Although the words responsibility and accountability are usually treated as synonyms of some sort, I like to view them as representing distinct concepts. On the one hand, I see responsibility as something one accepts; and on the other hand, accountability is something one enforces against another. Although this might seem like an unconventional distinction to make, I like to use it as the basis of a simple 2-dimensional model that helps me think about those kinds of interpersonal conflict in which responsibility is a core issue.
For example, here we will consider the particular case of an us-versus-them scenario. In order to make it concrete, we will suppose that we have been invited to a dinner party at which chocolate cake will be offered for dessert. In this scenario we will analyze the cases where “we” may accept (or not) responsibility for bringing the cake, and “they” may enforce (or not) accountability against us for doing so. The following diagram illustrates all four of the possible combinations of responsibility and accountability:
Starting in the upper left (green) corner of this diagram, we have the case where we accept responsibility for bringing the cake, and they enforce accountability against us for doing so. Then in the upper right (red) corner is the case where we do not accept responsibility for bringing the cake, while they still enforce against us accountability for doing so. In the lower left (green) corner is the the case where we accept responsibility, but they don’t enforce accountability; and then in the lower right (green) corner, is the case where neither we accept responsibility, nor do they enforce accountability for bringing the cake.
Now, a lot more could be said about this diagram, but for now I’ll just point out that the case in the upper right corner that is highlighted in red is really quite unique in that it is the case that will most likely cause interpersonal conflict. A situation in which our hosts will hold us accountable for bringing a cake that we ourselves have not actually accepted responsibility for bringing is, well, doomed to be difficult, to say the least.
Image Credit (Icelandic gorge): Pixabay.
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between aggression and self-defense. Especially as a parent of 6-year-old boy-girl twins, I’m constantly having to figure out “who started it”. But this problem is not restricted to the disputes of childish children. Plenty of childish adults also struggle to figure out “who started it”. It would appear that people only hate to be victims until they’ve been accused of acting aggressively. Apparently, being accused of acting aggressively is much, much worse than being known as the victim of someone else’s aggression. It really seems to me that most interpersonal conflicts boil down to a struggle for victim status — a contest for the “prize” of “being the victim”. Few interpersonal conflicts cannot be paraphrased as follows:
A: I am the victim here.
B: No way, I am the victim.
A: Hah! You think so, eh? Well, I say I am the victim because you did Z!
B: Because I did Z? What are you talking about? I only did Z because you did Y. Thus, I am the victim. I am the victim of your unprovoked aggression!
A: Whoa! “Unprovoked”? Are you kidding me? I’m the victim! You’re the aggressor! The only reason I did Y was because you had done X! What else was I supposed to do after you did X?
B: But I was entitled to do X! That was my right, because of the way you had so callously done W! If you didn’t want anyone to do X then you never should have done W…etc., so forth, ad infinitum,…
Crazy, right? I never know what to think about this situation. Clearly they can’t both be the victim. Or can they? Hmmm. Now, there’s a thought. But it’s an unusual thought, perhaps worth thinking about. But in the meantime, if we just go with the normal way of understanding these situations, then just one of the pretenders-to-the-title-of-victim can be the real victim. The other pretender is just, well, pretending. He or she is a pseudo-victim — someone who is just trying to look like a victim, no doubt to benefit from the sympathy that the rest of us all tend to feel for real victims; and of course the consequent time, attention and other resources we donate toward helping them. The pseudo-victim is a kind of cheater, or malingerer.
Image Credit: Pixabay