Fridays with Fred: The Abuse Of Power
Have you been wronged by someone? Do certain memories cause emotional pangs? Have you been hurt by the words or deeds of another? Unfortunately, few people are privileged enough to answer those questions in the negative. And for Friedrich Nietzsche this would come as no surprise, since he believed that hurting others is how we gauge and express our power. In fact, in something resembling a catechism in his Anti-Christ, Nietzsche asks: “What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself.” In other words, not only is inflicting harm inevitable, it is desirable and deeply human—buried under centuries of weak ethics. Nietzsche is not widely off the mark in his observations. So many of us have been victims, wounded by those with power.
What often makes these experiences all the harder is that the perpetrators often appear indifferent to the damage and hurt they have caused. This leaves many victims uncertain of their own experiences, wondering if they exaggerated the situation and actions of their perpetrator(s). This is an unfortunate reality, from domestic to spiritual abuse. Even though Nietzsche doesn’t prescribe actions for victims—neither will I—he does provide some explanation as to how perpetrators so easily forget the damage they’ve done. The philosophical term is perspectivism. But we won’t bother ourselves with technicalities, since Nietzsche doesn’t do so himself. But in Aphorisms On Love And Hate, Nietzsche presents what he labels the common misunderstanding between sufferer and perpetrator, between victim and abuser.
As always, he is worth quoting at length, “When a rich man takes a possession from a poor man (for example, when a prince robs a plebeian of his sweetheart), the poor man misunderstands. He thinks that the rich many must be a villain to take from him the little he has. But the rich man does not feel the value of a particular possession so deeply because he is accustomed to having many. So he cannot put himself in the place of the poor man, and he is by no means doing as great an injustice as the poor man believes. Each has a false idea of the other.”
If my reader will allow for a further illustration, we’ve all watched enough American movies to recognise this scene: some geeky, bespectacled guy musters up the courage to ask the gorgeous head cheerleader to prom. Everyone stands around awkwardly, anticipating the inevitable. Then the girl laughs harmlessly and responds like everyone expects her to: ‘No, not with you.’ In the greater scheme of things, this is a simple if not predictable letdown. But for the geek it is immense, an unpalatable humiliation that rocks the foundations of his insecure self. This is the misunderstanding that Nietzsche describes, where the scale of an event is determined by perspective. The only problem is that this isn’t Hollywood or high school; it’s life. People do get hurt.
Nietzsche continues, “The injustice of the mighty, which enrages us most in history, is by no means as great as it appears. Simply the inherited feeling of being a higher being, with higher pretensions, makes one rather cold, and leaves the conscience at peace.” As with his comments on evaluating morality in history, Nietzsche’s deferral to the “mighty” (or powerful) makes modern readers uneasy. But Nietzsche goes on, “Indeed, none of us feels anything like injustice when there is a great difference between ourselves and some other being, and we kill a gnat, for example, without any twinge of conscience.”
I think that Nietzsche is about half right here. The powerful tend to be aloof and disengaged from the lowly—from real life. Their “higher pretensions” give way to a coldness, even the inability to properly recognise their devastating impact on others. But where Nietzsche gets it wrong is in his absolute perspectivism. The “injustice of the mighty” may be overblown in the sight of victims, by those damaged through the abuse of power or unchecked privilege. True, “we kill a gnat…without any twinge of conscience.” But only because we understand the fundamental difference between a gnat and a human. The person who mercilessly crushes other people without a twinge of conscience is a monster.
For all his eccentricities, Nietzsche is consistent. Thus he continues, “It is not sign of wickedness in Xerxes…when he takes a son from his father and has him cut to pieces, because the father had expressed an anxious and doubtful distrust of their entire campaign. In this case the individual man is eliminated like an unpleasant insect; he stands too low to be allowed to keep on arousing bothersome feelings in a world ruler.” Again, Nietzsche is mostly right. Xerxes is not overcome by guilt at murdering a son before his own father’s eyes. Yet for the father such an event would make an agonising and indelible mark. The father will forever remember that moment, which Xerxes will soon forget. Power is a frighteningly effective means of silencing the conscience, especially when it is exercised by “a higher being,” from a distance.
Though he continues in his refusal to moralise hurt, Nietzsche does offer one final profound insight on this subject. He writes, “The idea of pain is not the same as the suffering of it…cause and effect are experienced in quite different categories of thought and feeling; nevertheless, it is automatically assumed that the perpetrator and suffered think and feel the same, and the guilt of the one is therefore measured by the pain of the other.” Sadly, this is typically the case. Our world could testify endlessly to the utter breakdown between the experience of victims and perpetrators, between sufferers and their abusers.
What should we do with Nietzsche’s observations? I will suggest two things in conclusion, addressing victims first and then those in power or leadership. Firstly, uncertainty over the magnitude of an abusive situation is commonplace. Especially when perpetrators show little or no remorse. But, as Nietzsche helps us to see, this is only because the exercise of power over another is in many ways abstract. We should not let such eventualities doubt our experiences or silence speaking against such abuses. Secondly, to those in power or leadership, there may very well be proverbial bodies in your wake. That your conscience is undisturbed does not mean you have not wounded and hurt others—it could simply indicate your calloused, cold, and aloof exercise of power along with your inability to experience or enter into the suffering of the weak.