We’re a little over a month into 2019, preparing for the delivery of a rescheduled State of the Union.
There are many words that have occupied headlines so far this year. Shutdown. Wall. Border. Sovereignty. Policing. Morality. Climate. ‘Racially charged’ (read racism). Misconduct. Resignation. Yearbook.
Images of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam from the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School Yearbook, only a couple months after the Kavanaugh hearing and discussions of another yearbook in question.
Northam presented reluctant apologies meant to keep public requests for further follow up at bay.
A thought of ally for racial justice has had his own clear racist actions viewed publicly.
An elected official has said his apology will not be followed by a willing resignation.
An elected official has shown that he is ready for this political moment to shift its attention elsewhere.
There is a familiar sight of watching someone lose patience with the conversation, and more concretely, bucking the suggested ways they can take responsibility publicly.
The response is to show disengagement visibly, becoming flustered and more dismissive, backing away from a leaning into confession that is taken back in chunks in his press conference.
Indeed, in Northam’s own words he states, “I could spare myself the difficult path that lies ahead (by resigning); I cannot in good conscience choose the path that would be easier for me.”
In an intentional posture, Northam claims personal responsibility as his covering for how he handles himself next.
Effectively he offers a rejection of how he is being asked to take responsibility by claiming an openness to reconciliation not yet extended to him.
When we dig our heels in and are not willing to accept consequences that follow our apologies, then it wasn’t accountability we were open to. Bypassed is an acceptance that our actions were problematic, and evaded are questions of our responsibility for needed repair. This is what is being called out, the pattern avoidance of responsibility regularly modeled in our American culture, where attempts to humanize the past weaponizes whiteness and its unveiled violence.
Our first clue that our accountability is disconnected from repair is whether or not there’s room for any personal loss. Accountability first has to be rooted in a personal accounting of what’s occurred, not a theoretical or vague brush. There’s a skimming over of details that is contradictory to taking responsibility, because it is predicated on making what we did less than the whole amount.
A few themes get my specific attention:
· how we conceive of allies,
· how we construct accountability,
· and how we distance ourselves from harm with our selected rhetoric.
Not soon after the Kavanaugh hearing, I was having a conversation about being held accountable, and it brought up images of past relationships. It was shared with me that a former partner had reached out to a friend to be held accountable for their actions in our romantic relationship.
However, two factors are relevant. No disclosures of specific actions were offered, and the sentence was never finished. It was never answered, be held accountable for what and to whom? The answer was not me. What this action was about was conscience clearing and preserving a perception of taking steps to be seen as responsible.
What’s interesting is that it could be said that this was a genuine attempt to reconcile. But if we were to judge it that way, we would have to ignore the steps skipped. Primarily, an accounting of your responsibility that has a clear connection to the harm caused, and expectedly, the person or persons involved. We would have to limit the perspectives consulted to only the person who has caused harm in order not to notice what’s unanswered.
This kind of process has a complimentary relationship with conscious and unconscious gaslighting, easily allowing perception to be altered by enabling distancing from being seen as responsible for specific actions. When done well, this looks like centering debate on whether what is said to have happened, happened in the way it is said to have happened, and whether the intent was to cause harm. Before long, you don’t have to answer anything that isn’t asked, and you’ve coached the public to ask you questions that support your continuous message to them: I didn’t know, and it wasn’t that bad.
I was driving yesterday when the lyrics of this song connected to my open train of thought.
“To tell the truth loving you was young, and wild, and free.
Loving you was cool, and high, and sweet.
Loving you was sunshine, safe and sound, a steady place to let down my defenses, but loving you had consequences.
Loving you was dumb, dark, and cheap.
Loving you does still take shots at me, from loving you was sunshine, but then it poured, and I lost so much more than my senses, loving you had consequences.”
The song is entitled Consequences, by Camila Cabello. What her lyrics describe is the hold that gaslighting maintains on our view of someone else’s intentions, especially when gaslighting was present repeatedly.
Her words don’t refer at all to the intentions of someone else, only her perception of what her relationship was like initially, and then with more distance and time elapsed. The shift is in her perception, her choice of what to describe and how.
What’s interesting is that a lot of initiatives exist to promote good self-esteem, connecting high self-esteem with positive relationships and a positive sense of self. Increasingly, research doesn’t connect high self esteem necessarily with positive self-image. What is connected is an accurate self-image, the link between how we see ourselves and how we are perceived. Self-awareness is linked to our self-esteem, and it enables us to manage and grow from flaws, negative actions, negative thoughts, styles of coping. What it doesn’t do is allow us to erase stories of ourselves that aren’t positive in how we’re seen or how others are impacted. What it doesn’t do is erase our pasts from our consciousness.
Healing from trauma in its embodied qualities exudes increasing aloneness, because it’s aim is to allow you to hold all of the truths of your experiences inside yourself and find them manageable. There is no past or present or evolution, there’s just constancy, and in that constancy is change. But there’s never amnesia, because any trauma survivor can tell you how painstakingly they labored to recover and embrace their memories of harm, whether to their hands or with them.
Flippantly, we hear rebuttals to accountability by referring to any sought, practical example of practicing accountability as the aim of political correctness, a failure to let go of the past, over sensitivity, or a fixation on mistakes from non-fully developed brains; fodder for our tried and true youth are foolish and threads of that nature. An uplifting of one’s current character is pitted against any misstep in question, a challenge to it denying your better qualities, the opinions of those who know you better and the high calling of your work for your community. I write this flippantly, because it has become similarly scripted.
In our framing of allies, we look for impeccable records. We claim labels for ourselves that seek to insulate us from any challenge to how we see ourselves, and how we want others to tell us they see us. We make our histories shorter and smoother than they are, and we plant those impressions in others. We plant them in our own psyches, and often shrink our ability to recall what we’re prepared to deny within us. The mind is subject to subverted truths, and so our public conversations about what to trust. Yet the question here isn’t about reconciliation, or easier or harder paths, they’re about disconnected agendas and choices that exclude repair. They’re about what it will take for additional honesty in self-images, and a reverberation of honest conversations in our relationships about what accountability is and is not. If we don’t know yet, accountability is not self-imposed. It is not an irreversible status but a fluid one, and the fluidity is shaped by community responses and our integrated views of ourselves.
When we reject the harm to others inherent in our actions, we deny the trauma of them.
We deny that at its core trauma is universal in its unmanageability, and is characterized by teaching us new ways to survive.
We deny that whiteness traumatizes and changes brains, and that its trauma is not lessoned by silencing those narratives. They seep out in our pasts, in our reactions to hearing details from our pasts that we’ve blocked out, and our expectance that others can and will do the same.
In our insistence that we want to be seen as individuals, we deny that whiteness is first and singularly a collective identity. One that is preserved and given power by our refusal to identify with its violence.
Our intergenerational gaslighting continues as the unbroken constant. We see it in Northam’s apology. We feel it in our abusive relationships when they end. We become it when we let the distortions claim continued truth against all evidence that the rhetoric is not innocent.
The past doesn’t stay in the past because we bring it forward in us.
We cope with its presence, but it has not gotten smaller.
It is getting freer, and nothing is close to reconciled.
Our inauthentic motivation for reconciliation is not authentic, as allyship, as apology, or as denial.
We are not yet comfortable being alone in our trauma, and we’re not yet open to remembering.
Hear that, and know that it is not said coyly or meanly. It’s said authentically, and not because it’s what I want as an individual.
My embodied truths need me to be accountable to calling out violence, and disrupting attempts to gaslight us into ignoring its ongoing impact. There are steepening consequences.
My seventh-grade yearbook includes an entry from an abusive friend who writes, “I made you.” I bring those words and their scars into 2019 as more than photos of who I was at a time before now. I bring them as learned behaviors, as reputations, as held in harms, as inflicted self-injury, and as nursed beliefs.
It’s never the relics that are the point, it’s what we thought we knew and could trust.
It’s the sign that there is something significant that needs to still be addressed.