How Should We Treat People Who Have Abused Their Power?

Source: Gipuzkoako Foru Aldundia, from Flickr

The #metoo movement, which is now almost a year old, has revealed just how exploitative, abusive, and predatory some people are, at least from the perspective of their victims. As a result of this increased exposure, we are all more likely to think twice before engaging in acts that are, or could be interpreted as, #metoo-able.

That’s obviously a good thing, but not necessarily new. In the early 1990s, when I was in college, we were taught not only that no means no, but that an active ‘yes’ was needed at each stage of a sexual encounter.

What is new and different about #metoo is the emphasis on power dynamics, and in particular how workplace power dynamics have been actively exploited for sexual gain, to the point where an active yes might not always mean yes.

The negative effects of power were recognized in 1887 by the English historian Lord Acton, who in a letter to an Anglican bishop famously claimed

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

If Acton is right, most people, if given the opportunity, will take what they can from a situation, so long as there are no negative consequences for them. While that may not be a particularly inspiring thought, it is difficult to believe otherwise, as more and more #metoo revelations come to light.

It is still not clear if men and women are equally subject to this exploitative, abusive, predatory tendency. To date, the phenomenon presents as primarily male because the vast majority of people with power in our society are men, so statistically there are many more instances of abusive men than women. Women, for the most part, don’t find themselves in a situation to abuse, and until more of them do we won’t know to what extent they are liable to the same tendency.

What is distinctive about the #metoo movement is the way it has disrupted power in the workplace; specifically, the reconfiguration of power enabled by new technologies that arm apparent victims of sexual assault with the means to share their experiences broadly, without having to convince media or legal gatekeepers of the veracity of their claims. This is both a blessing and a curse – apparent abusers are held to account, but often with no viable means of defending themselves, even in the (perhaps unlikely) event that they are innocent.

Even in cases where some degree of guilt has been established, it is not clear what the punishment should be, nor how long it should last. Many of the people outed by #metoo have not been charged with a legal crime, and hence are not called to ‘do the time.’ Instead, they are sent off into an ill-defined professional and social purgatory, ostracized from the global village, potentially forever.

Jian Ghomeshi

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As more and more disgraced men attempt to make a come-back, we are getting a sense of what redemption – or the lack thereof – looks like. Last week Jian Ghomeshi, who in his own words was a “#metoo pioneer,” was eviscerated once more on social media as well as in mainstream media.

In attempting to give an account of himself four years after losing his high-profile job at the CBC as a result of sexual harassment claims made against him by multiple women, none of which were proven in court, he succeeded only in reigniting animosity. His articulate 3,500 word essay, published in the New York Review of Books, was rejoined by an article in Vice headlined ‘Fuck Off, Jian Ghomeshi: Go away,’ (later changed to ‘Jian Ghomeshi doesn’t deserve anyone’s pity: Go away.’)

Whether you believe, as some do, that there is nothing Ghomeshi can ever say or do to atone for his past actions, or whether you believe, as others do, that he was found not guilty and hence has nothing to apologize for, by his own admission he was “tone-deaf,” “emotionally thoughtless,” “critical and dismissive” of women, a “player, creep, cad, Lothario.” And he became all these things, according to his own account, because he was “consumed by anxiety in my pursuit of success … I had become a man who derived all of his self-esteem from external validation.  In tandem, everything around me seemed to condone the bullish way a successful single guy might act.”

First-person accounts are notoriously unreliable, riddled with self-serving bias as they often are. But if there is even an iota of truth in Ghomeshi’s account, there are several takeaways for how we understand the world of work.

Firstly, there is no reason to suppose that powerful people are any more confident than the rest of us. Power and self-esteem are not the same thing, and the pursuit of power is often motivated by a lack of self-esteem, not a surplus of it.

Secondly, external validation is a fool’s gold. Instead of looking to others to make us feel good, we each need to do the difficult work of uncovering or deciding on our core values and then living them on a daily basis. Ghomeshi’s values were not thoughtlessness, dismissiveness and tone-deafness. He was those things because he wasn’t grounded in values that would have prevented him becoming those things.  Nature abhors a vacuum.

Thirdly, all of us need to ensure that we are not so enamored by a person’s power that we condone behaviors that are unacceptable, no matter what. There is not one set of rules for the powerful, and another for everyone else. We are all first and foremost human beings. Power and status are grafted on to that fundamental ground, never the ground itself.

It is easy to blame a few bad apples, like Ghomeshi and others, for problems that rightfully belong to all of us. The lack of compassion Ghomeshi had for others is not dissimilar to the lack of compassion many people have for him now. Compassion is not a scarce resource. It does not diminish in one direction when you direct it in another. Quite the contrary. The more you practice it, the more it grows.

There is a very real risk that we are missing the forest for the trees when it comes to #MeToo. It would be a shameful irony if we failed to achieve the goal of a more compassionate society because each of us was so caught up in proving our commitment to it.


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