Monday, October 5, 2020

Reflections on "power" in the west...sources, definitions and implications

 In this space, much time has been dedicated to the issue of the means, the manner and the consequences of how power is deployed whether that is power inside a family, a neighbourhood, a school, a church, a military or quasi-military battalion or a corporation. It is a primary contention here that how power is designed, organized and deployed is not only determinative of how the ‘organization’ functions, but also is indicative of the kind of thought processes, myths, cultural archetypes and conventional cultural modalities apply at the time of the power deployment.

Let’s anatomize, again, the deep foundations of “power” in the western culture, especially in North America, starting with the basics of how history is comprised of recorded actions, recorded and performed primarily by men. Given that hubris underlies much of western history, and given than men, universally and almost exclusively, regard their/our “superiority” in primarily, if not exclusively, in physical terms, it is not rocket science to remind ourselves of just how deeply embedded in our collective unconscious is the notion that big, strong, fast and agile are all adjectives attributable to masculine heroes in history. Of course, there are the requisite antitheses of the hero’s tragic flaw, and the glaring ironic examples of quixotic and excessive failures. These ‘dark’ moments, however, show in greater relief the “light” and sensational accomplishments of others, lauded for their heroism.

The cultural concept of hero is inextricably embedded in the notion of one or more deities.  Man creates God, or God creates man?…whichever your mind holds most credible, (or for some perhaps both, in the most intimate and inextricable endless mutual relationship), the question of absolute power, as embodied in a deity, has served, and continues to serve as a ‘crown’ on the top of the cultural totem pole that signifies western culture. Aspiring to the quality, traits, attitudes, beliefs and ethics of a deity (as we envision, speculate, and even pontificate upon this complexity), continues to both inspire and frustrate those of us inhabiting this planet.

And undoubtedly, there is a paradoxical as well as highly complex relationship between aspiring to the “good” and potentially becoming alienated from both self and the rest of the world. Losing identity, in a kind of surrender to something larger than the self even if that ‘something’ is deemed to be holy, sacred and honourable, is a danger for all people whose intensity, focus, drive, ambition and myopia is not safeguarded by and through detailed, intimate and confrontative associations, collegiality and community. However, such linkages depend on a shared commitment to open acknowledgement of the most difficult truths. Too  often, at least in my experience, the issue of ‘truth-telling’ has been sacrificed to the more valued ideal of ‘political correctness’ ‘social affability’ or even personal aggrandizement and career building.

While this sacrifice is not exclusive to men, we men are highly vulnerable to its bright sheen, in our enculturation to succeed, to compete, to rise in the eyes of vaunted supervisors, and to reach some summit of achievement in which we and our kin can and will take pride. Some of the specific sabotages that too often emerge in such a cultural mythology include elevating size, strength, speed, numerical size, fiscal size and strength, academic degrees, portfolio burnishment,c and even political and career titles. All of these symbols, in western culture, impede the full and authentic development of men in particular, but, by extension, their families who are themselves embedded in this myths, and their shared institutions and organizations. Others will argue, with some relevance and validity, that “growth” in numbers, and size and dimension, are legitimate measures of the relative success of leadership, and the beliefs that underpin that leadership.

Capitalism not only thrives on this mythology, it actually depends on its concrete embedding in the educational, ecclesial, management and even social systems theory as applied to both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. And, as a natural and inevitable follow-up to these myths, all processes, strategies, tactics and the structural foundations of such processes must contribute to the larger goal of bigger, better, faster, more facile, more universal and more dominant.

Although this anecdote might be misinterpreted as bigoted, it is not intended as such. The comment refers to the process, and not to the dogma of its speaker. A Roman Catholic priest once spoke to a clergy of a protestant church and asked, “How many kids are there in your church education program?” And when the answer, “About a dozen,” came back, he retorted, “You can talk to me when you reach 400, where mine is.”

The seductive appearance, and for him the reality of “power in numbers” (extended obviously to dollars, and parishioners and all things empirical) cannot and must not be laid exclusively at the foot of that priest. It lies at the front door, and in the archives and in the boardrooms, and in the strategy sessions of virtually all of the organizations operating in North America. And the corollaries that keep it front and centre among all executives, of both genders, include how to balance budgets, how to position new hires, how to design and execute all communications, both interior and exterior, how to celebrate the successes of the organization and how to indelibly imprint this period of the ‘history’ of the institution into the doctoral theses of the graduates pursuing their degrees.

These, of course, are all masculine-intuited, incarnated, and embodied myths. And one of the other less tasteful corollaries about the need to maintain and sustain these “appearances” is that whatever does not “accord” with the veracity and validity and viability of these myths must be ignored, denied, disavowed and even disallowed.

Now, if Edmund Burke’s aphorism “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” has any merit and bearing on this discussion, it is especially applicable to the history of the Christian church, beginning with the church in Rome. Set aside, for a few moments, the dogmatic beliefs of the church, and join me in a reflection on a piece of cultural history, originating from the pen and mind and research of the Head of Harvard University’s Department of Evolutionary Biology, Joseph Henrich. His new book, entitled, “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous,” is reviewed by Judith Shulevitz, herself the author of “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of A Different Order of Time”. Her review is included in the latest edition of The Atlantic.

Henrich posits that the natural human inclination is to kinship, and early western history illustrates how people clustered in their communities, close to their families. Broad and generally accepted marriages between and among family members, including cousins, were relatively frequent, until late ‘antiquity’. Here is a quote from Shulevitz’s review, reporting on Henrich’s thesis:

As of late antiquity, Europeans still lived in tribes, like most of the rest of the world. But the (Catholic) Church dismantled these kin-based societies with what Henrich calls its ‘Marriage and Family Program,’ or MFP. The MFP was really an anti-marriage and anti-family program…..Forced to find Christian partners, Christians left their communities, Christianity’s insistence on monogamy broke extended households into nuclear families. The Church uprooted horizontal, relationship identity, replacing it with a vertical identify oriented toward the institution itself. The Church was stern about its marital policies. Violations were punished by with-holding Communion, excommunicating, and denying inheritances to offspring who could not be deemed ‘illegitimate’. Formerly, property almost always went to family members. The idea now took hold that it could go elsewhere. At the same time, the Church urged the wealthy to ensure their place in heaven by bequeathing their money to the poor—that is, to the Church, benefactor to the needy. In so doing, ‘the Church’s MFP was both taking out its main rival for people’s loyalty and creating a revenue stream,’ Henrich writes. The Church, thus entitled, spread across the globe. Judith Shulevitz, “Why is the West So Powerful—And so Peculiar?” in The Atlantic, p 93-4)

As the most powerful institution operating as a mouthpiece for God, the Catholic Church, obviously had immense influence over the people in its charge. Not only could and did the church authorities impose definitions of ethic, moral and spiritual standards (in this case of appropriate family life), they enforced their own standards by with-holding what to many would have been, and continue for many today, those ‘gifts of grace’ which the church asserts accompany compliance and a secure place in eternity.

Whoever speaks, in any manner, as a surrogate/representative/prophet/shaman/clergy for God, whether that be an institutional or personal voice, there is a high degree of perceived authenticity, veracity, validity and even reverence for those utterances among many people. The implicit and attendant iron filings of meanings that accompany those magnet words, phrases, concepts and commands are showered over and among the many pew-dwellers, coffer-donors, and heaven-seekers among ordinary people. Applied to an audience, many of whom were not yet literate, offered an even more fertile ground in which to plant those seeds of conformity, financial stability and world evangelism.

Henrich does not address the question, “Why did the church adopt (the MFP)?” and states as his bottom line, “the MFP evolved and spread because it ‘worked’.” (op. cit. p. 93) However, speculation about the church’s motives, from the perspective of the twenty-first century, while not pretending to be exhaustive, has to expose the bare minimum of institutional needs, aspirations, perceptions and beliefs.

Henrich’s work, and Shulevitz’s review includes these words:

Around 597 A.D. Pope Gregory I dispatched an expedition to England to convert the Anglo-Saxon kind of Kent and his subjects. The leader of the mission, a monk named Augustine, had orders to shoehorn the new Christians into Church-sanctioned marriages. That meant quashing pagan practices such a polygamy, arranged marriages (Christian matrimony was notionally consensual, hence the formula ‘I do’), and above all, marriages between relatives, which the Church was redefining as incest. Augustine wasn’t sure who counted as a relative, so he wrote to Rome for clarification. A second cousin? A third cousin? Could a man marry his widowed stepmother?

He could not. Pope Gregory wrote back to rule out stepmothers and other close kin not related by blood—another example was brothers’ widows….Not until 1983 did Pope John Paul II allow second cousins to wed. (The Atlantic, op. cit. p. 92)

Originating in a common belief and perception among church elders, the power of the Church stemmed from “upon this rock I will build my church” biblically recorded as an intention to the apostle Peter. Declaring what is/was/will be such matters as incest, polygamy, monogamy, and the inevitable measures to assure compliance is a meagre extension of that original Godly direction/intention/documentation.

Initially seated in one man, this power, the pontificate, has continued for these two millenia, not only in fact, but also in symbol, for many, if not all, of the institutions, trade associations, craft guilds, city councils, and national governments. “Dominant male figures” is the cultural archetype that is continually replicated at the most visceral level, as if it has proven its value, over the centuries. However, it has also demonstrated considerable, and some argue, lethal and persistent dangers.

For one, the ‘top-man’ model implicitly argues for a ‘final decision’ by a single man. It clearly champions the too-often repeated slogan among ambitious capitalists, “don’t speculate, just react” as a modality of action, while clearly opposed to and rejecting of reflection, consultation, deliberation, investigation and protracting the process of decision making, especially on highly important matters.

The DOW index, geared to data each nano-second, the instant other-side-of-the-coin to “instant gratification”…instant rebuttal of anything that smacks of threat, danger or damage to the public image (of individuals, organizations, sales, investments, profits and “success” so measured). The genuflecting gyrations of a COVID-infected president, fawning in a hermetically-sealed Suburban, while subjecting secret-service-men, and their families to his starved and humiliated ego (starved and humiliated by his own actions, perceptions and beliefs) is only one of millions of “instant reactions” to the obsessive-compulsive need for instant gratification.

Just as the church could and did announce, and then promulgate its insidious and nefarious plot on the family, so too can and do millions of mostly male executives announce, and then promulgate and then enforce and reinforce their “power” over whomever happens to be “under” their charge.

And when even the doctors fall sway to the ego-demands of an infected and infectious president, to “inflate his spirits” and “prevent depression” (as is and has been the dependent cases of millions of heaven-aspiring church believers throughout history), then we must all reflect on our own subservience to rules, laws, processes and personnel whose primary purpose is to serve the interests of those promulgating those edicts, and not the wider, and more applicable and more ethical interests of the whole community.

The church does not shoulder the whole responsibility for how we conceive and operate power among our society; yet, it must account for much of our western cultural mythology, as we strive to deconstruct and tear down those walls behind which we have been cowering.

No comments:

Post a Comment