Tyrants use fear to control subjects. Thus, we understand how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is elected by 100% of his constituency. To abstain or cast any other vote would be suicide. But since most do not live under such oppression we may wonder how individuals cave to lower-level tyranny here in democracies or locations where we have choice about who we vote for and where we live and work. Why do organizations allow dictatorial leadership? Can’t we all just walk away?
Thanks to one of my students, Dan McCurdy, I pass on this recording from This American Life about a “small-time” tyrant in an upstate New York school district. The story is about the dictatorial dealings of a facilities manager of the school district–not of a principal, teacher, or even a school board member.
How is it possible for one with so little power (so we would normally assume) could wield such power over employees? How could he set off bombs, fire individuals, vandalize homes, threaten others with harm, simulate sex, and more without getting fired?
How? It is simple. He was,
surrounded above and below, by people who looked the other way. (near the end of the above recording)
Why do we look the other way?
We look away for all sorts of reasons. Consider a few of them:
- Fear that no one will come to our defense if we stand up to abuses (which of course will be true if no one else sees or responds)
- Need to protect what we have (e.g., position, income, career, reputation, etc.)
- Cover up own failings (e.g., if he goes down…I will go down)
- Perceive benefits outweigh consequences (i.e., in this case, school board received lowered energy costs, fewer worker complaints)
- The people who complain of injustice matter little to us
- Believe psychological abuse does not really happen
In Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer, he describes the most powerful of dictators are ones who instill fear when present and yet also instill fear of what life might be when that person is gone.
What to do?
When we hear of crazy stories such as the one in the recording, we shake our head and imagine ourselves standing up to power, standing up for the little guy. Too often our imagination never see the light of day. So, how can we keep ourselves sensitized to injustice and ready to act for the good of the weakest community member?
- Identify our current fears. Who has power over us? What does love and grace look like when responding to this power?
- Identify places we have chosen safety over truth. Who can help us rectify this problem?
- Identify those places where we have power over others. Who do we have power over? How do we wield it? Who has God-given us the responsibility to protect? Where do we need to give power back (when taken or used inappropriately)?
- Fix eyes on how Jesus uses power. How does he wield it with those who have the most power? The least power?
- Identify habits of cover-up. Where, for reasons of shame, guilt, or comfort do we cover up and present self as someone we are not?