The ugly side of power was on full display in 2018. In fact, it was a banner year for the misuse and abuse of power.
We witnessed a parade of powerful men resign or being fired over sexual abuse and misconduct. We saw the popularity of the “strong man autocrat” continue to rise, along with the consolidation of power in one party or one person. We witnessed the murder and imprisonment of journalists and an assault against the media and free speech.
We watched while our beloved social media platforms were used against us to spread disinformation, influence elections, and promote hate speech. We saw once-admired technology companies hide data breaches from the public and share our personal data without our knowledge.
And we witnessed, time and time again, institutions like USA Gymnastics, the Catholic Church, the CBS Corporation Board of Directors circle their wagons, denying, hiding, and destroying evidence to protect themselves and discredit their accusers.
Yes, it was a depressing year for the use of power. But let’s redeem it. Let’s harvest the learning from what we witnessed. What lessons are to be learned from these abuses and excesses of power? Here are my three takeaways from 2018, a year of power misuse.
Be a Better Bystander
Almost every scandal in 2018 had this in common: a profound lack of oversight, or oversight that wascomplicit, corrupt, or just plain absent. When the news broke about sexual harassment, all eyes turned to the (often male) perpetrator. But in every instance, the board of directors, managing partners, or group of executives protected, enabled, and permitted the abuse.
Bad behavior doesn’t happen in a silo. It flourishes when it’s not called out. It is emboldened when people look the other way. And it proliferates when people make excuses or justify it.
Enabling happens for many reasons. Sometimes it is motivated by greed, but it can also be the result of people not knowing how to speak up, feeling awkward raising an uncomfortable topic, or fearing for their own job if they blow the whistle. In group settings, we are stopped from acting by the Bystander Effect: that when others are around we’re less likely to act because we assume that others will. Finally, in most cases, people just don’t feel they have enough power to do anything about the abuse and misuse of power that they see.
The fact is, one person can do a lot by speaking up. Susan Fowler’s now famous blog post, Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber, turned the tide on sexual harassment in Silicon Valley, and Tarana Burke’s hashtag #MeToo created a global movement.
What’s more, speaking isn’t only whistle-blowing; it can be simply raising a topic. Studies have shown that just talking about sexual harassment, naming it as an important topic, can help reduce the occurrence of sexual harassment. When you speak about something, you signal to others that it’s important.
We may feel helpless to can change a culture, but remember, we are the culture. We support the existing culture by going along with things; we can change the culture whenever we choose to stop being complicit.
So, in 2019, let’s be better bystanders. We aren’t superheroes. We can’t single-handedly stop the misuse of power, but we can speak up. We can reward others who do so by listening, acknowledging their voice, and taking complaints seriously. We can raise issues ourselves and talk about things that trouble us.
If you are just one person, or afraid of retribution, gather allies. And if you have power—by virtue of your role, your popularity, or your thought leadership—use your power to raise the topic and start the conversation. Do something at the level you are at. Action always makes a difference.
Tolerance Has a Tipping Point
Complicity implies that these abuses of power were open secrets. Many in the entertainment and media industries knew about Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, Bill O’Reilly, and Roger Ailes. The leadership of USA Gymnastics knew that Larry Nassar, the team doctor, had been sexually assaulting athletes for decades. Wrestlers at Ohio State complained about the sexual abuse of the team doctor, Richard Strauss, as far back as 1978. Reports of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the United States date back to the 1960s.
What was new in 2018 was not that these behaviors were uncovered. They were known about for a long time. What was new in 2018 is that we reached a tipping point in our tolerance.
What 2018 showed is that bad behavior is tied to social tolerance. Many bad behaviors—harassment bullying, discrimination—are illegal, yet tolerated. A lot of power misuse happens under the pretext that “everyone does it.” “Everyone” rounds up billable hours. “Every” company has its end of year party at a strip club. “Everyone” makes racist jokes. “Everyone” rates the looks of their female co-workers.
Everyone does something until suddenly, they don’t. Suddenly, society reacts. Suddenly, we’ve reached a tipping point and it’s no longer tolerated—like smoking in public places, hitting children in school, or discriminating on the basis of skin color or religion. This is why our first lesson from 2018—speaking up—is so important. It starts to build a slow momentum toward intolerance.
So, in 2019 let’s be emboldened by having witnessed a tipping point in tolerance. Let’s not take refuge under the “everyone does it” banner. Let’s instead work toward the next tipping point. What will it be? Bullying and intimidation? Gun violence? Discrimination?
Transparency is the New Black
Forced arbitration bit the dust in 2018.Microsoft announced that it will no longer require women to settle sexual harassment cases privately, becoming one of the first major companies to do so. Uber and Lyft followed suit, and in November, after Google employees staged a global walkout to protest the company’s mishandling of sexual misconduct and harassment claims, they too announced the end to forced arbitration, even though it took a New York Times article revealing that Andy Rubin, the designer of Android mobile software, received a $90 million severance package after resigning for sexual misconduct, for Google to act.
In 2018, people demanded more transparency. Not only did forced arbitration take a hit, but so did social media platforms for their handling of user data. As a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the growing anger at personal data breaches, and other misuses, Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress about how Facebook used personal data, who had access to it, and how they allowed their platform to be used to influence the 2016 elections.
Abuse of power flourishes where transparency is absent. Power is not just what someone commits, but what someone omits, what is kept out of view, and made inaccessible. Power grows through access to information, and the denying of access to others. When it’s hard to find your privacy settings, when important information on your credit card bill is buried in the fine print, when you don’t know what HR does with your complaint about sexual harassment, or when the truth is distorted, power is being used against you.
The only way for power to be used well is for it be used by consent of the governed. That is the fundamental difference between autocracy and democracy. But, you can only truly consent when you know the truth and when there is transparency. You cannot consent to what you do not know. In the words of historian Yuval Noah Harari,
“Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate ways. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.”
If 2018 taught us anything about power, it’s that truth and transparency matter. So, in the wake of these small victories for transparency in 2018, let’s demand more transparency in 2019.
Let’s make it even easier to know who pays for the political ads, who funds the candidates, and who stands to gain from a bill. Let’s publish the names of the Board of Directors who fail to take action against a CEO who committed sexual abuse. Let’s make every company publish its diversity statistics, and what it’s doing to end harassment and discrimination, Let’s have companies make available their process for handling complaints.
So while 2018 proved a very awful year of power misuse, there were some gains upon which to build. My hope is that we may redeem 2018 by putting its lessons to work for a better 2019.
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