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?