George H W Bush.
Black, white, straight, gay, the one thing they all have in common is they are men.
They are men who have either admitted to or been accused of sexual assault or sexual harassment.
And they are powerful men in their respective fields who believed they could assault or harass others with impunity.
The recent stories of actor Kevin Spacey routinely groping and soliciting men (one a boy of 14) reveal the true nature of these cases. A member of the Old Vic theatre company, where Kevin Spacey was artistic director, has claimed that everyone knew Spacey was a serial offender. He simply groped whoever he wanted to, whenever he wanted. And nobody said anything.
Bill Cosby’s criminal activity is another case in point. Nearly 50 women have claimed he sexually assaulted them over a 40 year period across 10 US states.
And Donald Trump’s pre-election boast that he could “move on” any woman he wanted was explained by him because “…when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” This included his notorious comment that he could even grab women’s genitals without repercussion.
So while these assaults might have been sexual in their nature, it seems that in every case they were exercises in the flagrant and unquestioned power afforded to these men. They thought they could act with impunity.
It seems if you give men huge amounts of power, whether the power of celebrity (in Trump’s self-confessed case), or the power to destroy careers (Weinstein), or power in the workplace (O’Reilly, Fish), or just plain male privilege, we will abuse it.
Charles de Montesquieu once said, “Experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.”
Hear that? As far as it will go.
Seventy-six women have come forward to charge Harvey Weinstein with harassment or assault. The next worst offender is film director James Tobak with 31 women going on the record (although the Los Angeles Times claims he has been accused of sexually harassing over 300 women).
That’s the unchecked power of men who feel they can act without consequences.
We simply can’t be trusted with impunity.
Give an actor, a director, a film producer, a reality TV star, a publisher, a politician, or a minister of religion, power with impunity and they’ll exploit it.
And in saying this, I’m not suggesting the abuse of power is only a male issue. Would women treat men this way if we lived in a matriarchal system where women had significantly greater power than men? We haven’t had a chance to find out. But since I’m pretty skeptical about most gender stereotyping, I’m inclined to think that, yes, they would.
When we speak about the inevitability of the abuse of power we always use male language or male examples because men have had all the power. But if Lord Acton’s old axiom that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is true, then it ought to be applicable to both men and women.
Some question Acton’s position, claiming that it’s not power itself that corrupts, but that the most corruptible among us are drawn to seek power.
In any case, the thought that someone can act with impunity is simply a lie. And a dangerous one.
In his book, The Power Paradox, Dacher Keltner describes how people accrue power and how it destroys them. Generally, power is attributed to people who use their skills to improve the lives of others. But according to Keltner, the paradox is that the power granted to us actually destroys the very skills that got us that power in the first place.
Keltner’s research found that the more powerful a person the more impulsive they were. They exhibited risk taking behaviors like driving aggressively, spending money flagrantly, being deceitful, rude and disrespectful, having affairs, etc. But it could also include the forms of sexual harassment and assault exhibited by the infamous list above.
As we’ve seen with Cosby, Weinstein, Fish and Spacey, their abuse of power has resulted in its loss. The very thing that made them successful has destroyed them.
And so to those of us who find ourselves wielding power – male power, ecclesial power, spiritual power, organizational power – how can we be sure that we don’t become similarly drunk on it? Religious workers accrue power because of their ability to improve people’s lives. But if we add a belief that they also wield or channel the power of God, it’s easy to see why some start to imagine that power comes with impunity. I think this explains the recent instances of bullying and infidelity that have ruined several high profile ministries.
The signs of someone becoming intoxicated with power include:
- They stop listening to the advice or rebukes of others;
- They think their needs are of utmost importance;
- They demand others strive for outcomes that serve their purposes;
- They think they are the smartest/most blessed/called/gifted person in the room
- They engage in self-justifying talk.
We need to create a culture where men are accountable, where their power is limited, and where their victims are listened to before any harassment or assault can become habitual.
This needs to occur in churches as much as in the entertainment industry or publishing or politics. In churches where greater autonomy is afforded to clergy there needs to be clear boundaries established. This could include things like:
- Fostering leadership teams of both men and women;
- Not allowing church leaders to be surrounded by sycophants;
- Ensuring that leaders are open to being challenged and participating in constructive debate;
- Creating a transparent process for complaints to be heard;
- Adopting open decision-making processes, which enable people to be involved;
- Encouraging leaders to acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers;
- Insisting that leaders acknowledge their mistakes, seek feedback and make amends where necessary;
There’s much more that could be said, but we need to recognise the recent revelations about these men don’t show us they have a sex addiction, they had a power addiction. And it can affect us too if we’re not conscious of it.