When people in positions of power abuse others, what tends to happen is they are helped to cover it up. We’ve seen it with the Catholic Church protecting paedophile priests, we’ve seen evidence lost in a current case about child abuse amongst the high and mighty. The likes of Jimmy Saville and Bill Cosby should be on everyone’s minds. Of course it’s not just at the really top ends of things, and it’s not just those in power protecting each other.
Yesterday I had a conversation about a man who has broken data protection law, broken the rules of the organisation he’s involved with, lied, manipulated and bullied people. “But he’s done so much good,” his defender said. “And I don’t think he realises what he’s doing is a problem.” A pillar of the community, this man who has done so many things that are not ok, is defended because of his work.
We see it in the creative community – how do we judge a creative person when their lives are riddled with issues? Consider H.P. Lovecraft’s ghastly racism, consider the acting out of modern celebrities. Is it justice to weight the work someone does again the harm they cause, and to consider the balance?
I think not. I think this because it allows powerful people to get away with raping, and then silencing their victims. It allows powerful people to bully, use and abuse those around them. How much of the work that we celebrate has been achieved by using others? A self-proclaimed pillar of the community can look like a splendid achiever, but if someone is in the habit of lying and taking, there’s no guarantees they are honest about who really did the work.
Sometimes it’s because we convince ourselves that we need them – the unchallengeable pillar runs an event, or an organisation, and so we feel obliged to turn a blind eye and pretend we didn’t see the signs of trouble. We tell the people who want to complain that we just don’t want to hear it – I’ve had that happen to me, and it’s an awful position to be put in.
Perhaps we believe that people at a certain level deserve to be cut some slack. A sense that those above us are entitled to use and mistreat, so long as we can pretend we don’t know it’s happening. Feudalism is alive and well.
Of course for every rotten apple who makes it to the top, there are a lot of good folk, working with honour and integrity, and doing the right things for the right reasons, and not abusing their power or position in any way. It’s not an inevitable consequence of power. Certainly, power can corrupt, but it doesn’t have to. Every time we accept corruption and moral bankruptcy from those in authority, we’re also delivering a quiet smack in the face to the people who are better than that, and who deserve our support. Most communities have multiple pillars, after all, and if the abusive ones are supported by the community, the harm done to the non-abusive ones is considerable.
When corrupt, unethical, immoral and abusive people find their way into places of influence, we should not go along with them. We should not excuse their epic failings on the basis of ‘good work’. If something is wrong, it needs taking seriously and we all need to keep a careful eye on who we support, and what they’re actually doing.