The President of the United States is not someone I know personally and I suspect that most people who may read this do not know him personally either. However I wonder what we would say to him if we had just five minutes in his company?
Would we make awkward small talk, trying not to notice his nesting hair or unfeasibly long tie? Or would we launch into a polemical and impassioned talk about climate change hoping to see a scintilla of self-doubt in his beady little eyes? Or would we chastise him for being another entitled power-drunk serial groper of women?
I am curious about what I might do, because I know I am not very brave even hypothetically.
I am not sure I would say much. I would want to be polite because in my world to be rude is to be easily dismissed and I would want to be reasonable, even though I know he wouldn’t really listen anyway. It all feels rather hopeless; a chance to influence and confront, but with no sense of how to say anything that might make a modicum of difference.
I suspect I would leave his company feeling I had underplayed a weak hand and regretting the missed opportunity to knock seven bells out of him. You see the truth is that speaking truth to power is not easy. Faced with a power we know we cannot overcome, we may not speak our truth at all.
What would be the utter pointlessness of using up our breath and perhaps feeling even weaker still for then being dismissed?
If I could not confront him, I hope to goodness I would not say anything ingratiating or ridiculous. I would hate to think I might say, for example, “a pleasure to meet you sir” but you know in my mind’s eye I can feel those words bubble-up like a little bit sick at the catch in my throat. So now his power can make me hate myself too.
I think he is a monster, but I am the one diminished and behaving hatefully. Corrupted power is so terribly diminishing.
Why this meander around a conversation that will never happen? Because when men like Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein or Bill O’Reilly or Jimmy Savile behave appallingly, devastatingly, criminally it is not just their victims who are diminished by their behaviour; we are all diminished because their power makes mute cowards of all of us too.
To anyone who says “why did they not speak out?” the answer is largely because our predictable silence would drown their words before they could be heard.
It is also why those rare souls who summon the courage and the stamina to speak out are heroes beyond my imagining. To face down such overbearing power anticipating the debilitating blind-eye silence of all of us must be such a dark, lonely and terrifying leap of faith.
We may never speak to the President of the United States, but every day we transact with powerful people. The responsibility we must try to hold close is not to give them their power without contracting their accountability too. We must not over-rely on speaking truth to power because for too many, by then, it is too late.
We must try to ensure that those who are given power receive it conditionally and that they wear their accountability transparently for all of us to see. Our silence in these circumstances is not complicit in their misdeeds, but quiet acquiescence in their good works.
Take care. Paul