I am a very strong proponent of Accountability Culture. Accountability is key to personal and community growth, healing and reconciliation, and achieving peaceful intersectional inclusion. Accountability Culture is to Cancel Culture, what Call-In Culture is to Call-Out Culture, in that it holds people responsible for their words and actions, while also providing the opportunity for growth, change, and reconciliation before bringing down the hammer of ultimate judgement and banishment on those who refuse to be accountable.
Cancelling and Calling Out
Cancel Culture and Call-Out Culture are both valuable tools. They are focused on the defensive actions that can be taken after a wrong has happened. They inform how we can deal with wrongs and problematic behavior of others, without expecting those who engaged in the wrongs to acknowledge, make amends, or change their behavior in the future. Those are wonderful tools to have when those who are in the wrong refuse to change. After all, such refusals are going to happen, and we need to know how to deal with them when they do.
The downside is that if you jump straight from noticing something is wrong to accusing, attacking, and berating the other person, without anything in between, it easily creates or worsens hostile situations. When people feel attacked, they are much more likely to get defensive, dig in their heels and refuse to even contemplate that they might be in the wrong or need to change.
Despite that, there are times when cancelling and calling out are important, and even necessary. I cancelled my own birth family and no longer have any contact with them at all, because I eventually came to understand that the only kind of relationship they wanted with me was inherently manipulative and harmful to me. They did not see my boundaries as something to respect. They saw my boundaries as obstacles to overcome and worked to undermine and bypass them at every possible opportunity. They refused to be held accountable, to acknowledge any of the things they did that were harmful, or to tangibly change their behaviors in any way. In the end, my only option was to cancel them entirely out of my life, because they made it clear they were never going to stop causing harm to me as long as I allowed them to have any space in my life.
Calling out and cancelling can also sometimes serve as a wake-up call to those in denial or who are invested in fragile defensiveness. Sometimes facing genuine consequences and censure can cause a person to contemplate why they are being rebuked, and hopefully come to the realization that they were creating harm and should stop doing that. I am not one to hold my breath over it, but sometimes it does happen.
More often, cancelling and calling out provide valuable information to bystanders. They raise awareness of bad acts and problematic behaviors, both specifically and generally. In other words, witnesses and bystanders become more aware of what the specific individual or organization has done. They also become more aware of problematic behaviors and attitudes in general, helping to de-normalize things that cause unnecessary or unintended harm, in addition to de-normalizing deliberately harmful behaviors.
Cancel Culture is also key to mental health and boundaries for many people in marginalized groups. As important as outreach work is, of having those tough conversations to help change hearts and minds, most of us do not have the emotional energy for it. Instead, we must take action to remove toxic people and situations from our lives before it consumes our abilities to live our own lives, have any peace, or do the in-community work that is also so very important.
For those reasons and more, Accountability Culture, Cancel Culture, Call-In Culture, and Call-Out Culture are all compatible and valuable tools for any of us to use. They each function best under different circumstances, all with the goal of creating change, socially and personally. We need all of them because no two situations or people are exactly the same, and we need to have as many options as possible in order to best deal with the each situation in turn.
What Is Accountability Culture?
Accountability culture quite simply means that there is an expectation that everyone can, should, and will be held accountable for the things they say and do. It means no free passes, false apologies, deflections, lies, denials, or excuses, and definitely no tolerance of gaslighting.
Exactly what accountability looks like is going to vary dramatically depending upon the harm that was done and the people involved. If you accidentally bump into someone in a crowd, a simple “sorry” is likely to be sufficient. If they drop something they were carrying because of the bump, helping them to pick up their things is usually appropriate unless they tell you not to. If someone, say, seditiously helps to incite and inform insurrectionists, accountability is going to look a lot more like cancelling, hopefully with added jail time.
If that accountability does not happen, it opens the door to further bad behavior by proving that there will be inadequate or no consequences after bad behavior. Those who wish to do harm know that they can and will get away with it, and so they are extremely likely to continue to do harm.
Accountability in Our Communities
No matter how active you are or are not in your communities, if you are a witch, pagan, occultist, magic user, or practicing an esoteric tradition, you are a part of the communities which encompass your beliefs and practices. Those communities affect us, and we affect them, even when we avoid the community because of harassment or bad acts or exclusion we have committed, or have been committed against us.
As John Beckett points out, it is easy to condemn the bad acts of those in other communities, because we are impartial when things happen in someone else’s house. It is something else entirely when it is your own leaders, mentors, and friends who are found to have been behaving badly. That makes it personal, and personal makes it painful.
It hurts when our own leaders do bad things, and it can turn our communities upside down. Battle lines tend to be drawn, with victims on one side, and allies of the perpetrator on the other. When we hold people accountable, it brings into question everything they have ever done, which can be incredibly upsetting if you value things they have done or even their very presence and status in the community. How much of it was tainted, and we did not realize at the time? How much of it can be salvaged, repaired, or rebuilt? How much of it did we internalize for ourselves, and thus also create harm in turn? How deep is the betrayal to, not just overt victims, but the entire community and our personal relationships?
It is difficult, messy, painful, grief-filled work to confront bad actors and problematic leaders in your own community. It can be tempting to either throw the baby out with the bath water and start over, or to ignore the poison in the water so it is possible to continue on as things have always been done, because fixing it is hard.
But fix it we must, or we are failing not only ourselves, but each other, on profound levels.
This is where personal responsibility comes in. We all make mistakes, and we are all ignorant of problematic things we do or happen around us. That is part of being human, no matter how diligent we are, but that does not mean we should throw our hands up in the air and decide to unapologetically wallow in those mistakes and that ignorance. It is our personal responsibility to always be open to learning, growing, and changing when we do realize harm has been caused.
Personal responsibility means that each of us is responsible for everything we say and do. That means being accountable, making apologies, and making amends when we accidentally harm others in our community.
That means genuinely listening to others in our community when they bring up concerns or point out problematic things they have noticed or experienced.
That means being willing to change how we do things, especially in public and group settings, so that everything is fully accessible and inclusive. That includes focused rituals and events, like rituals held for women only or elders only, because you cannot look at a person and determine whether or not they belong. Only they know the specifics of their reality, and making assumptions risks ageism, ableism, bigotry, racism, transphobia, etc.
That means being willing to hold our leaders accountable when they do bad things, even if they are personal friends, because we should hold our leaders to higher standards, not lower ones.
That includes cancelling people, including leaders, if the harm is too grievous or they refuse to change problematic, toxic, or abusive attitudes and behaviors.
It means being aware of and deliberate about the people you associate with, and not burying your head in the sand if you become aware of problematic things.
That means applying due diligence whenever possible so that we do not accidentally support bad actors.
Due diligence simply means doing a little homework before you support a person or event with your money, your voice, or your presence. If you are helping to organize an event, it means researching presenters before giving them a platform, to ensure they are not unapologetically racist, bigoted, transphobic, xenophobic, antisemitic, sexist, abusive, or otherwise heavily problematic.
With the ever-expanding influence of the internet on our communities, we are often interacting with people we have never met in person, so we do not have the local reputation to lean upon for understanding their strengths and their foibles. During COVID-19, this online influence includes festivals and conferences which are happening in virtual spaces, making them accessible to distant people who would not normally have the funds to travel to the event.
Figuring it out is often as simple as a Google search, where you state the person or event you are researching, and then add the word “controversy” or “scandal”. That is because if a person is problematic, prejudiced, abusive, or toxic, it is likely there will be people talking about it, at the very least victims who are trying to warn others. Unfortunately, this will not catch everyone, because litigious people can and will demand that anything criticizing them be removed under threat of lawsuit. Most people do not have the time, money, or energy to deal with such threats, and will simply remove their criticism.
If you find a controversy, the next question becomes, “What is an appropriate response?” The answer to that question is going to be different for every person and every situation because it gets complicated and messy very quickly. Each of us has different amounts of emotional labor we can invest, and different willingness to spend that emotional energy in different places. That is why we need multiple tools to draw upon in understanding and dealing with problematic people and events in our communities.
Cancelling requires the least amount of emotional investment, and ensures we do not support things we find harmful. That is also the easiest option when researching a new to you event or person you are thinking about supporting, because it means you just go on to the non-problematic person or event and support that one instead. Staying clear (not getting involved in any way) or tentatively supporting (ex: buying a book and critically reading it while watching the controversy around the author continue to develop) can make sense if the controversy is convoluted and you are unclear on who is in the wrong, gaslighting, or lying. Getting involved in an event despite controversy can make sense if you love aspects of it and see beautiful potential, because those who are actively involved are likely to have a greater influence in making needed changes.
Before offering to lead ritual at the last Pantheacon, I did my research and carefully considered whether or not I should get involved. A lot of people boycotted the event, and for very good reasons that I fully support. The answer for me was being present to help ensure nonbinary people would be represented.
I am wanting to present at more pagan and witchcraft oriented festivals and conferences. Because of COVID-19, I have the potential to get involved in events that are currently virtual, but were previously out of reach. That is a lot of events which are centered in different locations which I have little to no knowledge of, and so I am doing my due diligence and checking each before submitting any applications to present. I want to know which events to support, and which events I should avoid.
When I searched on various events, I turned up little to nothing. What few hits for controversy came up were usually related to the controversies around Pantheacon. I consider that a green light to submit for involvement in those events (if I can get my materials together before the deadlines), although I will continue to keep my ears open for any problems.
I did receive warnings about one event’s primary organizer engaging in harassment and abuse of women, warnings that were given separately by multiple women who have witnessed or experienced such harassment. This gives me reason to be wary of the event, and very wary of the organizer, but in searching online I could only find one local news report about a court order from 2012 for harassment over a business arrangement gone sour. I was also warned about litigious tendencies by this person, so it is possible that any criticisms that have been posted online have since been removed under threat of lawsuit. Litigious threats would certainly explain a couple dead links that showed up in the Google search, but led to blank pages.
I am inclined to believe victims of harassment, because there is little to nothing to gain and a lot to lose by speaking out. At a minimum, victims who speak up tend to be harshly ostracized from communities that do not want to acknowledge wrongdoing or deal with holding leaders accountable. However, since I am a complete outsider and there is nothing I can turn to for information or verification, like I could with the Pantheacon controversies, it is impossible for me to be certain of what appropriate response I can take. Since all of my information is based on hearsay, all I can do is keep my ears open, try to be aware of any new information that becomes available, and hope that anyone engaging in such behavior is either held accountable by their community or makes a mistake and does something too obvious to be swept under the rug.
Lack of Controversy Does Not Mean Nothing is Wrong
We are very much in the throes of social change and expanding our communities to be more inclusive. Much of the old status quo was mired in such overt gender binary and heterosexual symbology that it was exclusionary of queer and genderqueer experiences. Much of the old status quo was so mired in white privilege and colonialist ideas that it enshrined racism and cultural appropriation. Much of the old status quo was so mired in ableism that it was inaccessible to people with disabilities.
Those things do not change overnight. In fact, it is a lot like unpeeling an onion. We see the most obvious and egregious things the most easily, like Z-Budapest’s and other TERFs engaging in blatant transphobia, and white bias in pagan literature and communities. As we work to fix those issues, the layer unpeels and we find that there are more problems underneath, like traditional Wiccan ritual structure ignoring the existence of nonbinary genders, or popular books that are rife with cultural appropriation. You unpeel those layers, and find more, and more, and more, seemingly without end.
It is mentally and emotionally exhausting, and yet, if we refuse to unpeel those layers and do that work, we are doomed to continue marginalizing and damaging members of our own communities. We are doomed to create hostile environments which will ostracize and exclude people who might otherwise flourish alongside us in their own beautiful ways, enriching our communities with diverse experiences and perspectives. We are doomed to create echo chambers with little genuine diversity, and even less genuine appreciation for what diversity still manages to exist in those spaces.
It is our personal responsibility for each of us to be diligent, and continue to do the long, hard work of creating genuinely inclusive spaces.
The hardest part of fighting against things like racism, bigotry, transphobia, and even abuse, is that there are a lot of people who do not just fail to see the problem, but who actively believe those things should exist. Z Budapest is not going to give up being a TERF, any more than most folkish (i.e. racist) heathens are going to open their doors to non-whites. They and others like them exist within and alongside our communities, pushing their own garbage agendas intended to deliberately harm, marginalize, and ostracize others simply for existing.
Some of these people have historically contributed beautiful things to the greater pagan community, and were beloved for various reasons. This creates another set of people who are willing to ignore the problematic things they say and do because those things do not affect them directly. They are willing to allow harm to happen to others, so they may continue to laud those who they have always looked up to and avoid doing the work of changing.
People who deliberately hold onto biased and prejudiced views and behaviors can be extremely invested in their righteousness in doing so. By their standards, me, and others like me, are the ones in the wrong who should be censured and held accountable. After all, we create “harm” by holding them accountable and upsetting the status quo, potentially damaging their careers and insisting that they change how they do things. But, that is the “harm” of the hypocrite who does not want to lay in a bed of their own making.
Last week I ended up in a conversation online with someone who was upset that I was critical of gender exclusionary behavior in Wicca (they were particularly upset by my use of a barfing gif to illustrate my disgust). They continually misconstrued what I wrote or put words in my mouth, in an effort to prove me too flawed to speak up. I would talk about one specific issue, and they would pretend that I was being callous about another issue that had not even been mentioned previously. Eventually they declared that they were not going to engage with me further unless I could state my lineage and initiation status in Wicca, with the implication that no one could say anything about any problems with Wicca unless they were a part of the tradition.
While I agree that as someone who is not Wiccan I have absolutely no part in determining how Wicca can be restructured to be more inclusive, that was not the conversation we were having. Also, I did not deliberately engage with them. They found a comment I made on a friend’s post, a couple days after I made it, and decided to engage with me. They chose to attempt to defend the indefensible, which was gender essentialism, overt bigotry, and transphobia enshrined in some Wiccan communities, all while claiming to personally be fine with queer people.
I do not have to be Wiccan to see the exclusion and harm done when symbolically exclusionary ritual structures are used for public rituals (many of which I have attended over the years, and been marginalized by). I do not have to be Wiccan to understand the damaging impact such spiritual views have on queer and genderqueer adherents, because we see it all the time in people coming from more mainstream religious backgrounds. I do not have to be Wiccan to understand how such views can be used to shelter and enable abusers, because the community is already numb and blind to abuses that are overtly being inflicted upon members of the community.
I was writing in generalities, about human behavior and the impact of prejudice in religious communities, not the specifics of Wiccan philosophy. They wanted a free pass for Wicca because prejudice was part of their tradition, and they like their tradition the way it is, but that is not a free pass that any tradition or religion should receive.
This person even tried to bait me into telling them that they were not allowed to practice in whatever way they saw fit. I am sure that they hoped to dismiss me for attempting to gatekeep someone else’s personal practice.
My answer: Of course, you and your coven can practice in whatever way you want to, even if that way is bigoted and transphobic.
When we push against problematic behavior, there is going to be pushback. For a lot of people, this is simple inertia. They did not realize that something was problematic, and it personally brought them good things. They are resistant to changing it, because those problems do not affect them personally in any obvious ways, and they like how it is being done. Over time, as there is more discussion, and some people do introduce other ways of doing things, they realize that changing it is not so scary, and is even a good thing. Changes almost never diminish the benefits those people receive, and those changes dramatically help other people in the community, which enriches everyone. Often such changes even enrich the practices of those people who were resistant to change.
Other people will hold on tooth and nail to avoid changing, and be poisonous and bitter when changes are embraced by those around them. The excuses are endless.
We’ve always done it this way.
This is part of my tradition.
They don’t have to show up if they don’t like it.
It’s not my problem.
I don’t mean any harm, so it’s fine.
The other thing I told that person on social media? Their coven was free to be bigoted together.
When we continue to push against discrimination, we create environments which are more and more inclusive and welcoming. Most people will grumble and gripe along the way, but ultimately go with the changes that happen around them. However, in order to push against discrimination, we must disallow presenters, organizers, and leaders who actively perpetuate discrimination. Even when we do this, most of them will not change their stripes. In true gaslighting fashion, when they see the writing on the wall, they will scream about how they are now being discriminated against, and their beliefs are being marginalized, like they were the victims.
Bad actors love to play the victim when they are held accountable.
Accountability vs. Victimhood
Accountability is not the same as victimhood. That is why we call it playing the victim when problematic and abusive people start in with the crocodile tears, because it is a sham and a performance designed to manipulate others into allowing them to remain present and capable of victimizing.
When we hold them accountable, we require them to stop victimizing others. When they refuse to stop victimizing others, ideally, we cancel them. We stop giving them a platform, our money, our time, and our attention.
That still does not mean they entirely go away. It just minimizes the harm they can do to the community in general. Most of them will still practice, alone or in their own groups with likeminded people, being as horrible as they want to, all together. Personally, it boggles my mind that such isolation is not their preference, given that they seem to abhor so many of us and do not want us around anyway. We, on the other hand, would welcome them warmly if they did not act so terrible towards the genuine victims of prejudice and abuse.