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.

Important Questions on Privilege and Power

In the past few months, discussions of privilege and power have come up in both professional and personal aspects of my life. I feel I am in a position to see both sides, as I have been both treated well by white mainstream culture as a minority, but have also been in a very bad academic situation which was both racist and sexist (and just terrible to students in general), and experienced a lot of racism while growing up. I have been speaking with people who feel very wronged, and with people who have no clue about differences. Sometimes I have seen reverse racism, which I think is equally as destructive as racism. I have seen outright insensitivity—and also its variant of ignorance.

Over the years, I have worked with extremely diverse populations and done a lot of work with international education in addition to higher education (in which I hold a master’s degree). So how do we heal rifts and divides? These are very complex issues, and the unfortunate Trump regime has brought a lot of negative aspects of race and privilege out of the woodwork. This has shown us that many people feel there is a downside to diversity and political correctness, and perhaps teaches us that we have left some people out of the discussion, no matter how wrong we feel they are. We have to be careful to avoid simplistic and knee-jerk responses and actions as liberals. We cannot threaten or implicate people just because they belong to a certain background. Doing so only creates more animosity and tension. We all need to inform ourselves with hard data and statistics to get the facts straight. But then we need to act with empathy.

So here are some questions that I feel are important for discussion. Unfortunately, despite my best attempts to avoid dichotomizing, I have created a dualistic model here. However, this does not simply mean white man versus minority woman. There are many white men who are in disadvantaged positions, and the recent Chicago mayoral election of Black lesbian Lori Lightfoot has raised many qualms that she is not necessarily “of the people.” Many of us may be in situations where we are in a position of privilege as well as situations in which we are not.

For those in positions of power or privilege, or who may be PERCEIVED to be in such positions, consider the following:

-Is it possible that you are not aware of the fact that you do hold some privilege due to your birth, SES, race, or favoritism? Self-awareness is key.

-Are you aware that others may feel your privilege and power as a threat? This is not to fault to you, but just to make you conscious of how you are seen.

-You and your ancestors may not at all have played a part in it, but are you aware of the roots of racism in America, especially with regard to slavery, the extinction of Native Americans, and immigration policy?

-You and people in your circles may personally be wonderfully supportive, nondiscriminatory, and nonracist. However, there is such a thing as institutionalized racism and if we look at the statistics, we cannot deny that there is still a lot of discrimination toward minority groups.

-What you might consider an innocuous comment might be perceived as a micro-aggression by the other person.

-Skin color does indeed make a difference and hold an advantage in American society. If you have never been in the physical minority before, visit a country or culture opposite to yours, and you will understand.

-I personally believe as an artist or writer that you have the right to include other cultures in your work or to create things in a style of a culture that is not your own. However, have you done it in a sensitive, informed, and culturally-appropriate way?

For those who are part of any sort of minority group or PERCEIVE themselves to be in such positions, consider the following:

-While hard data shows us it is true that white people generally hold more power and advantages in American society, be careful not to lump all white people together and make assumptions. A power-hungry white male Ivy League dean is not the same as a second-generation Hungarian factory worker in Cleveland. Many white people who appear successful now have come from disadvantaged backgrounds and worked their way up the class system.

-Rude, hurtful, or unpleasant remarks people have made to you may have come from a place of malice. Or they may have come from a place of ignorance or without any ill will. Is it possible in some situations you may be reading into things due to previous bias and negative mental filter?

-How are people really treating you/what are their actions? They may not be using the right terminology that is considered politically correct or culturally sensitive, but are they ultimately respectful and goodhearted? Don’t get obsessed with language.

-What baggage are you carrying that may affect your day-to-day life? While I agree we cannot deny the statistics that show there still is indeed a disturbing amount of discrimination on many fronts, be sure to work on your own mind, body, and soul to be able to distinguish between what is self-caused unhappiness versus that from the outside world. This is a very Buddhist/Asian perspective, and it is most important to start with ourselves, to have peace of mind before we attack or accuse others.

-Just as all white people are not the same, not all minority groups are the same. While this might sound like a no-brainer, sometimes there is a conflation of too many issues that do not apply across the board. Some minority groups might be privileged in certain ways, while disadvantaged in others. For example, an upper-middle-class gay male will still enjoy advantages if he is white and male, though he may face discrimination for his sexual orientation, as we can see with dynamic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg. Indians in America are the most economically successful minority group in the country and are highly educated; however, we have a different skin color, and most of us do not practice the mainstream religion of Christianity, so we may experience discrimination in ways that other minority groups do not.

-Many minorities are of immigrant origin and have opted to come to the United States. So, their narratives are not necessarily one of oppression as they would be for other groups who were brought here against their will, or who were already here and exterminated through genocide.

-Hostility and anger will get us nowhere. Work in constructive, positive ways. Build bridges, find allies.

We still have a long way to go with healing a lot of rifts and divides in American society. But hopefully these questions can help foster peace, communication, and constructive action.