The abuse of power

More and more we hear of abuses within institutions


lock and key

Just recently another institutional atrocity was splashed across the headlines of our Australian newspapers and media outlets. Video footage was released of a young aboriginal in a youth detention centre being bashed, stripped naked, and strapped to some kind of chair restraint for hours. The video showed multiple events that had occurred over a long period of time.

Ill treatment of people in custody or under the authority of others is unfortunately commonplace. In recent times we have been reminded of sexual abuse not only by priests, but also in educational institutions and the defense force (notably against women but not confined to that). And of course abuse is not limited to sexual aggression.

What is it about institutions that makes such behaviour common? How can it be so prevalent that it has come to be expected, to be almost the norm?

I think it has something to do with power. When we are granted power over someone else, it is a potentially dangerous position to be in. There’s a saying that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The possession of it can work insidiously, much like the ring that Frodo had to carry which ended up corrupting even him, who was apparently the most incorruptible person in the story of the Lord of the Rings.

But it’s more than that, surely. I don’t believe everyone in positions of power become corrupted, and possibly not even most. For example, I know a man who worked as a guard at a prison, had to handle some of the worst prisoners. But he had a great heart and set up an organisation to work with troubled kids, attempting to instil hope in their lives. I’m sure he is not alone in being a kind man in a brutal environment.

Perhaps some abuses of power are due to frustration. People, frustrated by what is happening in their own life, respond excessively to an inmate (or school pupil) and their frustrations boil over to those  under their care. They are in a position of power and so they exercise it as a form of lashing out.

People in custody would hardly be role models of good behaviour. I can imagine that a smart mouth and a rebellious attitude could lead to excessive force in response. I’m not justifying that behaviour, just trying to understand it.

So we add a preoccupation with your own lot in life, coupled with frustrations based in your career or personal issues, coupled with power over others, an establishment that allows excesses to occur (even if that’s not its intention). Throw in some people who are difficult to deal with (whether a student, an inmate, an infantryman or subordinate) and there you have it – a recipe for disaster.

Even then, there still must be more to it than that. Does the priesthood or the educational system attract paedophiles? Maybe. Like firefighters – some of the worst arsonists are firefighters. They join because they love fire. Surely at least some teachers and/or priests take on those roles because of their repressed or not so repressed tendencies.

And maybe that’s more to the point. Institutions provide the breeding ground for people who, by reason of their character, disposition and personal demons, are attracted to that particular kind of power or opportunity. They may not even be particularly aware of the attraction. But they join up, and find that their circumstances allow them to act out their aggression, hostility, need for power, or sexual tensions.

There’s a lot of ‘what if’s here, – you can tell I’m just trying to make sense of it. But I do feel that I’m zeroing in on some of the more pertinent issues. Maybe they need to be refined or seen from another perspective, but I get the feeling that there’s some substance here.

So what is the solution? I have more questions than answers, but here goes…

In the end solutions must deal with the regulating of power. Perhaps another person has to sign off before a disciplinary action is taken (but surely this already happens?).  Or perhaps varying levels of discipline require increasing levels of authority, so that people further up the chain of command have to sign off on. But even then, such processes don’t often allow an objective 3rd party to speak. It becomes the word of the guardian against the guarded. And of course, there are abuses that occur behind closed doors and no-one knows what’s happening.

Perhaps a rotation of staff, moving them regularly from one position to another so that entrenched behaviours or pacts with other staff and authority figures (ie others who become complicit with the abuse)  don’t get the chance to firmly develop. Not sure how that would work with schools though….

I’m struggling here. But it truly breaks my heart to hear of institutional abuse in all its forms, because I would hate to be the one who was at their mercy. Unfortunately, institutions will always exist, whether they are initially set up that way or not. It seems to be the way of the world.

Pretty heavy duty blog (sorry about that). What are your thoughts on this topic?

Author: Terry Lewis

I'm a guy in his 50's who thought it might be fun to write about day to day issues - the stuff that life is made of. It's helped me think and develop some deeper perspectives. I enjoyed it so much I thought I might start posting it in a blog, and here we are! I intend to mix it up as much as I can. I am a thinking kind of guy so the majority of my posts will probably have some kernel of truth or (hopefully) wisdom nestled in there somewhere. But I also hope to have some light hearted posts as well. Too much thinking can make life pretty dull! Anyway, hope you like it.

8 thoughts on “The abuse of power”

  1. Good post, Terry. So complex. Would be good to thrash thoughts about over a philosophical drink (hot chocolate for me 😉). Somehow reminds me of that dolly with a nice face but when you turn its head, it’s ugly! No answers, just more questions.

    1. I like the sound of a deep chat around a philosophical drink! Even with an ugly subject like this. But I fear the answers could still be elusive. There seems to be plenty of material out there on the subject, but very little on how to avoid it

      1. Your last sentence in your reply to my comment, I think, sums the whole thing up. Abusers of power are the ugly side of the human dolly, as made. 😏

  2. This is a serious issue and one that it is hard to find a simple solution to. It makes me think about the culture of organisations. The default reaction when some fresh abuse of power or situation that is unpalatable to the rest of society is exposed is usually one of shock. But by its nature there is a degree of complicity in the abuse of power: it usually isn’t just one person doing one thing wrong, but several (or many) people doing something wrong and a whole host of others either complicit or complacent in regards to the conduct. It gradually becomes endemic, an aspect of the culture of the organisation that seems to spread. No answers from me, just a world-weariness in how humans have the capacity to both delight and disgust. Thank you for a thought provoking post.

    1. Thank you jml297 (by the way I’m happy to keep calling you jml297 but if you’re happy for me to know your first name I would prefer that – no problem though if you prefer it this way). Policies and procedures can only go so far, though we should never tire of trying to find foolproof processes. Human behaviour will always find a way to poke through, despite screening of potential employees, rigorous protocols, or attempts to change the culture of the insitution. I suppose the best we can hope for is to continue being aware of it and doing all we can to mitigate it.

  3. “In the end solutions must deal with the regulating of power.” Couldn’t agree more, and this is relevant in every corner of the world. Particularly regarding distribution. Christopher Hitchens said that the secret to ending poverty is the empowerment of women. To broaden his point, the secret to worldwide improvement is the empowerment of all those without power. This is a big ask, and probably too big, but depending on the timeline you’re working with, I think it’s feasible.

    1. Wow, that’s broadening the discussion by a big margin. In an ideal world we would all be empowered so it’s a great aspirational goal. In the meantime it would be great to limit the power of those who hold it and how it is used. That’s probably just as difficult but we must not ever stop trying to get a balance.

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