Celtic Riverside – The Online Journal of James Keenan

On Accountability

I cannot remember exactly when it happened. It might have been high school, or it may have been in the years immediately after. Not important. What is important (international readers who may not be aware) is that we were not yet 21, the legal drinking age in the United States.

The other party was a friend from high school that I respected greatly. He had charm and charisma. To the best of my knowledge, he never did and never has done anything egregious – I only ever saw him act with courtesy and consideration towards others.

Still, he was a teenager. One afternoon we were chatting on instant messenger (yep, AOL – we’re old school). I barely even remember the context. Recently there had been a party? Maybe a party was approaching. Knowing myself we could have been discussing anything and I made it a philosophical analogy.

What is important is that it became a fight. I was not enough of a killjoy that I notified parents or the authorities when I knew people were attending parties and drinking illegally, but I refused to be part of it. I went to one party and hated the boorishness of it.

My friend said something to me to the effect of, “Dude, you’re 20. Stop acting like you’re 40.”

It infuriated me. It infuriated me for two reasons. First, I don’t want to drink. I hate feeling buzzed or intoxicated. I don’t like what passes for dancing at those events. People say dancing, but I observe dry-humping and groping. Issues of consent aside (and plenty of people have a lot to learn in this respect), that’s just not dancing. I had already started hearing stories from the women I knew about men touching them inappropriately in these situations and I wanted to be nowhere near it.

Second, and the real source of anger, was the whole idea that a set of behaviours correlated so strongly with age. I should engage in these activities not because they’re fun or because I particularly want to engage in them, but because I’m 20 and that is what 20-somethings do.

“Boys will be boys.”

At 20 (much, much younger), I had already learned two critical lessons. First, as a white male, prospective universities, employers, and creditors were going to use everything possible to deny me opportunities. This was not a matter of the world having it out for me, but in their private interest to do what was best for them. Universities want the best students. Employers want the best employees. Insurance companies want healthy people. They look for reasons to discount people so the ones who pass the screening do so with some level of their confidence.

So, yes, in grade school I understood everything I’m doing matters. Is it important that I know this particular piece of information? Maybe not. It is important that I earn high marks on the exam that covers that piece of information. I crushed school not because I was intelligent but because I understood the purpose. I was not there to learn. I was there to earn grades. No, Virginia, learning and earning grades are not the same thing. Learning involves being wrong occasionally and growing as a result. Earning grades means providing the correct response at an adequate rate.

It changes one’s whole approach to school. I knew how to compose essays and approach exams. The school system was also so messed up that teachers provided a list of criteria. If one met that criteria, one earned an A. A grade of C was not average – that’s what the unintelligent children earned. Children who would succeed earned As and Bs. That’s what I did (again, not by learning or being smart, but by determining the criteria required for an A and doing that).

A high grade point average meant a wide choice of university. A good university meant a good job. A good job meant a decent adult life. It’s formulaic.

Understanding that every step of that process involved scrutiny intended to shove me out of that pipeline was alarming enough for me to keep to the straight and narrow.

Could you imagine, despite all my good grades and even a strong employment record (I began working full-time at 14) trying to get into a decent university if I had been arrested for underage drinking? The scandal of it all, I thought. They were willing to keep me out of the school if I earned a C – they won’t even look at the application if I have a felony.

“Dude, you’re 20.”

Dude, the world straight up does not give a **** that I’m 20 or 18 or 16 or 8.

Actions have consequences. They have far-reaching consequences. I understood that as a boy. More than that, it was drilled into me actions have far-reaching consequences and I was responsible for them whether I was aware of the specific consequences or not. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time – but also there may be additional consequences, so even if you’re thinking, “Well, I can do that time,” it may still be outside your price range.

The second lesson I learned is that if you were anything other than a white male, the consequences were not yours alone. When one of my friends or I made a mistake, the response was always, “Look at what he did.”

If we were playing sports and I dropped a ball, the kids might say, “Don’t throw it to James, he can’t catch.”

With everyone else, it became about their group identity. A black boy in our school made a mistake, people made comments about black people. Not him, and not that one isolated incident. Suddenly that mistake hearkened to every time every black person ever made a mistake.

If we were playing sports and a girl dropped the ball, it was the reason why girls should not be playing with us.

Let’s flash forward several years. It’s now 2017 or so. #MeToo is in full swing, we have the Kavanaugh hearing in our future, and Brock Turner is already free. Now we have the Kyle Kashuv story. A familiar refrain begins to play:

“This happened so many years ago.”

“Are we no longer allowed to forgive people?”

“It was a different time.”

“Boys will be boys.”

First off, yes, some personal bias exists because I focused so intently through my childhood on being a model citizen because I knew that consequences like these were a possibility that it pisses me the **** off to see people admitting to the behaviours and asking for a pass.

Because here’s the thing: they did something wrong. Period. It was a mistake, they did not know better, or they did not care because, hey, “Dude, they’re 20,” whatever, they did something that was wrong. Then, they never faced any consequence for it. They did it and moved on the way one checks for mail on the way home or stops for coffee.

Later, whether it’s days, weeks, or years, their something wrong finally comes to light and people say, “Hey, hold them accountable for that.” The refrain begins. That refrain is not an apology, it is a list of excuses. The bad thing happened and they avoided responsibility.

The next step is sometimes an “apology” like the one Kashuv offered. I use quotes here because an apology means acknowledging that something was wrong (well done, Kyle), indicating why it was wrong, remedying the situation if/as best possible, and endeavouring never to do it again.

In the Kashuv case, he made multiple racist statements. Now, I know – he was only 16 and Kyle is not himself racist (as he says). He only said those things for shock value.

Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? Shock value. So, the statements were not only egregiously wrong, Kyle was well aware of how egregiously wrong those statements were. The statements were racist and poor little 16-year-old Kyle knew damn well it was wrong.

Now Harvard University comes across them in his quite public social media history and says, “Whoa, sorry, Kyle. You can’t get into Harvard doing stuff like this.” (See, I knew that already, which is one of the very many reasons at 16 I was sure not to toss racially insensitive words around.)

Kyle, who had not previously apologised or faced consequence for the statements offers Harvard an apology, stating that the words were indeed wrong and they do not reflect the person he is today, two years later.

Thing is, had Harvard not rescinded his admission, Kyle would not be sorry about the statements. The causality is direct here. Harvard said “you are not coming here” and Kyle said, “Sorry about what I did.”

That’s not an apology. That’s, “I’m sorry I got caught, now please let’s not do the consequences.”

“Harvard deciding that someone can’t grow…is deeply concerning…[whataboutisms regarding Harvard faculty]…it’s about whether we live in a society in which forgiveness is possible or mistakes brand you as irredeemable…” Kyle’s Twitter response about the incident

People can grow. Forgiveness is possible. Mistakes do not brand you are irredeemable.

Actions also have consequences. Harvard is one of the most elite, selective colleges in the world and you, Kyle, thought at 16 that the use of egregiously offensive racial words for shock value was a good idea. This is the consequence. Your spot will go to someone who [checks notes] did not use the N-word generously all over social media.

Now, here when the consequence appears, is when the apology happens, one grows, and forgiveness becomes possible. Until this point, none of that was possible.

What we see from the Kashuvs, Kavanaughs, and Turners of the world instead is a sense of entitlement. “How dare you take this opportunity away from me! I made a mistake like we all do and now you’re using it against me forever?”

No, it’s being used against you in a specific case because you never faced consequences for it before. You never apologised for it before. You never showed growth and never redeemed the actions. You do not now get to avoid accountability by stating you will do all those things if. You will not do them if. You will do them. That’s what accountability and responsibility means.

Kashuv should absolutely receive forgiveness. He should get into a university, study well, and land a decent job. This moment is the start of that process, not the derailment of it. He did something wrong and needs to make up for that. That never happened until this moment. I don’t care that it was years ago. At any point during those two years he could have started the process of making amends for doing something wrong. He chose not to do that. That’s privilege. That’s entitlement.

Now, people reading this will fall into two broad camps. Some read this and agree. They’ll Like and possibly Share because they agree.

Others disagree and the natural question on their minds would be, “How would you feel, James, if we were to scour your social media history and came across something egregious?”

I would be upset like Kyle that it was impacting my life so severely. I would hate that after 10 steps forward I took 1,000 backward, and that I now had so much work to do to overcome that mistake.

It’s also the right thing to do. Well, the right thing to do is not making such an egregious mistake in the first place. Failing that, the right thing and uncommonly difficult thing to do is to make amends by working through the consequences. The shame would be that it took so long from the wrongdoing to the consequence.

But this ridiculous idea that children do not know better or that if one does something heinous and merely avoids responsibility long enough they are somehow beyond reproach…come on, folks.

I worked at a central intake point for social welfare programs previously. While I was not a case manager (I was just the resident tech and data guy), I was a staff member privy to the details of the case management because of the data element. My colleagues worked directly with employers trying to find work for clients, in some cases young black men who had arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Marijuana. A drug that is now legal in many places. These young black men could not get work at Burger King because the felony on their application immediately removed their resume from consideration.

Kyle is upset that Harvard University took exception to his liberal use of egregious, offensive racial language “for shock value.”

Brett Kavanaugh could not believe that people would be so interested in sexual assault allegations and the idea that he enjoyed getting blackout drunk years ago while screening to become a Supreme Court Justice. He was not applying for a job at the Gap. He was applying to be one of 9 lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court.

The judge reduced Brock Turner’s sentence to 6 months. “He’s innocent until proven guilty. Due process matters, James.” Yep. He was found guilty of sexual assault. We wouldn’t want to taint Turner’s record too much though. He’s young and has most of his life ahead of him, right? Kind of like the woman he assaulted.

So, please, those of you who disagree with this post and think it amounts to little more than virtue signalling – spare us the performative indignation about principle. This is about principle. This is about people doing wrong and not facing consequence for it – then, if they do face consequence for it, lashing out in the same indignation that their shitty behaviour should warrant consequence.

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