Abuse of Power

Abuse of Power
By William Cooney

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For some time, I have been thinking about just what it is that so readily gets my goat. After watching it afflict several people close to me, and after having experienced it myself, it occurs to me that abusing an imbalance of power in a relationship is indeed a foul act.

Is this what we today call “bullying?” Maybe that term fits as well as any. The point is someone is taking advantage of their superior station, or creating a superior station out of whole cloth, in an attempt to impose his or her will. And, in many day-to-day living circumstances, the other is often deemed to be the subordinate, the one who must defer, the one who must retreat.

Many of these superior-subordinate relationships are born of well-intentioned, even righteous, premises: teacher-student, supervisor-worker, parent-child. It is understood that one of them possesses the requisite authority, which they have hopefully earned, over the other. By virtue of experience, longevity, or advanced education, it is assumed that this relationship is proper and wholesome. But with this assumption of authority comes tremendous responsibility. Imparting one’s wisdom without condescension or belittling can sometimes be challenging. In fact, the true gift of the superior lies in cultivating in his pedagogical subjects a sense of intellectual nourishment and inquisitiveness without demanding even a suggestion of unseemly deference. This is the beginning—and essence—of true respect.

For many, however, this relationship is perverted by an outsized ego, one possessed of a malignant desire to dominate others. In Middle School this may take the form of a popular student riding roughshod over another student who is insecure or prone to intimidation; in the workplace it often takes the form of an ambitious supervisor trying to earn points with upper management; at home it sometimes takes the form of sick or immature parents subjecting their children to all manner of emotional, physical, or psychological abuse. In many churches, as we have come to learn, it often takes the form of deranged pedophiles looking to conquer their young subjects via sexual exploitation. In all of these examples, the powerful have abused their stations, their trust, and their authority.

For many of us Atheists, this abuse is all too recognizable—parents, teachers, and clergy having coordinated their assault on our minds and spirits with their relentless “holy” dogma. This is a kind of ritual abuse, one that resists forgiveness. And yet—it is forgiveness we are called to, forgiveness being an essential human attribute.

The abuse of one’s superior station is a common occurrence, and in religious circles it is the “modus operandi.” Getting children while they are young, while they do not possess powers of discernment, is critical to the success of their nefarious mission. It is at this point in time that these young subjects are all too willing to please the adult authority figures manipulating their intellects. A child wants to please his caretakers, and irresponsible, power-hungry caretakers know this. The minds of children are not theirs to do with as they please. They are their own and deserving of every opportunity to explore and nourish their uniqueness.

This freedom principle applies to everyone, even to those of us who are Atheists and have children with minds of their own. It would be wrong to blindly coerce even our own children into the ways of secularism. But hopefully, a basic introduction into the ways of logic, reason, and free inquiry will lead our children to comprehend the futility of faith-based, religious thinking.

I have had a unique and wonderful experience in this regard: I have a daughter who believes firmly in the existence of a higher intellectual power where thought precedes matter! But we could not have a better intellectual relationship. We often spar, into the wee hours, respecting and challenging each other’s views. And I would have it no other way. What we have achieved, in spite of our differences, is a precious common ground where the exchange of ideas is paramount, not some petty notion that only one of us is privy to the moral high ground. We respectfully agree to disagree about some of this “stuff.” I will not do to her what was done to me as a child. I will not impose any dogma—secular or otherwise—on her and her way of thinking. Those two wrongs would never make a right.

I am thankful to my daughter for every so often reminding me not to abuse my station in her life. Indeed, I tell myself at every turn that it is possible to learn from those who follow us into the days of life. The young often have much wisdom to offer.

There’s No Crying—or God—in Baseball

(The following originally appeared as a blog post in Living Without God—A Life of Reason in September, 2008)

There’s No Crying—or God—in Baseball
By William Cooney

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One of my favorite scenes in all of movies occurs in the 1992 film, A League of Their Own, directed by Penny Marshall. When one of the players on the all-women’s baseball team starts to cry after being excoriated for a misplay on the field, Jimmy Dugan, the gruff and disheveled manager charmingly portrayed by Tom Hanks, looks at her and incredulously exhorts, “You’re crying? Are you crying? There’s no crying in baseball!”

The Hanks character’s derision at the sight of tears on a baseball field is probably something most of us would also feel if we tried to imagine a dejected Derek Jeter sobbing uncontrollably after hitting into a double play costing his team a run at a critical moment. Manger Joe Torre would no doubt be as perplexed as the fictional Jimmy Dugan if he were to witness such an abomination. We understand baseball, and we understand crying, but we also understand that little voice inside our head that tells us the two don’t mix.

Which brings to mind the idea that maybe something else should be left out of baseball as well. In September of 2001—right after the infamous date of 9/11 to be more precise—the New York Yankees, in a proud display of patriotism, began having the song God Bless America sung during the seventh-inning stretch of all its home games at The Stadium. Its unifying and healing effect on a hurting city was plainly evident. The Irish tenor Ronan Tynan delivered on repeated occasions his masterful rendition of this anthem Kate Smith made so popular in her glory days.

But seven years later I’m left to wonder if this new tradition has already outlived its usefulness? The appeal of God Bless America is one of nostalgia. It hearkens us to a time when the country was more a country of Christians than not, when God was right up there with baseball, motherhood and apple pie as signatures of that which we held dear, and many people don’t want to see those days go away. The reality, however, is that our doctrine of religious freedom has evolved and matured. It now respects not only the multiplicity of religions practiced in America, but also respects—or at least should—the ranks of us not inclined toward religion at all.

Truthfully, my aim is in no way to see God removed from public life altogether, but rather to see the influence of organized religion removed from institutions of government. But the Yankees are not an institution of government, so why my trepidation?

This is a valid question. If the Steinbrenners (owners of the Yankees) want to have God Bless America sung during the seventh-inning stretch, my hunch is they have every right to do so. One leg I might have to stand on in favor of returning to Take Me Out To The Ball Game may lie in the fact that baseball does enjoy a special social status in America (to say nothing of a special legal status owing to its exemption from antitrust laws). Given baseball is that unique institution in America whose appeal is so broad it permeates virtually every segment of society, in the course of its business it should refrain from identifying with any constituent that does not share its broad and inclusive philosophy.

Being a Yankees fan, I watch a lot of their games on television, and whenever the seventh-inning stretch of a home game comes around these days, I find myself suddenly in need of a comfort break. This is the same person, mind you, who couldn’t tear himself away from this spectacle in the weeks immediately following 9/11. It was strange. I was comforted, not by the singing of God Bless America, but by witnessing the comfort it gave others. I was struck at just how uplifting and healing this song was to so many people, especially when the inspiring sight of a bald eagle flying through the stadium air was employed to even further incite the patriotism already swelling amidst the crowd.

It concerns me that those of us who do not believe in God might be considered less patriotic than those who do, which is, of course, a myth. We’re only asking whether or not this one swatch from the fabric of our culture is best left outside such a universally appealing phenomenon as baseball.

It would be foolhardy to dismiss the enormous impact God, faith and religion have had on our culture. But for the sake of their very own survival, it is probably better that ostentatious displays of God, faith and religion be restricted in certain cultural arenas.

In the meantime, we don’t need to repeat the spectacle of Yankees manager Billy Martin going to pieces after being fired for the fourth time. It was not a pretty sight.

Some things are best left out of baseball. ▪

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From Living Without God—A Life of Reason; self-published, 2010