We have heard a lot recently about abuse of power. Most publicly, it has manifested itself in various allegations of sexual misdemeanour in the political and entertainment worlds. It follows earlier scandals about expenses and other misuse of public funds. These are usually characterised as personal failings and reactions have been highly critical of individuals. In a sense, this is a natural extension of our cultural focus on celebrity. 

More widely, bullying and harassment, whether physical or mental, is probably endemic, even if often implicit rather than explicit. More deeply, these behaviours reveal deep-seated issues about identity, entitlement, status and hiererachies, habits which are deeply ingrained. They may be throwbacks to another age or representative of unconscious biases developed over generations that are very hard to shift. It is right to focus on them and to seek to reduce and minimise their effects in the future.

Critically, however, we also need to understand them too. Seeking to understand does not imply acceptance. But underneath the power games will often lie deeper needs and insecurities, feelings of loss and shame and perhaps downright fear. While there is a natural impulse to blame and shame, that may not be enough or even wholly useful in the longer term. It may not address the underlying problems. No doubt that is why lengthy public inquiries are held into serious failings at systematic levels. Whether the current time-consuming and resource-sapping form of inquiry is the right forum to achieve real learning for the future, rather than finding scapegoats and diverting attention for long periods, is another question altogether.

The abuse of power manifests in many ways. Curtailing open public debate, failing to present full information, redacting key documents for selfish interest, deliberately falsifying key facts, letting political survival trump the national interest, manipulating media reporting, shaping committee membership to influence outcomes, hinting that funding is dependent on curtailing criticism, misrepresenting public views, re-writing independent reports. 

But these abuses can be harder to pin down. Sometimes those who should call others to account fail to do so or are timid in their pursuit. Often the story does not have enough traction for a media obsessed with personalities. In any event, the same quest for understanding is necessary for these more subtle abuses. Why do people behave, usually collectively, in these ways? What are they frightened of? In the long term, what will the cost be? For how long are we prepared to pay such a cost? How could we do things differently?

These are the kind of questions we will need to pose if we really wish to tackle the more insidious abuses of power in our society.


Originally published in The Times on 5 January 2018.

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