Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Those words from British politician Lord Acton were expressed in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, but resonate loudly with the revelations about the conduct of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
As allegations of appalling behaviour, including rape, pour in, it certainly appears that Weinstein occupied a place of power within the film industry that he believed made him unassailable and sadly, for many years, that seems to be the case. Dreadful stories of bullying and assault are emerging on a daily basis, the dam of fear having been broken by brave women who found the courage to speak out.
We saw something similar when cracks appeared in the wall of silence that protected Jimmy Savile for so long, and the truth of his appalling predatory abuse poured through. In the case of Weinstein, of course, criminal investigations are still underway, but the sheer volume of complaints are certainly pointing in the same direction.
What seems to be undeniable, even at this stage in the proceedings, is that Weinstein wielded huge power in the film world – able to make or break careers on a whim and knowing how to intimidate and control those around him for his own benefit. This is illustrative of how power corrupts behaviour.
Power, it can be argued, is a neutral force that can be used for good or ill. Governments have power to exercise legislation to look after the welfare of the people but can also become sidetracked by political ideology to the detriment of the weak. Those who are wealthy have the resources to help those in need but can also become obsessed with profit. And any individual with power over another person can use that power positively for the benefit of that person, or can misuse use it for his/her own benefit.
Despite its essential neutrality, power has the potential to tap into the darkest part of our human nature, maybe even to our evolutionary instincts, thereby skewing our moral compass. That’s why power must be treated with respect and not used as a commodity for selfish ends.
In the Christian tradition, the challenge to such misuse of power comes through an example which turns the whole notion of power on its head. When Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (John 13.1-17), power becomes identified with service and humility and distanced from the notion of domination and control.
This is the paradox of power – when used for selfish ends it is destructive and immoral but when used wisely it is transformative and life-giving to both those who exercise power and to those who receive its benefits. As the Harvey Weinstein scandal continues to unfold we would do well not be become so distracted by that singular abuse of power that our indignation blinds us to the potential danger of misusing power in our own life.
Few of us will have the money and influence that enabled Weinstein to wield power so abusively over those around him, but many of us have some degree of power. This may be due to our employment status, our social standing, our political or religious affiliation, our place within the family, or in other areas of life. We must take care to use that power wisely and well, with compassion for those who experience its effects.
Lord Action said: ‘Power tends to corrupt’ . . . but it doesn’t have to. All of us have a choice.
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