Prior to TIME choosing “The Silence Breakers” as Person of the Year, during a pre-holiday gathering of the Free Movement Project, the conversation turned to the most recent wave of sexual assault disclosures. As much as I applaud TIME’s choice, it’s important to remember waves of women and men have been stepping up and speaking out in Hollywood, Washington, and churches for generations. Once in a blue moon, we actually listen.
My Free Movement friends spend most Monday evenings running together through downtown to advocate for a flourishing Wilmington, in which people are free to run wherever they choose (and not experience sexual or police harassment). I shared my take on the epidemic, based partly on my experiences treating sexually aggressive youth in our community. Few people are the pedophiles or serial rapists seen on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” Sex crimes reside on a continuum from just being mean to being fatal—like bullying. And, like bullying, most sex crimes are really power crimes.
I listened to others share their views. Someone threw shade on the POTUS 45. “The bully in the oval office said, ‘I could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose votes’ and ‘Grab ‘em by the you-know-what!’ Why are we surprised by Roy Moore and the rest of the little tyrants?”
Such quotes from POTUS 45 do blend sex, violence and power—an unholy trinity.
Local writer and activist Rend Smith remarked, “Some people in power. It’s like they’re drunk 24-7. It’s part of the disease of power.”
Drunk with power. Even better, “the disease of power.”
Usually, when I hear Lord Acton’s “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts, absolutely,” I focus on the “absolute power” part. But seeing power as a disease opens my eye to the more insidious “power corrupts.” Even a little dose of the disease can corrupt. Give some decent people a whistle and a YMCA rec basketball team, and they turn in into drunken, diseased Bobby Knights. When under the influence of power, people become objects, pawns to satisfy desires, sexual and/or otherwise. Nothing more.
One of the books that pushed me to study psychology was Marilyn French’s “Beyond Power.” Her distinction between “power over” and “power to” stuck with me. I said we sure needed research on power today.
Local writer, activist and dog-lover Lauren Krouse eventually put me on the spot.
“What do you think we should do?”
For a fleeting moment, I felt a power surge. I felt like I just kicked back a shot of Jameson. I’ll take charge and tell you how it should be!
The world according to Mark!
Fortunately, that power surge passed quickly. It usually does in most of us with connected brains and hearts. Almost automatically, we remember our humility and return to the reality of interdependence and coexistence. I offered a one-word response, “Listen?”
Sounds lame. “Listen?”
A few days later, Lauren posted Jerry Useem’s article in The Atlantic, “Power Causes Brain Damage.” Useem’s article highlights recent social and brain science research on power and empathy. In study after study, when people have power, they lose empathy. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, “found subjects became more impulsive, less risk-aware, and crucially less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”
Power up. Empathy down. Rend Smith is onto something. Power appears to be a disease that eradicates empathy. And power without empathy? That’s tyranny.
It also seems the very interpersonal skills one needs to convince people to collaborate on the way up are the very skills that disappear when they have power: “the power paradox.” A person “under the influence” of power may become blind to the complex “consent” issue when it comes to sexual behavior. “I’m in charge, drunk with power, and brain damaged. Of course you want to sleep with me! Everyone does! I’m in charge!”
But there is hope. Read Dickens. Reading any novel can cultivate empathy. But especially this time of year, read Dickens. Ebenezer Scrooge’s “empathy” circuitry started to get powered up again when the Ghost of Christmas Past reminded him of humbler times, times he was not operating under the influence of power and greed.
In the spirit of the season, a dose of Dickens may be just what the doctor ordered to cure the disease of power.