Power. It’s all about power—and powerlessness. The predatory sexual assaults of Donald Trump are being met by moral outrage. Some, however, separate this behavior from his general outlook on all things, including business, international relations, class and race.
The point is this: oppressive systems of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, nationalism, militarism and other isms are interrelated. They are all forms of oppression of the powerful over the powerless. Oppressive systems do not just cure themselves. The power cycle continues, holding oppressed captive, keeping us from life-giving partnerships.
We have come a long way, of course. We see women and men side by side at the new anchor desk, co-parenting, and sharing work responsibilities. And yet we know that we continue to live in an atmosphere of rape. We see African Americans leading corporations, as presidents of universities and of this nation, but also as victims of oppression in the criminal justice and economic systems.
Hurricane Matthew roars through the Caribbean and up the Atlantic coast, causing terrible property damage and some deaths in the United States. Meanwhile hundreds die in Haiti, the poorest nation in this hemisphere. It is dangerous to continuously be among the oppressed.
In the power cycle, those with power can at first ignore people, groups or nations with little or no power. Hence a Donald Trump seeks to project wealth, size (property, buildings, name on buildings), being a “winner.” Those in power can—at least for a while—ignore small nations, people of other religions, migrants at the borders. But it is in the ignoring that those who think they are powerful remain the most ignorant. So a political candidate knows not one name of a leader of another nation, while people in small, less powerful nations know substantially more about “great” nations. They need to in order to survive! Note that Trump at the second presidential debate/forum, showed little interest in the people asking the questions. He cares little about the oppressed people making his ties and shirts in poor nations overseas.
But when those formerly ignored stand up and say, “Here I am. I am somebody. I have a name. Look at me,” there is the potential for partnership. Hence Hillary Clinton’s campaign, “Stronger together.” Hence the United Nations. Hence all kinds of creative partnerships across socio-economic divides. However, the powerful may grow threatened. A common response is to trivialize the oppressed trying to be seen: “Isn’t she a cute little thing?” “That was a nice idea, but let’s go on to the important business at hand.” “Those people will never amount to much. They don’t belong here anyway.” This is when we hear jokes, a hurtful form of trivializing, followed up by “Can’t you take a joke?” The response must be, “No, I choose not to, because I am not a joke.” “We are not a joking matter.”
But what if the trivialized start to claim their power of voice? What if they start to act like partners? All sorts of new possibilities arise. Men start to see women in a new way. We start to become partners by acting like partners with respect and new knowledge of one another across races, religions, and borders. We learn about and from one another. People with power start to share power and together, we all become more able, more empowered, less dangerous to one another.
OR, the powerful become threatened. The need to keep the oppressed out or down intensifies. They ridicule, even saying ridiculous things, or threaten. Afraid they may not be seen as powerful, or famous, or the most important, they bully, demand and demean. Meanwhile the oppressed may caucus for support and wisdom and strategy. This is needed and helpful on the way from oppression towards justice. Women gather and realize they are not alone in having been forced to have sex with a powerful, “famous,” man. Groups of people of color, and whole neighborhoods gather in community halls and in the streets and say that their lives matter. Nations bring their causes together to an international body. There is potential, finally, for dialog, and people at the table who were never at the table before, and for talking about deep issues. This will take providing a safe, healthy, trustworthy environment to be different together. It will take time and trust. Working together, beyond conversation. This will mean changing systems.
So, which will it be? If the powerful resist, the next stage of the power cycle is “Eliminate.” The powerful dismiss, exclude or annihilate the powerless. The woman or child who is raped is killed. The woman sexually harassed, particularly the one who tries to claim her own voice, is fired. The racial or ethnic group that seeks to no longer be ignored or oppressed, is put down and some are killed. The group of people at “our” borders who seek to come in whose names and religion we could formerly ignore are excluded by walls and made to pay for their own exclusion.
It’s all about power, and the powerful keeping it at any cost.
Or will we, finally, say, “No!” to predatory sexual assault and to predatory business practices, to ridiculing religious and racial actions, and “shoot-first” local and “bomb-first” global strategies that keep us from being equal human beings? At each of these stages there is the potential for partnership, for really seeing each other and for living together in respect, and care. What kind of leadership does that call for? What kind of people does that call us to be?
For more on "The Power Cycle" see Chapter 8 "Transforming Power for Partnership" in Norma Cook Everist and Craig Nessan, Transforming Leadership (Fortress, 2008)