The Accountability of Community

Douglass_Helen_Eva_FrederickLast semester I was discussing The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave with my American literature students.  We were talking about the multivalent nature of freedom in this text, and the way that Douglass’s freedom depended both on his learning how to reading, which enabled him to become intellectually free, and on his gaining physical freedom.  Each of these freedoms was needed for Douglass to flourish as a human, but our conversation kept circling back to how reading opened his mind and made him mentally and spiritually free long before he gained his physical freedom.  I kept pressing my students on this question: How exactly did reading free Douglass?

Reading is of great importance in Douglass’s narrative.  Douglass begins learning how to read when he is sent to Baltimore, and he completes his education by challenging street boys to see who could write the most letters and by covertly borrowing his ward’s schoolbooks.  Later, after being sent back to work on a plantation, Douglass starts a Sabbath reading group to teach his fellow slaves how to read.  They had to meet secretly on Sunday afternoons because, as Douglass bitterly explains, even though their masters were Christians, they were strongly opposed to educating their slaves: “It was necessary to keep our religious masters at St. Michael’s unacquainted with the fact, that, instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.”

These three adjectives—intellectual, moral, and accountable—seem significant, and I asked my students what they made of them.  One student thoughtfully connected the latter two by speaking about the need to be accountable to others or ourselves for the morality of our actions.  I challenged her regarding the ambiguity of her “or,” pointing out that those are two very different kinds of accountability.  It is one thing to be accountable to myself for the morality of my actions—Douglass’s masters were certainly satisfied with this arrangement—but it is another thing to be accountable to others for our actions.

This difference is revealed in the history of the word “conscience,” which has developed two related meanings in English, as C. S. Lewis points out in Studies in Words.  Conscience literally means “with knowledge,” but that “with” can mean knowledge shared with a group of other people, or it can simply act as an intensifier, meaning to know well.  This ambiguity has been present in English for centuries, but Lewis argues that early on conscience was most often used in the sense of “witness”: your conscience was your knowledge of what you had done, a part of you that stands apart and bears witness to your deeds or omissions.  It is in this sense that we still refer to some objective, upright person as “the conscience of” a community.

Over time, however, conscience came to be not only the witness to our actions, but also the judge of their morality.  This conflation of the role of witness and judge, and the internalization of both, is what I think lay behind my student’s “or,” and her sense that we can be accountable solely to ourselves for the morality of our actions.  Such an interior conception of morality certainly contributes to the individualism of the Reformation and to our contemporary moral relativism.
And yet if we are accountable only to ourselves, if our interior conscience is both our witness and judge, then we turn in on our selves and are bound to our own sinful desires, which are quite good at manipulating our internal judge.  Douglass was onto something, then, when he wrote about the power of communal reading to form us as “intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.”  When we read in community, and submit our understanding of a text to the correction of others, we begin to hold knowledge in common with others.

This accountability to others, enacted in these sorts of conversation with my students, is why I love teaching literature; I hold my students accountable for their interpretations of texts, and they hold me accountable for mine.  We can practice healthy forms of community and conversation together, practices that are particularly important in our culture, where we so often find reasons to ignore those who differ from us and are content to be accountable only to ourselves.

—Jeff Bilbro


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