Perception, Trust & Empathy: How Absolute Power Corrupts the Powerful.

The idea of power is intriguing. It has the potential to be intoxicating and energizing, but for those dealt the hand of power, it also tends to elevate them into a very rarified atmosphere of social exclusivity. First Class travel and VIP access, modern society holds exclusivity up as a privilege for us all to aim for, but think for a moment about the closely related word ‘exclusion.’

Along with the weighty responsibility of power, a person may begin to feel lonely and isolated from what they perceive as a ‘normal social life.’ With the acquisition of power or wealth (or more likely a combination of both), an individual may feel that they no longer have friends because of an innate fear that all social interactions, to some extent, have become transactional. This can prompt a person in a position of power to constantly question what another individual or group wants from them in any given social situation. And the belief that ‘everybody just wants a piece of me,’ may trigger a desire for even more exclusivity. That step, prompted by the paranoiac feeling that social interactions have become transactional, can have a deeply detrimental impact on a person’s ability to trust others, or feel any sense of empathy for those over whom they exercise their power. Considered too, that persons who exercise power for long periods get used to having their every whim catered to without question, and one can quickly see how perspective and perception of the world can become gravely distorted.

Take for instance, the example of President Suharto. When Indonesia was severely impacted by the 1997–1998 Asian Financial Crisis, the country’s currency lost more than 80% of its value. The currency tanked and the stakes for ordinary Indonesian were incredibly high. Unemployment skyrocketed and poverty became much more widespread. Long accused of corruption and abuse of power, those accusations became much more acute for President Suharto, his grown-up sons and daughters, and Indonesia’s elite.

Another illustration of the perils created by the absolute power that Suharto wielded during his 30-year reign was the forced repression of Chinese Indonesians who were denied equal opportunities and rights.

Even Indonesia’s non-Javanese citizens suffered under the iron-fist of his Java-centric rule. The oil-rich Banda Aceh region in the north of Java’s neighboring island of Sumatra had the temerity to voice a desire for increased autonomy from Jakarta’s rule. The Acehnese wanted more control over the wealth generated by the black gold found off the coast of their province. It was the same for the Timorese at the other (eastern) end of Indonesia who fought for Independence from Indonesia. Both issues generated bloodshed and pain for the respective communities.

A novel by the author Steven Clark, called “The Noah Principle,” is a unique work of historical fiction that vividly illustrates how absolute power distorts perceptions of reality.

Like the immune system that keeps us safe from physical illness and disease, feelings of empathy can protect us from making bad decisions. Add to that, the paranoia that power can evoke, and an individual’s survival instinct can be fundamentally manipulated.

The phrase, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is attributed to Lord Acton, a nineteenth century British politician, and historian. It implies that when someone has total control over a circumstance or a group of people, they are more likely to become corrupted by it and take actions that are harmful rather than beneficial. This is due to the fact that absolute power frequently results in a lack of accountability, which can prompt people to act without thinking about, or fully comprehending, the consequences of their choices. They become depleted of empathy and other social and emotional skills that are needed to gain trust and exercise power wisely and morally.

It might be fitting here to add a much lesser-known quote by Lord Acton. “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority.”

A particularly prominent way that absolute power can corrupt the mind is by instilling a belief that one is permitted to do whatever one wants. All too often people in authority believe they are entitled to things, like respect, submission, and even adoration. They believe they are exempt from the law or that the rules do not apply to them. Additionally, they may find it challenging to relate to those who do not enjoy the same privileges because of their heightened sense of self.

Another way that absolute power can skew perceptions of reality is through the cultivation of fear. People may be less likely to speak out or challenge those in positions of authority when they are concerned about the consequences of doing so. This can lead to an environment in which power abuses go unchecked, and those who are suffering may believe they have no alternative course of action. In this way, total dominance can produce a bubble of delusion where those in charge are protected from the repercussions of their decisions.

People in positions of prominence or power might become desensitized to empathy, causing others to suffer. This is because they do not go through the same struggles and setbacks as the people they rule. Due to their lack of empathy, they may find it challenging to comprehend how their actions affect other people and may even disregard the suffering of those who do not hold positions of authority. They might become so preoccupied with preserving their rank of absolute power and status that they lose sight of the requirements and welfare of those they should be assisting.

The Suharto regime’s persecution and discrimination of Chinese Indonesians is a glaring illustration of the perils of absolute power. Suharto’s New Order regime instituted policies that stifled Chinese culture and language. Chinese Indonesians were denied equal opportunities and rights. In 1966, Cabinet Presidium Decision 127 even instructed Chinese Indonesians to adopt Indonesian-sounding names, erasing their cultural identity. The government also banned the use of the Chinese language in public spaces, including schools and businesses, which made it difficult for Chinese Indonesians to preserve their cultural heritage and pass it down to future generations. In addition to this, they were blamed for economic problems and sporadically subjected to violence and intimidation which manifested a climate of fear and mistrust, making it difficult for Chinese Indonesians to fully participate in Indonesian society.

The oppression and discrimination to which Chinese Indonesians were subjected had a long-lasting effect on their community. It made them feel different and marginalized, making it challenging to express themselves openly. Ever since Suharto’s resignation in 1998, there has been a slow but notable shift in attitudes as the contributions of Chinese Indonesians to Indonesian society have been more openly recognized. Since 1998, the nation has undergone what it calls a Reformasi period, a term that needs no translation. During the quarter century since then, Indonesia has become a more open and vibrant democracy that finally allows Chinese Indonesians to celebrate their culture. There has also been an increase in the number of Chinese Indonesians who have succeeded in various spheres, including business, politics, and the arts, all of which further helped them to dispel the prejudices and stereotypes that they endured under Suharto’s rule.

Nevertheless, despite these encouraging advancements, Chinese Indonesians continue to experience difficulties and discrimination in some facets of Indonesian society. They still face obstacles to equal opportunity and are underrepresented in some professions. And sadly, sporadic acts of violence are still directed against them, making the need for ongoing initiatives to increase their inclusion within Indonesian society as important as ever. Progress must be diligently protected, because the same reforms that blossomed in the slipstream of Suharto’s overthrow, making Indonesia the world’s third-largest democracy, have also ushered in the potential emergence of more hardline, intolerant and non-inclusive organizations.

Indonesia has achieved a lot but it must not rest on its fragile laurels. It is crucial therefore to understand the perils of absolute power and work to dismantle hierarchies of power that oppress certain groups and foster a climate of fear and oppression. Only then can we truly create societies free from the power abuses that have afflicted humankind throughout history. For more information and insight into how power can impact the mental and moral health of leaders, purchase your copy of The Noah Principle from Amazon. 

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