On Community and Institutional Accountability

“Cancel culture” has made members of our small, insular Swarthmore community acutely afraid of accountability. We evade it at all costs. We misguidedly equate accountability with being publicly “canceled” on twitter, whispered about and laughed at in Sharples, or worst of all, with the tarnishing of our reputations, which we fear will follow us long after we graduate from Swarthmore. We are afraid to admit when we are wrong, scared to make mistakes, and terrified of how we might make ourselves look in the public eye. This trend has, in many ways, robbed us of our empathy and understanding, causing us to stray away from justice and compromise our integrity. We are more afraid of public ridicule than we are of hurting, silencing, or betraying one another. We care more about how we are perceived than we do about how our actions affect one another and the world at large. We see the stakes of our actions in terms of their impact on our social reputations, rather than the role they play in perpetuating injustice on campus and in the world around us. When we conflate accountability with social intimidation out of fear of discomfort or to protect our reputations, we miss opportunities to engage in critical growth and change.

Accountability, in its truest form, is not the “cancellation” of a person based on a specific incident, but a crucial opportunity for self-reflection and growth. It is a community practice in which we should all engage. Communities in which members are accountable to one another are communities that see less harm, pain, and violence, and more empathy, understanding, and justice. Accountability is an opportunity to acknowledge harm, answer for it, grow, learn, and prevent it from happening again. Accountability is not an attack, nor is it a mechanism by which to publicly shame or dismiss a person based on harm they’ve caused. It is a chance to foster a community in which harm happens less often. Accountability is a practice in justice, not in malice.

Even more importantly, accountability is an opportunity to shift power dynamics, and to tip the  scales that control institutions in favor of those who are most marginalized and harmed by them. When community members are accountable to one another, they feel more inclined to stand alongside each other in solidarity. They see their struggles for liberation as intimately interconnected. They feel their humanity bound together. They are able to radically love one another. They speak out against the injustice and oppression faced by other community members. They put aside self-interest and act in favor of the collective. When institutions are accountable to the people they marginalize and oppress, these institutions are dismantled and reconstructed in favor of a more just world.

The existence of Voices depends on the notion that authentic accountability is critical to the creation of just communities. Voices seeks to take a role in fostering and facilitating community and institutional accountability that encourages growth, empathy, power shifts, and, ultimately, justice for those most marginalized on Swarthmore’s campus and in the world. When members of our community, or when institutions like Swarthmore, perpetuate or are complicit in injustice and harm, Voices hopes to help facilitate the correction of this harm with grace, love, and humility. Furthermore, as a platform with a degree of privilege and power, Voices seeks to be accountable to those most marginalized and most silenced in our community. We all harm in some ways, and are harmed in others. It is our responsibility, as people, to hold each other accountable for the ways we have caused, perpetuated, and been complicit in harm, and to listen and do justice to those who have been harmed. We have an obligation to grow and learn together, to educate ourselves as individuals, and to use our power, privilege, and voices to speak out against injustice. Accountability is critical to justice and liberation. We cannot afford to fear it; instead, we must embrace it.