(Andrew Feldmár sent me this in response to my post QA 25. (Oct 10) How to raise better politicians. It’s too long for a Comment, so I’ve posted it here instead. Good stuff. — Helen. 18 Oct 2010)
On Power and Corruption
“The temptation to use the powers invested in me for my personal gain or pleasure can be overwhelming. Corruption and depravity are flowers of evil growing out of the soil of neglect.”
When, from infancy to late teens, we grow up under pressure, there is hardly any time for our own unique, true self to unfold; we are forced to react and become false, either by conforming or by rebelling. We are creatures of habit, pressure becomes familiar, so that later, when we have left home and we could actually find an environment that would let us be and allow us to be authentic and legitimate, we seek out environments (such as the university, the church, the army or the police, just to mention a few) that demand conformity and continue to pressure us according to impersonal blueprints of received notions of goodness.
D. W. Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst, studied the difficult, time-consuming process of finding our way from habitual false reactions to heartfelt genuine responses. Vipassana meditation, a practice of mindfulness in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, said to have been the Buddha’s favorite meditation, is a long and slow process that aims to free its practitioners from habit patterns which make us like sleepwalkers (mechanical, predictable robots) and prepare us for awakening to our freedom, compassion and spontaneous unpredictability: two paths, from East and West, towards the alleviation of the most prevailing malaise or dis-ease or un-ease that has ever plagued humanity.
The false self is for survival, the true self is for living. In survival mode, we have no time, energy or inclination to worry about our true desires. If I am hanging over an abyss, holding on to a rock with bleeding fingertips, it’s not likely that I’ll know or care what my preferences would be in art, architecture, sex, food or drink. Some of us live in survival mode all our lives, either because of necessity or by misguided choice.
The pressure that twists so many of us into a false self is the pressure to be good. This goodness is defined as obedience, submission to a blueprint of acceptable, appropriate actions; it is a theatrical script for an actor to perform. Imagine the plight of a child born to a man who played father and to a woman who played mother, and who played husband and wife for each other. The man, like any actor, may not be interested in the woman, the actress, who plays his wife. The show must go on; lines have to be said; scenes must be played. Anxiety is stage fright: the roles must be convincing. Behind the role of parent, the struggling actor mustn’t be seen. Depression is despair, hopelessness: there is no way to get off stage, these people are stuck in a scenario, a 24-hour soap, nobody is interested in each other’s real, off-stage personality, life rushes by, and it doesn’t feel like their own life, they feel stuck in a life or even in the life, more and more suspecting that they’ll never have time to live their lives before they die.
I remember, many years ago, reading Richard E. Johnson’s Existential Man and feeling heartened by his words at a time when the psychology I was studying at the university was soulless, false, dogmatic and reductionist. He wrote
I know that the assumption of habitual behavior breaks down under stress. Nothing repeats itself as a function of the past. There is no repetition. Each moment is a critical challenge. I meet that challenge by intentional choice and voluntary action or I cease to exist. Each moment demands of me the labor of my own will. Habitual repetition is the illusion. Freedom is the existential reality… To act is not to be. The distinction between the feigned and the real is categorical. To act Socrates is not to be Socrates. To act suicidal is not to be suicidal. The cup was fatal only to Socrates. The actor will play the part many times again. So to act free is not to be free… The audience may fail to distinguish Socrates from an impersonator of Socrates. Observation is fallible. Socrates and the impersonator would know.
The hazard of acting good in public is that, when we are off-stage, we are tempted to be bad in private, in secret. Priests have sex with children, politicians frequent prostitutes, therapists sleep with their patients, police officers abuse their power. H. O. Mowrer worked with ministers who all suffered from depression. Mowrer noticed that, in their efforts to show their congregations their exemplary, god-fearing, perfect goodness, they tended to hide their imperfections, shortcomings and occasional badness. He also noticed that we all tend to think that who we are really is not revealed by our appearance, but by what we hide, our secrets. The ministers’ despair, then, was due to their belief that at core they were miserable sinners. Mowrer asked them to reveal to their congregation what up until then they were hiding, and keep to themselves, as a secret, any generous or courageous acts, successes, etc. In three months’ time the ministers’ mood lifted, and they found that their congregations did not ostracize them. In fact they felt better liked and more worthy.
Aristotle invented ethics, not as an exhortation to be good, but rather as the practical science of how to behave, how to be in the world in such a way that we could be happy. If we treated others badly, or allowed others to treat us badly, we couldn’t possibly find happiness, he thought.
The word “corruption” is from the Latin corrumpere, to break entirely, hence to break up morally. The dictionary says, “impairment of integrity, virtue or moral principle: depravity.”
In a dream, while wandering about in a forest, I arrived at a clearing. At its center, I saw the entire Solar System in miniature, levitating in mid-air, with the sun at the core and each planet moving spectacularly in its orbit. As I was marveling, a voice that identified itself as God spoke to me and entrusted me with keeping an eye on the Solar System, while He was going to be busy with something else. My task was simply to attend steadfastly, without allowing my eyes to stray. I did all right for some time, but I got distracted by a seductive, voluptuous naked woman, who seemed to have appeared from nowhere. By the time I turned my attention back to my task, the entire System had gone out of kilter: Earth had collided with Mars, Venus with Saturn, there was smoke, fire, and mayhem. God returned and called me to account: “What have you done?” I felt immediately and excruciatingly ashamed, and I knew that I was guilty of neglect.
The dictionary defines “neglect” as “giving insufficient attention to something that has a claim to one’s attention; to leave undone or unattended to, esp. through carelessness.” Gregory Bateson used to talk of a small, medieval devil called Accidie, who would sit on your left shoulder and whisper in your ear, “It’s not worth doing, don’t bother!” In theology, this would be the devil of Sloth, Spiritual Torpor and Apathy. It feeds – and feeds on – a deep sense of utter meaninglessness and hopelessness. This particular devil seems to have been very successful in promoting its gospel over the last fifty years or more. The etymology of Accidie indicates that this devil certainly has to do with neglect (a: no + kedos: care).
Neglect, then, has to do with ignoring, perhaps forgetting. I propose that neglect is the source of suffering because it is a breach of Telos. David Bakan defined telos as “that which determines form,” an organizing principle. He showed that disease was the result of the decentralization of the higher telos of the organism, and its loss of dominance over the many lower tele. If an organ, such as my liver, would stop serving the organism that is I, my totality, and started to function independently, I’d be in trouble. If some cells in my liver stopped functioning for the good of the organ and started to grow and multiply for their own gain and glory, my liver, and therefore I, would be in trouble. The telos of an orchestra requires all the players to surrender their individual talents, preferences, and idiosyncrasies for the glory of the sound produced together. The conductor, telos personified, no matter how loving, no matter how democratic, would have to fire, for the sake of the common good, the musician who insisted on playing off key. Telic decentralization implies a reduction in communication between nesting levels of hierarchical structures. Michael Polanyi illustrates such nesting when he writes
All living functions rely on the laws of inanimate nature in controlling the boundary conditions left open by these laws; the vegetative functions sustaining life at its lowest levels, leave open, both in plants and animals, the possibilities of growth and leave animals open also to the possibilities of muscular action; the principles governing muscular action leave open their integration to innate patterns of behavior; such patterns are open in their turn to be shaped by intelligence, and the working of intelligence can be made to serve the still higher principles of man’s responsible choices.
Neglect, I claim, is always a breach of Telos. How would I know if I were negligent? Bakan suggests an answer: “the psychic manifestation of telic disorganization is pain.” Feelings of shame and guilt are varieties of psychic pain that could alert us to, and urge us to rectify, neglect. I sense, however, that more and more of us pride ourselves on our shamelessness. The more in sin we are, the less aware of being in sin we are.
In my dream, God represents the highest Telos, the organizing principle of all organizing principles. I ignored it for a moment and gave in to a desire coming from much lower in the hierarchy of desires that can command our attention. Burning shame was the result. Kierkegaard is clear and precise when he writes, “As soon as the individual would assert himself in his particularity over against the universal he sins, and only by recognizing this can he again reconcile himself with the universal.” Sin is ignorance; sin is neglect. Kierkegaard shows what happens when two very high tele compete and simultaneously demand contradictory action: a double bind extraordinaire! He writes, “The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he would murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he would sacrifice Isaac; but precisely in this contradiction consists the dread which can well make a man sleepless, and yet Abraham is not what he is without his dread.”
If my task is to police, my allegiance is to serving and protecting. The moment I assert an individual desire of my own for gain or pleasure, I sin against my universal mandate, which is signaled by my uniform. The temptation to use the powers invested in me for my personal gain or pleasure can be overwhelming. Corruption and depravity are flowers of evil growing out of the soil of neglect.
The temptation to be off the mark, to be negligent, is ever-present, even if I’m fully into serving and protecting. If, however, during my training, I learned to feign goodwill and now I am acting, not being, a police officer, then I will, given half a chance, turn other people’s trust in me to advantage. I will do as I wish, as long as I think I can get away with it.
People who have been tortured, raped, robbed or hurt by other people have often talked to me about the look in the eyes of the perpetrator. The look says, with glee, “I can do with you as I like. Nobody can stop me. I can get away with it, and I am getting off on my impact on you!” How cut off, how lonely, how angry must a man be – how spiritually deaf must he be – to assert himself so shamelessly behind society’s back. In a sense, the corrupt one is always playing with the possibility of being caught, of being dishonored, shamed and punished. In a sense, using the power invested in oneself for selfish purposes is suicidal, or at least self-destructive. For someone stuck on stage in an endless engagement in the theater of law enforcement, to gamble with the possibility of getting caught could provide a ray of hope: the encounter with the real, however shameful, blows him out of the sea of pretence. At such moments a fork in the road presents itself. In his freedom, he can choose an authentic life at last. He can decide to be candid and spontaneous or he can return to a differently scripted, false goodness. Neither the Buddha nor Christ can be said to have been good. They were loving, and that’s different.
Thinking about my dream, I wondered why a beneficent and omniscient divinity would set me up to destroy His creation. Temptation is ever-present in every situation that arouses multiple desires from different levels of the hierarchies that govern our existence. When my son could only crawl, he was fascinated by the electric sockets sprinkled all over our house. His curiosity drove him again and again to try to stick his little finger into a socket. Each time, I would pick him up and re-orient him, saying, “No, no, no! Don’t do that, it’ll hurt you!” The next day I observed him crawling towards a socket, pausing, shaking his head and saying out loud to himself, “No, no, no!” Then he changed direction and occupied himself with some other curiosity. He had internalized my warnings and the internalized voice of my desire for his safety won out over his desire to explore the unknown. Had he persisted, he would have experienced pain.
People in positions of power – fathers, mothers, clergy, police, doctors, etc. – need to be educated about the temptations inherent in power over another human life. There is truth in the adage, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We need to see it, talk about it, wrestle with it. When most of the world has lost trust and respect in the president of the United States, when behind the façade of a god-fearing Christian there operates a conscienceless bully, we need to become acquainted with the vicissitudes of self, false and true, both. Our skill to know where a voice is coming from, internally or externally, to know what to believe, what to mistrust, what to obey, what to resist – in short, our skill to navigate – needs constant improvement.