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Barbara S. Held is Barry N. Wish professor of psychology and social studies emerita at Bowdoin College.
The word “accountability” pops up frequently these days — with calls to hold to account those responsible for police misconduct, frozen Texans, the Capitol insurrection, lives lost needlessly to COVID, families separated at the border. The Republican Accountability Project both enlightens and heartens.
All this accountability talk reminds me of the term “accounting psychology,” coined by my father, Milton Held, who was a Certified Public Accountant.
Having attended high school and college at night, Milton never marched in a commencement ceremony. So in 1991, never having taught anywhere, my father marched in regalia with us faculty in Bowdoin College’s 186th commencement.
Afterward, still in regalia, he chatted with newly graduated psychology majors and their families. One graduate wondered who Milton was: “What did you teach?” he asked.
“Accounting psychology,” replied Milton, with a straight face.
“What’s accounting psychology? I never saw it listed.”
“Three courses,” said my father. “Accounting Psychology 101 — How to account for your own behavior.”
“Accounting Psychology 102 — How to account for other people’s behavior. You can’t take 102 unless you earn at least a B+ in 101; you’ve got no business accounting for other people’s behavior until you can account for your own.”
“And the third course?” asked an eager parent.
“Accounting Psychology 103 — How to account for the IRS’s behavior. No one has been able to do that.”
The parent knocked her son’s arm: “Why didn’t you take those courses; you might have gotten a job!”
How many Republican lawmakers could pass Accounting Psychology 101 today? After all, Maine Sen. Susan Collins was one of only seven GOP senators who voted to convict former President Doanld Trump; the others seemingly lacked moral courage — assuming they, too, believed in Trump’s guilt in their hearts, but feared his retaliation.
To acknowledge wrongdoing — in ourselves and/or in those who, we fear, will retaliate if we hold them to account — we must first be able to distinguish right from wrong. If we can’t do that, we’re either ignorant or legally insane. If we know right from wrong but don’t care how our actions affect others, we’re sociopathic. Ignorance and insanity can be treated — with education and therapeutics, respectively. Sociopathy is incorrigible, by definition. So we must do what sociopathically inclined politicians cannot do: Hold them accountable. Vote them out. Cut off their funding. Then they might do the right thing — in their own interest.
Georgia U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, referring to QAnon, said that she was “allowed to believe things that weren’t true.” CNN’s John King rightly called out her rhetorical sleight-of-hand, saying she allowed herself to believe falsehoods. He implicated her own will. We’re allowed to believe Q claims, but we don’t have to accept them as true. Doing that is a choice, a willful act for which we should be held accountable if and when we move on such beliefs to others’ endangerment.
Reading fiction, we accept as true what we might otherwise disbelieve. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called this “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” We give ourselves “over to the author’s vision of the world long enough to appreciate the work.”
By contrast, when politicians ask us to suspend our disbelief in their preposterous conspiracy-theory fictions about the real world, they spew poison, not poetry. If we willingly drink their poison we become more ignorant and insane, while their sociopathic behavior becomes more emboldened.
If accountability is to be more than the word of the moment, we must decide what to believe about ourselves (Accounting Psychology 101), others (Accounting Psychology 102), and government officials (Accounting Psychology 103).
May the Maine GOP committee members account first for themselves, when they decide this month whether to censure Collins for her conviction vote. In any case, that vote would have earned her an A on an Accounting Psychology assignment — and Milton Held was a tough grader.