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Corrupt Power: A degenerative phenomenon

Power is generally associated with degenerative actions. Where connectedness is absent in addressing complex social problems, a becoming sentiment of recklessness and abuse of power dominates the social space. Understandably, abusive and predatory practices of power come with it the connotations of emasculating, steamrolling, controlling, manipulation, defeating, and degenerative leader behaviour. To clearly illustrate empirically the unethical behaviour of the powerful, Martin Sweet’s article “Does power really corrupt?” narrated Professor Dacher Keltner of University of Berkeley near death experience. Keltner was cycling over the East Bay Hills to school as he came to a four-way intersection, he had the right of way but a black Mercedes cut through and within two feet before impact slammed his brakes, the driver gawked with a seeming contempt and disdain. Keltner’s immediate response was a mixture of anger and relief. On a second thought, he found this incident academically provoking. He wondered if there is a measurable difference between the behaviour of Mercedes owners and those of other cars. Had the driver who nearly killed him bought something else, along with $130,000-worth of German engineering?

To answer these questions Keltner organised a group of students on the case; sent them out with clipboards to loiter on the traffic islands of Berkeley. They monitored vehicle etiquette at road junctions, kept notes on models and makes. They observed who allowed pedestrians their right of way at street crossings and who pretended not to see them and roared straight past. The results show distinct behavioural tendencies. Mercedes drivers were a quarter as likely to stop at a crossing and four times more likely to cut in front of another car than drivers of beaten-up Ford Pintos and Dodge Colts were. The more luxurious the vehicle, the more entitled its owner felt to violate the traffic rules. The power expressed by the Mercedes driver was completely degenerative, lacking connection and self-realisation. Paul Tillich the great Theologian and Philosopher postulated the interconnectedness of power and love in his definition. He presented an ontological view that revealed what and why of power and love. Tillich defines power as “The drive of everything living to realise itself, with increasing intensity and extensity.” On the other hand, love enriches power in an act of dynamic balancing. Love infused into power brings together that which is fragmented; the drive towards the unity of the separated. Love can be the reconnecting tool that makes whole the seeming fragmentation-power and love delineates our individual and collective journeys as Adam Kahane revealed in his book “Power and Love”. We must as a matter of urgency renew and make whole all that seems apart in our union; mindful that our communal power rest on individual self realisation.

The prevailing influence of power on human behaviour is largely associated with degenerative actions as seen in the road traffic experiment. The unruly behaviour exhibited by the Mercedes drivers was also prevalent in the lab. In further experiment, Professor Keltner gathered participants from a variety of income brackets to the test; in others, they “primed” subjects to feel less powerful or more powerful by asking them to think about people more or less powerful than themselves. The results all stacked the same way. The findings show that people who felt powerful were less likely to be empathetic; wealthy subjects were more likely to cheat in games involving small cash stakes and to dip their fists into a jar of sweets marked for the use of visiting children. When watching a video about childhood cancer they displayed fewer physiological signs of empathy. Similar results occurred even when the privileged under observation had no meaning beyond the experiment room. Rigged games of Monopoly were set up in which one player took a double salary and rolled with two dice instead of one: winners failed to acknowledge their unfair advantage and reported that they had triumphed through merit. In another study, volunteers were divided into bosses and workers and set to work on an administrative task. When a plate of biscuits was brought into the room, the managers reached for twice as many as the managed. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton in 1887. Shocking, as it may seem here was the evidence, lab-tested and cannot be dismissed as a hyperbolic perception.

Reacting to the moral conduct of powerful people and the perceived oppression of the weak, one of the greatest civil right activists and spiritual leader, Martin Luther King Jr, in his presidential speech to Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King illustrated a practical way of balancing fighting (degenerative power) and unity (generative love). Drawing on Tillich’s work, King emphasized on finding the dynamic balance between power and love in solving complex social problems. Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic, King said. He went on to say that collision of immoral power with powerless morality constitutes the major crisis of our time. How does each one of us contribute to this collision? The increasing challenges we face today lies in our unconscious polarity of power and love, entrenching separateness rather than our connectedness in governance. The progress we seek continues to be stifled by this cognitive deficiency and misapplication of power and love. The Sociologist C. Wright Mills studied the moral conduct of powerful people. In 1956 he published “The Power Elite”, an account of American society that shocked a generation: partly because it suggested the country was controlled by self-sustaining cliques of military, political and corporate men; partly because Mills modeled his work on an earlier study of the social and political hierarchies of Nazi Germany. Three years later, Pitirim Sorokin, founder of Harvard’s sociology department and a refugee from Lenin’s Russia, published “Power and Morality”, which proposed that the individuals described by Mills were not just self-interested, but sick. “Taken as a whole,” he wrote, “the ruling groups are more talented intellectually and more deranged mentally than the ruled population.” Sorokin’s psychological inference may be extreme but the idea of power as a disorder was a negative contagion. We see today constant pressure between power and love in the space of social change. How can we manifest the generative aspect of power to master one in solving our collective problems? The unfolding fractional crystallization of power has become a constant bypass to our communal well being.

In 1959, Eugene Jennings, the founder of business psychology and nobody’s idea of a dangerous radical, examined 162 American executives about their ethical lives. While in the office, he discovered markedly that they treated colleagues with suspicion, regarded friendship as a weakness and allowed self-interest to govern their behavior. At the weekends, however, they were Mr. Nice Guys who played with their children and invited their neighbors over for barbecues. We see this Jekyll-Hyde strain to be typical of the powerful. This implies that unethical behavior was an inherent trait of the powerful and not a side-effect of being in charge. Conversely, unethical behavior was found to be an impediment in an experiment that examined the collaborative skills of powerful individuals. The findings of two Berkeley Psychologists suggest that leaders were less productive when asked to work together than their subordinate was. Impeded by their egos, the powerful spent much of their time squabbling about that should hold control.

Here is what degenerative power does to about every human being.  It is going to reduce the quality of your attention to people as it creates a facade of equality that provokes disintegration. It is going to increase your manipulative ability, ability to emasculate and suffocate others. It will increase separateness and denial of self realization. You will be a little less thoughtful about how things look from their perspective. How do we notice what we are not noticing? How do we know what we know? How can we act and effect change in complex situations? So just practice a little gratitude, listen empathetically and apply your heart to know. Engage, collaborate, embrace, compromise, capitulate, fuse power, and love to reconcile the permanent tension. When we walk, it is the dynamic balance of both legs that maintain the unity of one’s movement. We must seek same dynamic balance in reconciling power and love for our self-preservation agency and communion self adaptation. A mutually inclusive duo of self-interest and self-sacrifice forms a complementary fusion needed to drive relational power. Power viewed generatively embody love and could enrich leaders even in the most complicated complexity of contexts as they exercise their power collectively to achieve lasting social change. We are left with no choice but to master the balance of power and love in order to realize impactful and lasting change. The purpose of life is to be part of everything that is, realizing your interconnectedness to surge toward communion of the whole.

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