There have been a number of occasions in my life when I’ve found myself in conflict with someone who had considerably more power than me. That power has come from a variety of sources – it could be the power of an employer. People in leadership roles tend to have more power and influence than those who follow them. There’s a power that comes from being charismatic and socially capable. Financial power, access to resources, an able body versus a limited body – all of these things and more can create massive power imbalances between people.
Fall out with a person who has power, and the odds are it will ripple more widely than your immediate quarrel. People are reluctant to take sides for all kinds of reasons, but throw in a person of significant power, and going up against them to support someone they’ve wronged puts the supporter in a vulnerable place. It often means if you want to support someone who has been mistreated, the only vote you have is to vote with your feet, and leave. People get isolated this way, because all they can do is leave.
We are often reluctant to believe anything bad of people whose power revolves around charisma. If we’re under the spell – and I’ve seen this happen repeatedly – it’s easier to blame the victim than contemplate the enchantment. Repeat offenders using their popularity to hide their acts of cruelty and exploitation get away with it so often because we don’t want to believe that of them. ‘Pillars of the community’ who are also wife beaters, child molesters, fraudsters, thieves, can go unchallenged amongst us because we have too much invested in believing they are good.
How do we change this?
I’ve three suggestions. One is that we need to look at power carefully. When other people hold it, keep an eye on whether that’s the power to do, or it’s a power to attract. When power draws resources, energy, people, money and status towards itself, and is the primary beneficiary, be wary. Clever people in this position will make a lot of noise about community benefit, but it’s always worth asking if this is really what’s happening. Anyone spinning the line that what benefits them benefits the community is doubly suspect.
The second suggestion is to watch how we handle our own power. Can we be told if we’ve made a mistake? Can we take responsibility and sort things out if we cause hurt? Do we default to victim blaming rather than listening if someone else has a problem with us? It’s often not a simple victim/user dynamic, especially not at the outset. When things go wrong between people it tends to be complicated, and a willingness on both sides to listen and address problems is most usually what’s called for. If one person uses what power they have to silence and push away another person, that’s where the bigger problems start. If we can encourage a culture of responsibility, we make it harder for those with more power than us to hide behind their status when there’s a problem.
Thirdly, we need to look at the benefits we think we get by supporting someone with more power, such that we’ll ignore other people’s problems. It’s more comfortable not to know what’s going on when there’s an issue between people. It’s safer to side with the person who has most power. It validates our choice to have been there in the first place. We have to be able to admit pour own capacity for error. All of us, in innocence, have the scope to support a charismatic psychopath who looked like something good. If we don’t have the courage to admit that, we’ll facilitate what they do.