When Personal Accountability Is a Challenge

April 13th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

I’ve recently written about Intimate Partner Violence (part 1, part 2), and some time ago I wrote about the Culture of Victimhood and the absence of personal accountability in feminist rhetoric.

In this post I’ll combine the subjects of physical abuse and personal accountability, by publishing an edited version of a piece that I originally posted in an online forum, in a response to a woman who had been abused both when growing up and later on in her marriage.

The gist of what I’m trying to get across to her is that it’s possible to hold ourselves responsible for our actions no matter how difficult the situation is, and that holding ourselves responsible is not the same thing as blaming ourselves.

I feel a lot of compassion for your experience, and I agree that placing blame on a victim doesn’t lead to anything constructive, but like J, I would like to make a few distinctions.

You cannot be responsible for another person’s actions. If someone beats you up regularly in your own home, then you have zero responsibility for their actions. The person who’s doing the beating has full responsibility for his/her actions.

You however, have full responsibility for your response/reaction. You can respond in a host of different ways (maybe not when the actual beating is going on, but afterwards). You can stay, you can leave, you can call the police, you can go talk to a friend, you can do nothing, etc..

This is not to say that you are to be blamed for your response! Blame leads nowhere, and has no purpose except to put another individual down, or to put ourselves down.

But as long as you are responsible for your actions, then you can choose a different, and better, response. So holding you responsible for what you do is not about blaming you, it’s about believing that you can make better choices for yourself. It’s about trusting your innate power and the fact that the path to empowerment remains open for every human being during their whole life.

Nothing of this denies the fact that if you had a terrible upbringing then it may be awfully hard to respond in a constructive way, and to get out of a destructive relationship. Even if you didn’t have a bad upbringing, you can get sucked into a bad/abusive relationship, to the point that you hardly can see your options. But you are still responsible! You still have access to your free will, and saying that you are responsible is a way of honoring your integrity and autonomy, and not treating you like a child.

Because children… are not responsible. When you are under a certain age, you simply are not a fully autonomous individual with full access to your own free will. Therefore society has an extra responsibility to look out for children that are being abused, because they cannot even be expected to call out for help, and it is developmentally incorrect to refer to them as response-able individuals.

So children can be, and are, helpless victims of abuse. But when we extend that view to adults, as has often been done in feminist literature aimed at women who have been abused – then we start to disempower adults, and that is something I simply cannot agree with.

The “helpless victim” line of reasoning is sometimes even extended to persons who molest children, and the reasoning is then that they are simply repeating the behaviors that they themselves were subjected to when growing up. However much compassion I may feel for what these persons were exposed to as children, I still hold them responsible for their own actions. They are adults, with access to their free will, and if they choose to molest they should go to jail. And should they be pathological to the extent that they have lost access to their free will, then they have no place in a free society anyhow – they have then become “automated response mechanisms” that are programmed to do damage in society.

Again, I feel deep compassion for people who have been subjected to abuse. However, once we are adults we have choice, and we can be empowered, and as a consequence we have responsibility. I consider holding another person responsible one of the most loving things you can do. Because by doing that you show them that you believe in their ability to make better choices for themselves, and their ability to break free from destructive relationships.

None of this negates the fact that you can help abused people by being a friend, offering them a place to stay, driving them to the police or to a hospital, etc. But if you help people without holding them accountable for their own responses, then you are simply helping them perpetuate their personal tragedy.

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16 Responses to “When Personal Accountability Is a Challenge”

  1. Danny Says:

    …and that holding ourselves responsible is not the same thing as blaming ourselves.

    This is a commonly used feminist smokescreen. I did a post on the Chris Brown/Rihanna DV situation and I flatly said I wanted to know what happened. The first response I got was from a women’s advocate accusing me of victim blaming. What I find funny is that when the positions are switched and its a woman attacking a man all of a sudden they want to know what that man did to drive her to do it, a courtesy that is almost never extended to men that attack women (its just assumed that he was trying to exert power over her and that is that).

  2. Pelle Billing Says:

    Yes, the term “victim blaming” needs to be reserved for the occasions when that really happens.

    Simply inquiring into a situation and what happened cannnot be victim blaming; anybody who claims that is simply indoctrinated by ideology.

  3. Bj0rnborg Says:

    Absolutely perfectly put. This will become part of my mish-mash bible of re-humanizing humanity.

  4. Kristian Says:

    “But you are still responsible! You still have access to your free will, and saying that you are responsible is a way of honoring your integrity and autonomy, and not treating you like a child.”

    This I think is right to the core of what responsibility is. I see responsibility as intimately connected with integrity, autonomy and self esteem – the image of oneself being a separate and independent human being with a free will.

    The first thing that I think happens in abusive relationships is that the self esteem is being diminished, e.g. by condencsending remarks. And when the self esteem is gone the only identity that remains (if any) is attached to the relation. And if there is no self esteem, no separate identity, then there is nothing that can be responsible, nothing that has a free will that can act.

    So by acting and taking responsibility may be a way of rebuilding the self esteem. Or maybe the self esteem has to be rebuilt in order to start acting and taking responsibility.

    “This is not to say that you are to be blamed for your response!”

    What distinctions do you make between the concepts of “to be blamed for”, “to be responsible for” and “to be guilty for”?

    To me responsibility and guilt are intimately related. In order to start taking responsibility for my actions I first have to acknowledge that I have failed to do so up to this point. I probably will need help from an outsider to get out of this catch 22. I also think that it is important to look into the language and concepts we use and how they are related.


  5. Kristian Says:

    I may be departing from the subject here, in that case I appologize.

    The solution to the catch 22 I describe in the above is through forgivness. The abused part has to forgive him/herself for having allowed this to happen. Only then can s/he be free from the blaim and responsibility for not acting in the past. Otherwise the past will keep telling him/her that it was his/her own fault because of his/her lack of own value. That will confirm his/her low self esteem.

    Ann Heberlein argued in a dissertation a few years ago that forgiving the abuser is not necessary or even desirable from the victims point of view.


  6. Pelle Billing Says:

    “To me responsibility and guilt are intimately related. In order to start taking responsibility for my actions I first have to acknowledge that I have failed to do so up to this point. I probably will need help from an outsider to get out of this catch 22.”

    Great comment.

    What I believe is that you are always responsible for what you do. Whether you are doing something constructive or destructive you are still responsible. So I’m not sure that the expression “start taking responsibility” is one that I agree with, even though it’s an awefully common way to phrase things in everyday life.

    Guilt may be a wakeup call to the fact that you have made choices that were destructive to yourself or to others, and as such guilt can be very useful.

    I agree that forgiveness will be an important part of the path towards healing, once you make the choice to make constructive choices instead of destructive ones. I also agree that you mainly need to forgive yourself, and that it’s not as important to forgive the abuser (though you do need to let go of nurturing thoughts of hate or vengeance towards the person if you want to be free once again).

  7. Kristian Says:

    “What I believe is that you are always responsible for what you do.”

    To whom? Who am I responsible to? In this example of abusive relationship. To myself? What if there is no self? And who are you to tell me this?

    I’m not trying to provoke, just trying to clarify what I think is an important relationship between responsibility and identity.

  8. Pelle Billing Says:

    Saying that you are responsible is simply an acknowledgement that you have agency and free will. What that means for your identity is that you are then a person with agency and free will. So by saying that you are responsible I’m actually making a comment on your identity.

  9. Kristian Says:

    I couldn’t say it better! My point is that if I have no identity, no self esteem, then I am not able to take any responsibility. There is no self that can be accounted for. Note that I’m not making any normative statements, no shoulds. I’m just trying to explain why abused people so often can’t make it out of destructive relationships. They are not able to take responsibility, and besides, they have no self that is worth of taking responsibility for. That is a conclusion that you often come to when you rationalize the fact that you are being abused.

    Often taking responsible for the children and protecting them from abuse is a reason enough because:
    1. They have a value and are worth protecting,
    2. There is an image of the self, the role of a parent who’s job is to protect the children, that is intact.

    Does it makes sense?

  10. Pelle Billing Says:

    I think we need to be really careful about what words we choose.

    You don’t lose your identity, your self or your responsibility when you are being abused. You may lose sight of all those components, but they are still part of you. That is why it can be tremendously valuable to have a friend hold you responsible, so that you remember that you still have access to your free will.

    Regarding children… I think that if you believe that you yourself are worthless, then you likely won’t care that you are making destructive choices in your life. However, if you feel that your children have value, then you may not be prepared to make choices that are destructive to them. At the same time, many abused persons lose sight of their own free will and their own responsibility to the extent that they do not even act to protect their children.

  11. Kristian Says:

    In that case, define what my identity is that exists regardless of what I am aware of. I say that my own awareness of my own identity – my self image and my self esteem – is essential in the responsible I take. There is no such thing as a self identity that exists objectively.

    Making me take responsibility may be a way of rebuilding it. I agree to this.

    I am extremely careful in defining the words I use. We are getting a bit philosophical now, sorry for that.

  12. Paddan Says:

    “There is no such thing as a self identity that exists objectively.”

    That’s right Kristian. The self or “ego” is not a thing, I believe. Our words plays tricks on us. I’d think it’s more accurate to say that our self is a “process”. If I remember correctly, some psychologist or other, said that the self/ego is motion (not someTHING in motion, but motion). A human being can therefore be said to “be” an activity. When we try to define it, and make it into a thing, it slips throught our fingers. But that doesn’t mean that the self doesn’t exist or isn’t real of course.

    Also, you could say it’s about thinking more dialectical and less dichotomous. I hope this makes sence… I’m a bit confused by it myself. :-) But I think it’s a shift in perception or thinking that is needed, to get past the usual materialistic/mechanical way of thinking.

  13. Paddan Says:

    To continue on what I just said…

    Being responsible (response-able) is about being able to respond to a situation, and to do that, in the fullest sence of the word, you have to have awareness of your ability to respond. Well, we respond to all kind of things but the more aware we are about our choices the better. And sometimes we get narrow sighted and can’t see how many choices and decisions we actually make (consciously or unconsciously) all day long. I guess this is something along the line of what Pelle was saying.

    Great discussion by the way, *I’m lovin it* (McDonalds) ;-)

  14. Bj0rnborg Says:

    About the relation between guilt and responsibility;

    Guilt can never be placed on a subject that have no control over the situation. But you can still be responsible of that situation and resolving it.

    For instance, beeing chief over 15 men and women, they are my responsibility. If for instance one of them do not turn up to work one day for dubious reasons, I have no guilt in this. But I do have a responsibility to take care of the situation. If this same person repeatedly mismanaged his work, and I failed to do anything about it, part of the guilt would be mine.

    A parent are responsible for their children. If your daughter mob another student, you as a parent are not guilty of this action. But you have a responsibility to do something about it. If I fail to do this, part of the guilt would be mine.

    The same principle applies between your self, and your situation. While you are not guilty if a situation out of your control evolves into something bad, you are responsible to try to do something about it. Failing to do this means that some guilt will befall you.

    The principle:
    Only when I neglect to take my responsibility, part of the guilt will become mine. If I stay in a destructive relationship (no matter if you are a woman or a man) even though you have the opportunity to leave, you are part guilty of the situation. Or put in another word, by putting YOURSELF in harms way when you have another alternative, you are victimizing yourself, becoming your own perpetraitor, and part of the guilt of the outcome will be yours.

    But as many of you have adressed, to take responsibility you must be able to respond, wich for many reasons already mentioned, may not be a possibility.

    (an interesting meta-discussion related to this would be the unequal treatment of male and female perpetrators in media, where men seem to do crime mainly because they are men/masculine and wich needs no further explanation/exploration and women more often then not get their psychosocial-history accounter for.)

  15. Albert KLamt Says:

    Just a short feedback from Teutonia:)

    Keep up your excellent blog, Pelle.

    Its a pearl in the global blogosphere. Both thumbs up!

    Best, from Berlin,

  16. Pelle Billing Says:


    Good summary of some key points.


    Thank you for your support, it means a lot to me!