I agree: there is no bigger test of integrity, moral courage, principles, ethics or values than giving a man – or woman – power and seeing what they do with it. The controversial sport of bullfighting is an excellent place to start when it comes to discussing power, so let’s meet the first ever professional female bullfighter: the American, Patricia McCormick. Her debut battle in 1951 in Juárez, Mexico ended with the bull twice trampling over her before she plunged the estoque (a specialised sword) between its shoulders. After the kill, streaked in blood and gore, she knelt and stroked its huge head. One of Patricia’s rival male Matadors told Sports Illustrated in 1963, ‘Had she not been born a woman she might have been better than any of us.’¹ Her battle for gender equality continues unabated to the present day. Tener poder sobre algn is Spanish for “to have power over”. What I find so hypocritical about bullfighting is that women still desperately want to become Matadors to prove themselves equals, to rebalance unfair male-dominated power, yet their job involves the routine killing of innocent animals in painful ways purely for entertainment: the very definition of misuse of power.
How a person attains power is complex; it can be by democratic election, marrying someone wealthy or influential, inheriting a title, killing a rival or even writing an influential book. What I find fascinating is that, in order for power to work, the people being controlled must accept (or be coerced into accepting) that authority. How much is too much, what is moral or immoral – these are different questions. Kenneth Boulding, a peace researcher and economist invented the “stick, carrot and hug” metaphor. The stick and the carrot are familiar to many of us – the first is power through coercive force; using physical strength or threat of violence, and the second is power through enticement; compliance through exchange and reward, real or insinuated – but the third is called “collaborative power” and is very different to the other two². This third option removes the need for competition and is based more on values like loyalty, legitimacy, teamwork, proactivity and persuasion. Hierarchy, dominance, control and authority are less important in the process of building collaborative power.
As a child growing up, I experienced power in a number of different ways. At primary school, a girl in my class called Jenny* often bullied me. I suffered months of hair-pulling, name-calling and nasty note-writing. She even got impressionable peers to do her dirty work for her. Even though I was young, I sensed that she felt good having power over me. But the story didn’t end there. Years later, when she’d been expelled from secondary school and I’d moved on to college, I heard the news that she’d suffered regular physical punishment by her older brothers, spurred on by an abusive father who used his impressionable sons to do his dirty work for him. Suddenly, I felt compassion for Jenny because her need for power – and her abuse of it when she gained it – was a reaction to being bullied at home by people who should have known better. I look back now and realise that Jenny inadvertently taught me a lot about the use and abuse of power. That’s not to say we should excuse anyone the terrible things they do because of their upbringing.
Ever heard the phrase “the powers that be”? Well, it’s Biblical in origin and alludes to authorities, groups or individuals exercising complete control and having the power to make decisions affecting large numbers of people. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were responsible, through authoritarian control, fear-mongering and brainwashing, for the brutal deaths of tens of millions of innocent men, women and children. Mao Tse-tung once said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” I love the quote, but I don’t agree with it. Political power is born out of the need for violence inside the person wielding the gun and a hatred of people who are a little different. Donald Trump is walking that same route all over again, blinded by the addictive taste of power, threatening violence and racial segregation at every juncture, working his ‘supporters’ up into a frenzy of blame and retribution. I say ‘supporters’ because as far as I can see that the people who voted for him were also blinded by power – just the promise of it – and in many cases are vulnerable people themselves, embittered by poverty, desperate for financial freedom, something a rich President knows to offer like a carrot on a stick.
Henry Kissinger’s phrase – “power is the great aphrodisiac” – is both insightful and frightening. It demonstrates the way some people thrive on superiority, get a kick out of assuming control over others. People with lots of power tend to fall into a very defined category: they are often (although not always, as we’ll later see)0people with0skewed moral compasses and a self-centred, “money talks” approach to life. Blend a lack of empathy with incredible skills of persuasion, like those of Hitler and Trump, both expert speakers with the ability to convince millions to adopt their inhumane viewpoints, and you have a dangerous blend. At a global level, terrible atrocities, heinous human rights abuses and appalling racial acts are committed in the name of freedom, but are actually based on power. You can hear it in Trump’s voice: to him power is a drug, an all- consuming energy that fills him with purpose. Without power – and the money and attention it brings – he would feel like a shell, worth as little as the people he is so desperate to control. In my view, it is terrible that leaders can still be elected to positions of incredible power when their values clearly point to personal gain in the form of wealth, status, control, dominance, pleasure, greed and self-protection.
President Lincoln used his powers of influence for the greater good – to convince European importers to set up a controversial blockade to prevent the shipping of slave-picked cotton. Although this caused hardship amongst the Lancashire mill workers, who had no raw material to work with and therefore no wages to feed their families, they saw the importance of what the President was attempting to do and supported the embargo. In 1863, Lincoln wrote to the working men of Manchester – my own home city – to thank them for their brave, anti-slavery stance. It was an historic act of solidarity and, in 1865, just months before Lincoln’s assassination, Congress famously abolished slavery³. So, a man with great power led those with very little of it, but together, under his intelligent command, they used their combined influence to combat social injustice. This legendary power struggle proved several important principles: that power is indelibly linked to leadership; that good can come from it if used wisely, and that collaboration is more powerful than strict rules set by a single authority figure. Put simply, power without morally sound leadership is like night without day. It’s an uncomfortable fact that “more black men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole, right now, than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began”⁴ – but they are not involved in more crimes than white people. At least the same number of white people use and sell drugs in the US as black people. So, not only is this a disgraceful abuse of legal system authority, it’s also a clear indicator of the levels of institutional racism in our so-called liberal modern world – one Lincoln did not anticipate and a situation by which I’m sure he would be devastated. It seems to me that there is a fine line between power and injustice.
In my view, power is an invisible drug. It can cure ills and reduce pain, but it can become addictive, causing its abuser to crave it more than anything else and when that balance is lost – when power becomes the core desire and the values of compassion, freedom, truth and love are put second – the worst can happen. To some, power is the freedom to create change for the better; to others, it is the freedom to lie without consequence. The only time I’ve ever wanted power is in my writing, to turn personal adversity into a story that communicates my values. I never want to wield the kind of power that can make or break another person, that can shoot a gun through someone else’s hands, that can make a white man believe a person with darker skin is of lower status than himself.* Names have been changed.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/14/us/patricia-mccormick-bullfighter- who-defied-gender- roles-dies-at-83.html
Kenneth Boulding, Three Faces of Power. (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1989)
https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/from-the-archive-blog/2013/feb/ 04/lincoln-oscars- manchester-cotton-abraham