OnWords: The Blame Game Known As Accountability

Oct 8, 2013

As someone who has long sought to avoid it, I can tell you that accountability has one distinguishing feature: it's almost always for the other guy.

As a word, though, “accountability” allows its users to pass judgment on others while appearing to be concerned about the good of the whole.

Like protecting children or being healthy, we all agree that accountability is a good thing. There's something hard-nosed and businesslike about it. Even the root of the word, in the unassailable math of bookkeeping, makes accountability seem like an impartial goal, a necessity toward which we all must strive.

But when it comes down to it, actual accountability involves somebody--maybe even everybody--being all up in our business. This is always an uncomfortable place to be, even if we're doing nothing more wrong than taking the normal, everyday, non-work-related liberties with our time and attention that humans have to take in an imperfect world.

Accountability, then, is only really useful when we apply it to that guy over there whom we suspect of slacking off. It's a way to not only claim power by invoking a universally accepted good but also to deflect attention away from the person demanding it.

In this way, accountability is also often called for by those most in need of it themselves.