Honor Dignity When Holding People Accountable
We often assume that holding people accountable for their problematic behaviors involves shaming them. However, people are more likely to take responsibility for such behaviors if they feel emotionally safe enough to openly reflect on them. And people who feel even the threat of being shamed don’t feel safe.
Holding people accountable isn’t forcing them to accept blame for wrongdoing. It’s not possible to force people to change in such a way. Holding someone accountable is explaining the consequences of their behavior in a way that helps them recognize their responsibility and feel motivated to act on it. It’s honoring their dignity in the process of explaining their accountability.
Dignity is our sense of inherent worth. When we honor someone’s dignity, we perceive and treat them as no less worthy of being treated with respect than anyone else. Honoring dignity is central to healthy relating, relating to others in a way that creates a sense of connection and security and, therefore, openness.
Infighting and harms to dignity
A lot of infighting is caused by advocates holding other advocates accountable for a problematic behavior by shaming them. How often have you witnessed, in your own group or more broadly on social media, someone who used language that’s now inappropriate (like referring to someone in a wheelchair as an “invalid” or calling an undocumented worker an “illegal alien”) being verbally assaulted for doing so? Such shaming often leads the person on the receiving end to feel humiliated and to become more defensive, rather than more open.
Much infighting (and in-bullying) also happens because some advocates see other advocates’ refusal to shame those who don’t support their cause as a failure to hold those people accountable. For example, some vegan advocates argue that the only way to hold nonvegans accountable for their consumption of animals is to shame them into accepting responsibility for this behavior. These advocates sometimes attack vegans who disagree with such an approach, claiming that the latter are simply trying to avoid the discomfort of having caused conflict.
Be extremely skeptical of anyone who suggests that communicating with respect stems from a fear of causing discomfort and that practicing compassion is a form of weakness. Although change often emerges from discomfort, the discomfort that motivates someone to change typically results from healthy challenges to their attitudes and behaviors, not from harmful attacks on them.
Communicating with respect for those whose behaviors we oppose reflects strength and is a sign of relational maturity. It takes courage and wisdom to be able to stay connected to our compassion in such circumstances.
Consider it a red flag when someone argues against honoring dignity and makes a case for carrying out any form of emotional violence, not the least of which is shaming. As Brené Brown explains, “Humiliation and [demonizing] are not accountability or social justice tools; they’re emotional off-loading at best, emotional self-indulgence at worst.”*
*Brown, B. (2017) Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. London: Vermilion.