Beware the Power Grab

The war on the Ukraine (which is personally disturbing to me, as I have a good friend who grew up in Mariupol) has led me to think about how such terrible acts happen when a very high majority of people in the world are so peaceful, loving, or at the very least, not willing to take action even if they are angry or disagree with someone or an ideology, a people, a religion. Most ordinary citizens are trying to go about their daily lives: paying bills, buying groceries, taking care of their families, going to work, trying to get enough sleep. This is the plight of billions of people in the world, and there are often many more stresses added to it for people in difficult socioeconomic conditions, such as no water, no reliable electricity, poor access to healthcare and education. And when there are crises, these people feel alarmed, deeply affected, sad, or at least concerned. There has been a global outpouring of support for Ukrainians, be it performing music and concerts to raise money to help the people there, hanging Ukrainian flags in their yards, donating money, or wearing a button with a kind message.

When there is this deluge of love and sympathy, how is it that Putin and other warmongers, sociopaths, dictators, or even local-level bullies, greedy individuals, and manipulative people manage to have so much control and wreak havoc? One big piece of it, I believe, is a power grab. While people are attending to daily preoccupations, some people are willing to sacrifice their personal life for power. They are willing to lose sleep, have terrible quality relationships, commit unethical deeds to get ahead. Granted, political activists have told us for decades, centuries or millennia even, that we need to be involved in our political systems; otherwise, the power-hungry will take over. Perhaps, after attending to their Maslowian needs, people get caught up about their clothing, enjoying entertainment, feeling apathetic about the political system, or checking social media ad nauseam in the modern era? 

While there could be an element of truth to this belief that people are sleeping while a few grab power, this is a gross error and huge misassumption in the overall context of culture and evaluating power dynamics. People in power often use force or violence to get there. Think of countless coups in Latin America, genocide in Cambodia, Armenia, and Central Europe, or 9/11. The access to weapons and tools of aggression is frightening at a level that is staggering in our globally-interconnected world. Trying to find the paper trail of, say, a Saudi sheikh who is funding terrorism would be quite difficult, perhaps even nearly impossible in some cases. Same for the one percent who can stash their money offshore through all kinds of financial havens and evade paying taxes. In their case, their weapons are loopholes in the law.

What does this tell us? That the structures and institutions we live in are unjust, unethical, and favor a tiny minority who is in power and in control.

We all start out the same as babies and children. We differentiate into unique personalities, and in these early stages, trauma can have a lasting impact for the rest of a child’s life. Personality disorders form: if not treated, they grow and become a menace not only to the afflicted individual, but also to society. Sometimes these things are invisible: think of the doctor who is accomplished, holds a prestigious degree, appears respectable on the outside, but is cheating her tenants as a landlady and violating local laws. (I, unfortunately, have been the injured party in this situation not once but twice.) Or perhaps an event later in life like a major life change, or a discovery of a talent for making money, amassing property, or holding sway over people leads a person to develop a false sense of power and confidence. Unchecked and unregulated, this individual develops into a narcissist. At the core, this person is weak and frightened, and can only compensate by losing a sense of empathy for others and getting ahead. We live in a frightening era with the rise of the far-right all over the world (with South Korea most recently added to the list.) Innocents and truth tellers are punished, even killed: for every Maria Ressa, there is a Daphne Caruana Galizia.

All these things which I have discussed are things we have witnessed in all sorts of institutions: the Catholic Church, the Oval Office, 1930s German politics, academic departments, 12th-century Mongolian rule, and too many more to list. What does this tell us? We need to evaluate our institutions and ask what sorts of people they produce. Are they enabling bad behavior? Are we, on an individual level, enabling bad behavior simply by not speaking up about it? The bystander effect is something very real. Fundamentally, how do we regulate human behavior, eliminate violence of any form, and develop empathy? These questions extremely difficult to answer and are as old as human beings themselves. So is the situation of powerlessness. But so is the human capacity to fight back and offer love and support.

The Culture of Enabling and the Bystander Effect

As we have recently seen in our political charade how one corrupt politician has covered for another crony, we must ask ourselves why this happens. This raises the issue of enabling, and of not speaking up when we see injustice or unethical behavior.

Politically, there is a lot at stake for those who choose to whistleblow. Elected officials may lose constituent support and not be reelected. Appointed individuals may be asked to resign or simply dismissed. Individuals in either category may be aware of the wrongdoings, (innocent) bystanders, but may simply not speak up for whatever reason, assuming that others will do so or that justice will be served, that somehow correct activity will be spotted and punished. In our political situation, we can blame the Republicans for having put Trump up as a candidate in the first place. That was origin of the chain of disastrous events that have been going on in Washington for the past few years.

Also plaguing American (and even global) society in recent times is the whole #MeToo movement, which has taken place on both high level (think Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose) as well as ordinary day-to-day level interactions between men and women. One of the perpetrators cited in the Charlie Rose case was his Executive Producer, Yvette Vega, who knew of Rose’s lewd behavior, but told Rose’s targets that that was the way he was.

So that raises another interesting point–women are sometimes complicit in men’s bad behavior. Women perpetuate negative cycles, as can be seen in many patriarchal cultures where mothers may blame their daughters for being raped or harassed or for the way men treat them badly. This was a topic that a professor had raised in graduate school in an international education class, and it is sadly true through not only the developing world, but also in the industrialized West.

Ordinary good people are sometimes complicit in enabling bad behavior. I recently experienced a situation in which I was completely blindsided by the leader of a group despite having done nothing wrong. And yet others in the group did not speak up for me. The bystanders allowed the group leader to have too much power.

What do we do, then, if we are in such a position where we see bad behavior, and it could potentially have negative consequences for us if we report it? Or if we like the person who has been behaving badly toward others, for they have not behaved badly toward us and have been our supporters, mentors, advocates?

These are not easy questions to answer, but I think we have to speak up as much as possible. Is it not more noble to do the right thing even if we have to face the consequences? Or, if we are not able to take action, because of direct to ourselves or even our livelihood, we need to be very aware of that and admit our hypocrisy in the situation in which we are engaged. This has to be a case-by-case basis, and sometimes there are overt situations which require speaking up and even taking legal action if necessary, but there other situations which may require more subtle action.

At the bottom of this discussion is the issue of character. We need to be educating students about the importance of good character, and our educational institutions, even higher education ones, need to place an emphasis on this. My alma mater, Stanford University, seems to be busy admitting the future twentysomething billionaire entrepreneurs who often show moral depravity and even sociopathic tendencies–think Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Granted, 99% of the students are not this extreme and we have to take into account developmental stages of young people.

But our society really needs to think more about valuing ethics over fame, power, and money. Why don’t we make America ethical again?!