Privilege and the use and abuse of power

 

Privilege and the use and abuse of power

Author: 

Gavin Ashenden

We are wading through a culture of cover-ups. There are claims of corruption and greed in the Grenfell Tower tragedy; the now historic refusal of the bishop of Winchester to publish the Steele report, and this week six Church of England bishops accused of ignoring abuse claims; and last but not least, the Jersey care home crisis.

People rightly long for and call for the truth. But like anything precious, the truth needs to be handled with care.

Truth can be something of a double-edged sword. Many of us want privacy for ourselves and public truth for others.

Rightly, nothing else rouses us to easy anger as much as a cover-up. The truth is what makes responsible people accountable, and it’s the issue of accountability that mattes.

The anger we feel about a cover up is energised by this failure of accountability. It is not just an abuse of truth, but an abuse of power as well. It’s this double whammy of twisted truth and abused power that makes us both frightened and cross. I’m sure the fear energisers the anger.

Power is also double-edged like truth. There is an attractive aspect to power. When things have gone wrong, when the wounded are abused, the poor are ignored and the weak are crushed, the power to protect and put things right is what stands between hope and despair, justice and injustice.

But as we know only too well from the cover-ups,  this power can be misused to hide the truth about the abuses that have taken place. We get angry because we know It should have been used to help not to hide. It is entirely right to get angry about this double failure of power – failure to put right and misuse to cover up.

Context it everything.  We need to know when to use them and when to complain about their misuse.

One new arena in which the abuse of power has been claimed is that of ‘white privilege’. What I have found most difficult about this new public angst is what seems to me to be a rather narrow minded and dogmatic failure to tell the different between the two kinds of power.

The progressive and racist fury about ‘white privilege’ which is sweeping our universities and parts of our media mistakes the nature of power. It assumes that all power is being used abusively and collectively.

The MP David Lammy slipped too easily into this assumption of abuse when he insisted that the enquiry of the Grenfell tower disaster had to be led by someone who wasn’t white and wasn’t upper class (whatever that means nowadays.) Behind this kind of politically correct reflex accusation lies just the same kind of easy accusatory assumption that fuels all racism and all bigotry; the assumption that someone is bad or incompetent because of their collective associations.

If ever I am asked to check my privilege (which is a kind of inverted racism) I want to reply – “what I am willing to check is my responsibility.” In other words, in the face of the uninformed assumption that I am an abuser of whatever power I have, I want to insist that I am determined to use whatever gifts, or privileges I may have as a responsibility.

Power is doubled edged. It can be twisted into abuse – or it can be harnessed to rescue.

Long before I became a Christian I came across a saying of Jesus that haunted me. “From those to whom much is given, much will be expected.” (Luke 12.48)

I wrote it out on an index card and put it on the centre of my bookshelves to think about.  I was only a pretty average teenager, but I knew that I had a roof over my head, a few friends, health, and a good education. I knew I had been given a lot. And I was beginning to suspect that a lot was going to be asked of me, or ought to be asked of me.

“Privilege” though, assumes an abuse of power. There are times when privilege is the right term to use, and peopled need to be held to account for it. But to apply it to a whole race (whites) is racist. To apply it to a whole class is the politics of envy. Like a surgeon, we need to apply these diagnoses specifically and only when we know enough facts. But in the public space of progressive politics, accusations are thrown around like a drunk throwing punches at imaginary attackers.

The Social Justice movement acts too often like a public demagogue, shouting accusations targeting one group after another in a kind of racist or collectivist blame game.

Power is not always about privilege. It can and should be about the potential for good.

We need to tell the difference between responsibility and power. It’s an aspect of telling the truth.

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