reflections on the vexations of power

Status-anxiety at work

I remember this interview with a (brilliant) violinist on the radio : asked why he had chosen the relative anonymity of playing in a quartet instead of pursuing a more grandiose solo-career, he answered “I guess I prefer to battle for a collective cause, if it were only about my own career, I’d feel awkward, I would lack the motivation “.   

What a contrast with the attachment to personal status and the self-aggrandizing that seem to be the hallmark of successful men in the private sector.  Well, maybe it’s my education or maybe it’s my twisted character (which bizarrely, really against all proof, keeps seeing self-doubt as a virtue) , but in any case, it’s with unceasing astonishment (and abhorrence)  that I watch the displays of this sense of entitlement of the powerful.   

Jamais de ma vie” a highly ranking director spat out in disgust when the possibility was uttered of him taking public transport in order to avoid the 2 hours of traffic jam he had to endure in his classy car.  And suggesting to a CEO that he could take the metro (just 4 stops, especially during rush hour arguably faster and more reliable than a taxi, but indeed involving mixing with the hoi polloi), was rewarded with a withering stare, as if the mere suggestion was a mark of disrespect. 

I’ve also watched with astonishment how ruthless these men of power can be, how quick to launch reprisals against those they suspect of disrespect. Are they so insecure?  Is it because all pretence to power inevitably implies a deep-seated fear of being challenged?  Is that why power by its very nature demands and expects submissiveness? 

 In any case, the anger of those who presume their authority has been slighted, often seems disproportionate to the cause. Their vindictiveness does not seem a rational reaction to, for instance, a threat of the well-functioning of the company.  It’s really about a primitive, instinctive reaction to defend their own challenged authority by violence. 

In a contemporary work-context, the violence of course does not become physical –  it’s mostly limited to firing – a very effective method to remove alleged unruly elements (and to instil fear-induced respect in those that remain).

Looking at the wider world

In the wider world abuse of power can become much uglier.
This blog does not often comment on current affairs (too much injustice and suffering out there anyway, and far too many comments swirling about already), but it’s just that I happened  to watch this American police video of how a minor traffic incident resulted into the arrest and ultimately the death of a young black woman. 

What a nightmare. You’re stopped for failing to signal a lane change, so the police officer explains. While waiting for the officer to write out the ticket in his car, you light a cigarette, perhaps tapping the wheel with irritation, perhaps shaking your head. The officer comes back and asks what’s wrong. Since you’re being asked, you somewhat curtly answer you’re indeed a bit annoyed because in fact you switched lanes precisely to make way for the police car.  This reply apparently incenses the police officer who orders you to extinguish your cigarette. But hey, you know your rights, this is your car.  How unfair, all this. The situation then escalates to the point that the officer physically attempts to yank you out of your car and threatens to “light you up” with a taser gun.  “Wow” you say, and you swiftly get out of your car, complaining loudly. You’re being arrested. “Arrested? Arrested for what???” you yell in disbelief. Etc.Etc. 

 I have no idea what happened afterwards in that prison.  But how can this be considered a lawful arrest  in the first place? In what way did the smoking pose a threat? In what way is curtly expressing (when asked) an understandable annoyance, a threat? 
Frankly, what else can one see in this but a tragic escalation triggered by a man who felt his authority was being challenged, a white man who was deeply disturbed by the lack of submissiveness displayed by a young black woman.   


Anonymous said...

Etc. Etc. Inderdaad. Al die gruwel gebeurt zo snel. En nu is die vrouw er niet meer.
Zoals een Japanse me ooit vertelde, macht is niet interessant. Natuurlijk leiderschap dan weer wel.Vooral omdat mensen met natuurlijk leiderschap vaak geen macht willen.

Swann Ffflaneur said...

"macht is niet interessant"
Dat is een indringende observatie! En inderdaad, pure macht kan op geweld of bedrog berusten, en wordt vaak misbruikt om het eigenbelang te dienen. Bij natuurlijk leiderschap daarentegen, gaat het om de persoon zelf die respect afdwingt. En zo'n persoon is dan ook veel minder lichtgeraakt - ziet niet in elke vorm van kritiek of weerstand een bedreiging.