to correct wrongdoings, make reparations, and limit harm in the future. There is an important balance between teaching and learning about accountability while also acknowledging the social and moral impermissibility of actions that harm others.

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