Abuse of Power

Abuse of Power
By William Cooney


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.