Accountability and accepting responsibility are closely linked, but not one and the same. As adults, with intelligence (however modest) and free will, we are accountable for our actions, but not all of us accept responsibility for them. Apportioning blame to others is one way in which we try to wriggle out of things. Adam blamed Eve for his complicity in eating the forbidden fruit, and ever since there has been a tendency to try to exonerate ourselves at the expense of others. Sometimes we apportion blame in ways that seem monstrous to later generations. Trying to pin the guilt for Christ’s crucifixion on the Jewish people, for example, led inexorably to the distortions of Nazism and the horrors of the gas chambers. Some of our current ‘orthodoxies’ may have analogous results, but we are too close to them to see the possible consequences clearly.
Two questions have been exercising my mind recently. The first concerns the very common one of demanding an apology for some historical wrong and the way in which it blunts our moral sensibility. For example, we all agree that slavery is wrong, an indefensible evil; but we haven’t always thought so, and I become uncomfortable when, as a white person, I am asked to apologize for a wrong that white people (along with black and brown and yellow) committed centuries before I was born. As far as I know, I have no connection with slavery or the slave trade. The mere fact of being white does not confer personal responsibility on me. I can, and do, regret the wrong; I am committed to doing what I can to ensure the ending of modern forms of covert slavery in bonded labour and the exploitation of workers; but personal responsibility for historical slavery is at one remove. It is the same with some of the other enormities of our age, e.g. the sexual abuse of children, the banking scandals, etc.
The danger in demanding that someone be blamed, and that someone should make an apology for a wrong in which they had no part, is that we lose our sense of personal responsibility by generalising it. To take my slavery example again, if I am held responsible for actions in which I did not take part and over which I had no control, I am going to become reluctant to accept responsibility for those I myself committed, which are quite numerous enough for me to deal with. I am going to confuse accountability with responsibility and the likelihood is that I shall end up trying to avoid both. I shall be squealing the equivalent of ‘It wasn’t me, Gov.’
My second question is born out of the dreadful events that took place in Germany on New Year’s Eve, when hundreds of women were allegedly subjected to sexual harrassment and attacks. Currently, it is being said that the attacks were by men of North African/Arab appearance. That immediately touches on our deep-seated fear of the stranger, and people have rushed in to say ‘Blame the immigrants!’ and ‘Don’t blame the immigrants!’ or got themselves into all kinds of convoluted difficulties trying to explain how the West is collectively responsible for what happened on the streets of Cologne. The truth is much simpler. The men who attacked those women are responsible. No one made them act as they did, but is this an instance of accountability stretching further than the individuals who are personally responsible? Those who teach that women are inferior human beings, or who condone aggressive behaviour towards them, or who seek to excuse such behaviour on cultural or other grounds, may not be personally responsible but they are surely accountable in some measure.
Trying to separate accountability and personal responsibility may seem like splitting hairs, but I think our failure to do so often leads to well-meaning but potentially dangerous conclusions. We all want to live in a a society that is peaceful, just and safe, but not thinking through some of the fashionable attitudes we have adopted may lead to exactly the opposite. Those of us who remember the ugliness and brutality of clashes between Republicans and Unionists in the 1970s, or the Race Riots in the U.S.A., have some inkling of what supposedly civilized people are capable of when a simmering sense of wrong and injustice boils over into open conflict. Something to pray about, I suggest.