Empathy, Sympathy, and Accountability: The Drawbridge Story

Responsibility and Accountability

In the next class, after the usual roll call and payments, Sid said he wanted to talk about responsibility. He took an example, that of a Baron and Baroness, with the Baroness involved in a clandestine love affair––the old Drawbridge Exercise you can find in a quick search online.

Briefly, when the busy Baron was away on his duties, the lonely Baroness ignored his dire warning to her to not leave the castle while he was away. She left to spend time with her clandestine lover in the village, instructing her servants to leave a drawbridge to the castle––which stood on an island in a wide river––lowered until she returned. After many pleasurable hours with her lover, she returned to find the drawbridge blocked by an armed gatekeeper. He implored her to not cross the drawbridge because the Baron had ordered him to kill her if she did so.

To enter the castle without crossing the drawbridge, the Baroness asked her lover for help. But the lover, claiming they shared only a romantic relationship, denied her the needed assistance in her time of peril. She then begged a boatman for help, who demanded money for his services, and a friend, who took a moral stance, against her, since she had disobeyed the Baron. Everyone she approached thus proved unhelpful.

She eventually returned to the drawbridge and crossed it on her own. Despite her fervent pleas to the gatekeeper to spare her life, he killed her as the Baron had ordered him to.

The exercise involved listing, by decreasing culpability, those responsible for the Baroness’s death. Sid simplified the task, for those among us who did not want to evaluate shades of responsibility, and asked us only to identify who we thought most responsible. It felt strange that in a counseling session, for domestic violence, the instructional exercise used was one of extreme violence and assignment of blame.

Nevertheless, the group got to it and we tallied votes. The Baron got nine votes in all as the most responsible, while the gatekeeper got four votes. Jim, our leg-in-a-cast member, gave the Baroness his vote. What registered in my mind then was only that there were fourteen group members in all, not counting Sid. But some are more easily remembered, while some just shrink into their places, barely touching the group’s collective consciousness. The general trend of votes was as expected, that the Baron, for planning and ordering that the deed be done was considered most responsible, and the gatekeeper was also held responsible as the perpetrator.

Only one in the group, Jim, held the Baroness responsible, which was interesting. Despite her infidelity, and lack of respect for her husband’s wishes, it appeared that the majority empathized with her. I could only think that must have been due to the tragic nature of what had befallen her, and not really a rational analysis of what led to the tragedy. Sympathy overrules cold rationale readily. The test seemed more about judging one’s human responses. Opportunists would perhaps align with Jim, and push blame onto one to whom it wouldn’t matter any more, so everyone wins. Why fret over what is past?

The one who seems none the worse here is the Baroness’s lover,” said I, as we discussed the exercise. “He enjoyed what he chose to, and took no additional responsibility. Though his actions lacked what we may call conscience, he is the least affected, so long as he is not discovered.”

Laughter all around, and general agreement.

Paul spoke up, “Being the lover is the easiest thing to do, maybe the best in today’s culture. Take what you can, and run––or cut your losses, and run.”

Sid tried to redirect the discussion toward taking responsibility. “There are consequences… The lover may not be in any committed relationship…”

No one paid heed to what Sid said. You could say that the exercise did not produce a specific result he was hoping for.

• • •


About Rian Nejar

Rian Nejar is an Indian-American author. He trained and worked as an engineer in India, lived briefly in the Middle East, and arrived in America in the early 90's. After a Master’s degree in electrical engineering in America, he worked as an academic instructor, engineer, entrepreneur, and technical writer over the two decades since. Humbling and Humility (http://goo.gl/FKUnCM) is his first mainstream nonfiction. He lives and writes in the Southwest United States.
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