Culture and Power

April 20, 2021

I recently read a blog written by a friend and colleague, Jed Daly, a 25 year CEO and Vistage Chair.  You can find it on LinkedIn here:

In it he discusses the abuse of power that has been so prominent, and now so public, in our culture, as evidenced in the Harvey Weinstein story, and all the similar stories of sexual harassment and abuse of power that have subsequently been made public.

These stories have involved men in position of power, using that power in a coercive manner against women, who happen to be in a position of lesser power, for their personal sexual gratification.  While media and others often focus on these stories as being about sex, Jed, very correctly identifies these stories as issues of power. He also very aptly uses the phrase, “You get what you tolerate.”

So, what is it that we are tolerating as a culture and society?  Whether it is Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and the list goes on, these men were allowed to continue to sexually harass/abuse women through their abuse of power for years.  Why?  Because as a culture and society we have tolerated this behavior and made it acceptable.  How? By allowing these men to avoid and/or escape any real consequences for their behavior through “forever Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)” and settlement payments.  

As a culture and society, we have tolerated these behaviors by created institutions, the legal system that allows people in positions of power to take advantage of people who are positions with less power, and use the instruments of these institutions (NDAs and settlement payments) to remain in power, and continue their behavior.

Want evidence?  While Weinstein’s total settlement payments may never be known because of NDAs, he has been accused of sexually harassing 84 women.  Here is a complete list:

We tolerated the behavior as a culture and society, and the behavior continued.

Roger Ailes, former CEO of Fox News, who was responsible for creating the culture of harassment in that organization resigned in July, 2016, after an internal investigation at Fox.  Since his resignation, Fox has paid out $45 million in settlements.

We tolerated the behavior as a culture and society, and the behavior continued.

Bill O’Reilly, who was a top personality at Fox News for two decades, was repeatedly accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual behavior – abuse of power.  During his time at Fox he was accused by 6 women requiring settlement payouts totaling $50 million. Prior to being pushed out at Fox because advertisers were abandoning his show, Fox had renewed his contract for $100 million over 4 years.

We tolerated the behavior as a culture and society and the behavior continued.

And this abuse of power is not just limited to the entertainment and news industries. Last year, Congresswoman Jackie Speier disclosed that the House of Representatives had paid more than $17 million to settle 260 claims of harassment over the past twenty years.  This figure includes sexual offenses as well as harassment based on race, age, or other factors.

We tolerate the behavior as a culture and society, and the behavior continues.

So what can we do, as a culture and society?

As a culture and society, we must reestablish the behavioral norm of “Noblesse Oblige.”  This is originally a French concept which dictates that people in a position of power and authority have a responsibility to behave in ways that are ethical, honorable, and socially responsible.  Society must, as it has only begun to do now, socially remove from power those who violate the behavioral norm of noblesse oblige.

As with marriage equality, once the social norms have changed, the legal system must adapt to reflect the social norm.  Our culture and our society must create a legal system that does not allow those that abuse power to remain in power or conceal their behavior through NDAs and settlement payments.  

In 2004, Karl Rove used “gay marriage” as a wedge issue to drive out the conservative vote.  In 2015, it became legal. The legal system followed the change in social norms. I would suggest that the changes we are witnessing in social norms regarding abuse of power will happen much more quickly.

Let’s cultivate our culture – together!

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