As a retired English professor, I’ve been struck by how some new crisis, social or personal, causes us to learn a hitherto unknown technical term. When my late father was diagnosed with it, for example, I became acquainted with the disease multiple myeloma. Now even little kids speak routinely about the pandemic, a term only trained medical personnel had spoken of prior to March 2020. Yet there is one pandemic, arguably the world’s oldest, that is totally under the radar, possibly because it is so taken for granted. I mean the pandemic of the misuses and abuses of power. From verbal and physical abuse at home to the boss from hell at work to authoritarian governments and ultimately war, this deadly disease has been with us since the first human society. You don’t need to be a Sunday-school summa cum laude graduate to remember that Cain slew his brother Abel in one of the earliest chapters of Genesis. And, as Sonny and Cher would say, the beat goes on.
While the ages have not produced a foolproof vaccine for this still-deadly virus, good parenting, positive role models, outstanding teachers, healthy religious communities, effective correctional institutions (as in Norway), and just plain luck can shield one from becoming a victim or a spreader of this too-often fatal virus. There are also other less-known helps. One I immediately think of is Dr. Cedar Barstow’s The Right Use of Power: The Heart of Ethics (2005, 2015). A related book is Living in the Power Zone: How Right Use of Power Can Transform Your Relationships (2013), of which I am the co-author with Dr. Barstow. In addition, there are training programs based on the principles and techniques described in both these books. Still, to the extent that a “vaccine” is available to minimize misuses and abuses of power, these books and the related workshops may come close to filling the bill.
To be sure, individuals who have psycho- or sociopathic personality disorders will never opt to read these books or take the corresponding courses, let alone put their principles and techniques into practice. Still, many ordinary people and their organizations could profit from doing so. Relationships, productivity at work, even governance will all benefit. Learning to listen actively, apologize effectively, and find ways out of the “shame dungeon,” among other new behaviors, will enable anyone to use their personal, role, status, collective, and systemic power with greater wisdom and skill. And after millennia of misuses and abuses of power around the globe, humankind may finally overcome or at least minimize the impact of the world’s oldest pandemic.