Commentary: Power, Corruption, DSK, and the ‘Why’ Factor

Posted on May 20, 2011


We write of the scandalous exploits of those in power with such feigned shock. Our gasps and protestations are grotesque kabuki displays, ramping up the ubiquitous for another cycle of flogging, for a feast of gossip, demonization, and show-trials. There’s little purpose in the way we cover high-level scandal save to reiterate what we know of power (that it corrupts), what we know of men (that they are weak and fallible), and what we know of life (hypocrisy and misconduct permeate it). And we make this vulgar display for no more constructive purpose than to affirm our own decency and humanity and to rest with a false sense of security, having dissected the feted corpse of one scandal, that the rest of the world is sane and orderly.

That’s all to explain that, in conversation and in writing, I’d rather not touch the Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Arnold Schwarzenegger affairs with a ten-foot pole. They’re sensational, distracting, and lacking in any constructive purpose. At best they’re an opiate and a source of self-esteem.

But in this mess I have come across one article inspired by all this salacious brouhaha that caught my eye. While most of the media is obsessed with the details of baby-mamas and premature reporting on minor details of stories that should have been in the news cycle for half a day, the folks over at Wired—reliably rational and creative thinkers—took the opportunity to write a great overarching piece getting to the roots of what happens in our brains when we take power. How does the assumption of office awaken our demons and how can we expect the powerful to reliably act differently from the normal folk?

I’ll not summarize the article, as I’d encourage you to read it, but there is a good amount of evidence here that being powerful does change the way we think, interact with others, and so on—not just those who climb to power, but those who are placed into power. It would seem that it’s not the case that megalomaniacs make it into office and then act out their dark fantasies, but that megalomania and sociopahty and the dread desires we see in the tabloids rest within all of us to some extent. (Hence the need to have these flashy media blitzes, I suppose—dirge and self-recrimination of the self projected onto others to purge and cleanse our lives through them and at their expense.)

The one problem I have with articles like this, though, is that they take you halfway to answers, and then they fail to answer the core question: why? Why does our brain react in such a way and why do we stratify power in such a way as to enable this activity when we’ve observed its cause-and-effect for generations immemorial?

It’s tempting to chalk this up to irrationality, to some aberration of nature and society, to something strange and exogenous to us. But, though human anatomy and psychology is packed with vestigial features, almost everything about us was adopted or evolved for a fairly logical purpose—even neural and social orderings and reactions. Fear of spiders, fear of the dark, forms of marriage, forms of family structure, we developed them all for valid reasons—the benefit and continuation of our species. The onus is upon us as creatures whose continuity in life depends most upon a keen awareness of our own natures, as creatures who must be the scientists of our own souls to live and live well—the onus is upon us not to stand and gawk, to take this type of article, this type of research, and forge onward: We must attempt to discern why we developed this social/neurological reaction to power and what possible adaptive benefit there could have been to our species or to individuals by becoming megalomaniacal borderline sociopathic hypocrites once in office (to greater and lesser degrees dependent on a number of external and internal variables).

It’d be easy to venture a few guesses: Stability requires some level of continuity; decision making requires some sense of self-importance as an arbitrator; order requires clear lines of power, dominance, succession. True, this doesn’t always lead to justice, but as we see time and again, when under real duress, people will favor a measure of injustice to maintain calm and order and their own livelihoods. It’s within that calm that they can work for betterment. But one can see how a degree of abstraction and inflated ego in rulers would be adaptive to the continuity and decision-making apparatuses used in creating the social orders vital to the survival of the human race and underpinning much of civilization.

The question then has to be, accepting that this reaction to power exists, that it is part of human chemistry (if not part of human nature or the soul as well), what do we care?  Has this feature of our minds and our societies become vestigial and harmless, maladaptive, or outright threatening to the continuity of our species and civilizations?

If we see it as something along the negative valence, should we rebel against it? Would we do this by creating totally egalitarian societies or by altering the way we select leaders to disfavor the majority and exalt psychological/neurochemical aberrations that don’t act like the rest of us upon gaining power? And how long would we have to select against the classical models of and reactions to power for new norms to set in, for new psychologies and neurochemistries to take their place in humanity? How much coercion and illiberality would be involved in such an effort and is it worth stomaching that just to have untainted leadership and face the questionable stability of a world without such individuals in power?

Or perhaps we ought, as I tend to believe, to work with what we have and who we are. If we answer the question of why and know the answer to the question of what, we ought to have enough information about how we act and why we do so when in power to manipulate our own self-tendencies from below. Accepting a grain of rationality and of the self in people like DSK and the Governator and myriad others, we can accept that they are rational actors, and we as aware beings can go toe-to-toe and use megalomania towards ends sympathetic to ourselves. We can achieve from our leaders ends that we would not usually expect of them, perhaps, by self-awareness of the ubiquity of such actions and the roots of them.

That is the type of conversation I would like to have, those are the types of questions I would like to ask, when we encounter these stories. But given the way we react, and the fact that I don’t yet know why we react as such, I’m not sure how I can weasel my way into the reality I want. For now I can be the change I wish to see in the world.

But how useful is that, really?

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