Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Abuse Of Power

Few things make me angrier than when the powerful abuse their power, so as you might expect the almost daily revelations of powerful men, from Bill Cosby to Al Franken, who have engaged in harassment and assault, have had an enormous impact on me. It's not just abuses of the sexual variety that raise my outrage, of course. I've railed both publicly and privately about the large and small sociopathic cruelties of businessmen and bankers, employers and parents, but these new revelations, coming one upon the other, have taken me from righteous anger to a sort of despair. Can we not trust anyone with power?

Of course, Lord Acton's words have become a cliche, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," and so it seems. What is usually left off is this: "Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more where you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority."

Few disagree, although many will take exception for this leader or that one. Some suggest that women might bear power with more humanity, but since even the most powerful women in our world do so within the patriarchy we will never be able to test that theory lacking a major restructuring of our world. I was among those who once believed that certainly there must be some who are capable of wielding power, be it through "influence" or "authority," while remaining fully human, but recent news, and particularly that about men like Cosby and Franken, both of whom I would have sworn were men of such character that they could stand as exceptions to the rule, has left me to conclude that Lord Acton was right, absolutely.

It's not that they all start as "bad men." I genuinely believe that a young Cosby or Franken would have been appalled at what they have let themselves do, but no one, it seems, is immune from power's corruptive influence. And science is proving that. According to UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner who has been studying the effects of power for the past two decades has found that people under the influence of power act as if they have suffered traumatic brain injury. That's right, power causes brain damage.

And Keltner isn't the only one. From a recent Atlantic article:

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, "mirroring," that may be a cornerstone of empathy . . . Once we have power, we lose some of the capabilities we needed to gain it in the first place.

Researchers have found that this impairment is evident even in otherwise powerless people who gain temporary power, and while it disappears when the power is taken away, the evidence seems to indicate that the longer one has power, the more permanent the brain damage. In other words, it's not just our imaginations: the powerful are brain damaged and the longer they have had power the more brain damaged they are.

The Atlantic article goes on to suggest some things that powerful people might do to mitigate some of the damage, such as consciously striving to stay connected to memories of times when they felt powerless, but this means that we, those of us with limited power over others, must rely upon these untrustworthy people, these brain damaged people, to do the right thing, something they appear neurologically incapable of doing. And hence, Bill Cosby and Al Franken.

I'm sure there are those who take exception to my lumping of Cosby and Franken together. After all, one systematically drugged and raped dozens if not hundreds of women over the course of decades and the other seems to have "merely" groped and fondled, but they have both displayed symptoms of the same mental illness. I don't know what to do about men like Cosby whose power came from popularity (other than to make them unpopular) or those corporate criminals who sit in the boardrooms of banks or who heartlessly rob pensioners from their Wall Street towers (other than to throw them in prison), but I do know what to do with men like Franken, who while no where near as "bad" as those others, is clearly showing the early signs of this pernicious and progressive disease. It's good that he is stepping down from his position in the US Senate, not just for us, but for his own mental well-being.

We live, or at least we strive to live, in a democratic society, one in which we entrust others with the power to act in the best interest of we the people, "entrust" being the key word. This is why their abuses so anger me as a man who is entrusted, daily, with the health and well-being of young children. One might say I have power over them, and I do in the way that bigger, stronger, more experienced adults always have power over children, but I have never wanted that power, and my greatest failings, I feel, are those times when I have used those advantages to compel or force or "trick" children into doing my bidding. I am grateful that I hold my position as a teacher within the context of a cooperative school, one in which the children's parents are not only my employers, but are present day-to-day in with me in the classroom serving as checks against any abuses and reminders of my own ultimate powerlessness. Any power I have is derived from the trust I've earned, over years, and any extra power people seek to give me, I in turn, strive to redistribute, to the children if at all possible.

You see, that is the proper use of power: to give it away, to use it to empower others. That is what a healthy brain, one that retains it's ability to empathize, naturally does. By the same token, we also know that feeling powerless is likewise damaging, that those who feel disempowered are prone to a wide spectrum of enfeeblements. Indeed, it seems that power is like blood: it must flow or otherwise the body dies. If you find yourself with power, then, give it away, let it flow, for the good not just of others but of yourself: for the good of us all.

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