How do we assess people in power?

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Are people in power human and flawed, or should they be held to a higher standard?

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or so the saying goes. But are people in power simply human and inherently flawed, or should they be held to a higher standard than the rest of us?

I began thinking about this question when I came across the essay ‘Annihilation of Caste,’ written by Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution and a member of India’s Untouchable caste. The polemic addresses India’s problematic relationship with its Untouchable caste citizens and likens it to ideas surrounding race in America, stressing that equality cannot be met in India through the practising of Hinduism. He states:

“Anyone who relies on an attempt to turn the members of the caste Hindus into better men by improving their personal character is, in my judgement, wasting his energy and hugging an illusion. Can personal character make the maker of armaments a good man? … If it cannot, how can you accept a personal character to make a man loaded with the consciousness of caste a good man?…To a slave, his master may be better or worse. But there cannot be a good master”

Though Ambedkar was writing about Indian politics, his words beg a bigger question: can those with societal power be made virtuous, or does virtue evade them by default of their position? In other words, is it folly to look to those in power to dismantle structures that have placed them there — and, indeed, can they even be good people?

Ambedkar’s speech is, in essence, an explanation of his conversion to Buddhism to rid himself of the sting of Untouchability that had clouded his life. In India, the Untouchable caste has been discriminated against for centuries. They are, forbidden from entering temples, homes, and religious ceremonies for fear of “polluting” these environments. They are, denied access to education, basic sanitation, and even water and shelter. Untouchables have been treated literally as dirt, with some forced to carry spittoons around their necks to prevent their saliva from falling to the ground and polluting the earth, and others compelled to tie brooms around their waists to sweep the ground as they walk. On the other hand those whom Ambedkar refers to as ‘caste Hindus’ — Hindus in the recognized Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishyas, and Shudras — not only been treated with dignity, but have prevailed on their ability to subjugate the Untouchable caste — the advancement and progress of caste Hindus has depended upon the oppression of a whole class of people.

The argument that the oppressed cannot appeal to the goodwill of those in power is not unfamiliar to anti-racist, anti-colonial politics. In much the same manner as Malcolm X (who, disillusioned with Christianity, turned to Islam), Ambedkar argues that the religion of the oppressor cannot be used to overthrow the oppressor, as the rules stated in the religion can only reinforce the oppressor’s position. Both freedom fighters, if one can place Ambedkar in such a category, suggest that if people are merely compelled to do what is in their own interest, a push is required to force them in the other direction — what changes would they make if the platform on which they stood was ripped from beneath them? How would they adapt to a system that placed them on a lowered stage, obliging them to fight for the recognition they took for granted?

This question is pertinent in today’s political arena, with discussions around white privilege standing front and center in the Black Lives Matter movement. Around the world, people are talking about systemic racism and its unjust effects on Black people: their higher incarceration rates, lower incomes, and disproportionate death rates. Suggestions on how to demolish racism have been wide ranging. For Malcolm X, who took inspiration from pioneering anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon, a solution was violence. According to his early views, the oppressor could not fathom the daily indignity experienced by the subjugated, so needed to be put into a position in which they felt the very same terror that characterised every Black person’s life. Black communities needed to assert their authority through self-defense, which required armory and weapons. For Malcolm X, violence was physical. For Fanon, violence was a combination of metaphor and physical attack — to embrace Blackness was to inflict violence upon the oppressive system that placed the white man on top.

So accordingly, does that mean that Black people must remove all white people from positions of power? That in order to annihilate whiteness, we must annihilate white people? Such a stance is not only difficult to justify, but is also impractical. It also raises the question — could a new ruler simply transition from oppressed to oppressor? How would we judge this new ruler, or would the world simply progress through a series of upheavals and revolutions?

What makes a virtuous leader?

Identifying a leader as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is often a rather subjective process and hinges on where on the political spectrum you lie — not to mention that our perspectives of right and wrong shift with time. Venerated figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela are now being scrutinized under new lenses of feminist and critical race theory. King’s extramarital sexual liaisons and his apathetic response to the sexual abuse endured by Black women have recently demanded a review of his saintly reputation. Likewise, Gandhi’s outright racist views of Black people have further brought into question his position as an anti-colonialist — is he really a model for Black leaders? Both repositionings have been a result of persistent movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, which fight for the underprivileged and wronged. As such, these movements have been admirable and produced enormous shifts in conversations surrounding consent, sexism, and systemic racism. But is there a line? And if so, where do we draw it?

The question of what makes a leader virtuous is significant in today’s fractious political climate when voting publics active on social media expect immediate responses to often complex issues. The difficulty with such discussions is not so much the ambiguity of the question, but rather the notion that acknowledging the positive and negative aspects of a leader’s legacy is unproductive. Nuance is often disregarded in favor of simplistic judgment of a person’s actions: contemporary “cancel culture” has been accused of this phenomenon. The result of social media’s word limit is that it diminishes information to a few hundred characters, forcing us to lose subtlety in debate and allowing irrational arguments to take hold. That means that positions which hold no factual validity are able to gain a platform — such as the belief that the world is flat or that vaccinations cause autism.

That isn’t to say that social media movements have not forced well-overdue perspective shifts (as I have mentioned above), nor, indeed, that some figures who have been dethroned have not deserved public indignation — clear examples include Cecil Rhodes, architect of apartheid in South Africa, and Edward Colston, an English trader who facilitated the enslavement of nearly 100,000 people in the 17th century. It also takes uncompromising radicals to shift the way we see the world. But in suggesting that there is a simple answer to the question of whether people in power can be inherently good or evil, we risk creating a more divisive society that refuses to acknowledge any uncertainty or appreciate different viewpoints altogether.

Critics of the “cancel culture” or contemporary social media movements argue that public condemnation occurs too swiftly and without much thought. They contend that the demand for perfection risks genuine dialogue and learning. I cringe to think of the attitudes I held or the casual homophobia I displayed as a teenager, but through conversation and education, I would like to believe that my perspectives have vastly altered. Should leaders be allowed the same lapse in judgement as private citizens, or are we right to demand a higher standard from them, to hold them to greater account?

Of course, a leader’s actions are far more consequential than mine. However, freedom to be wrong and make amendments is what fosters leadership skills. Not only is it infeasible to insist that people’s viewpoints remain fixed throughout their lives, such a stance hinders growth and cripples curiosity. So how do we judge a leader’s legacy? And does there come a point where we campaign for their removal because change does not occur quickly enough?

Proponents of social media, on the other hand, claim that, for once, decisions about right and wrong are being made by ordinary citizens rather than elite groups. They assert that naming a social movement “cancel culture” implies a resistance to change and a refusal to accept that intolerance has always been an aspect of (American) culture. They also argue that people in power would remain corrupt without public outcry. The ousting of sexual predator, Harvey Weinstein, is a leading example of social media protest.

So while it is important to always hold leaders to account, the more pertinent question remains, how do we judge? And who should be the judge?

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