"Speak truth to power!" "Power is corrupt!" These popular mantras have fueled rhetorical wars among the classes for generations and are still voiced by many activists today. The disdain for power long predates the Marxists and the counter-culture activists; it enters the discourse of the early Rabbis in the Mishnah: "Love work, hate holding power, and do not seek to become intimate with the authorities," (Pirke Avot 1:10).
The Rabbis urge us to resist attaining power or being influenced by the powerful not only for ethical concerns, but also for concern of one’s own success, with the words: "Woe to authority, for it buries those who hold it; there is not a single prophet who did not outlive four kings."
In traditional understanding, corrupt abusers of authority are people who consider themselves above the law; kings and statesmen who make and enforce laws while acting as they please to the detriment of the people.
In 21st-Century democratic America, however, we must rethink our image of the corruption of power. In our times, though there are fewer all-powerful statesmen, there are many powerful interest groups, socioeconomic groups, and CEOs. How can social activists speak confidently today about the law and rules when they live in a system fundamentally different from those in previous eras?
Perhaps psychology research can inform our relationship to power with a finer distinction.
In a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Columbia University psychologists have shown that the mantra "power is corrupt" is backwards; more often, the less powerful are more likely to consider themselves "above the law" than the powerful. These psychologists asked how power influences moral thinking and demonstrated, among other things, that "the powerful are more inclined to stick to the rules – irrespective of whether this has positive or negative effects – while the powerless are more inclined to make exceptions." Significant implications about the correlation between wealth and values can be inferred from these studies. The rich think in the language of duties, whereas the poor think more in the utilitarian paradigm of weighing consequences and rejecting absolute rights and wrongs.
Perhaps this finding can be explained by the fact that the powerful create and control the rules of our society, or perhaps it is because the powerful are not scrutinized as closely nor caught breaking the rules as often as those without power. Perhaps the rules in place only work for the privileged. Whatever the reasons for this observed phenomenon, understanding that one’s relative level of power affects one’s moral thinking is highly illuminating.
Does this psychological insight undermine the importance of respecting and following rules? It seems that many social activists today think they do. If it is true that societal rules are not issued or received equally, but rather depend on the social contexts of the rule-makers and the rule-receivers, how are we as Americans and as Jews – the carriers of two revered systems of law – to respond?
It is important to emphasize that the findings from moral psychology studies do not suggest that rules are innately corrupt; indeed, both the Jewish and the modern Western traditions, believe that corruption occurs in a world devoid of law. In the Bible, this void leads to the horrific crimes of murder, rape, and oppressive regimes at the end of the Book of Judges, a time when "there was no king in Israel," the Hobbesian state of "war of all against all."
The insights from psychology, rather, suggest that we must restructure the way rules are formed. When created in a purely top-down, vertical fashion, rules favor the powerful and the privileged, because laws favor the lawmaker. Therefore, instead of leaving power solely in the hands of the privileged, we should encourage the potential accumulation of power for all. As Moses, the paradigm of humble leadership in the Torah, argued: "Would that all people of God be prophets [and leaders]!" This can happen on two fronts.
Those at the pinnacle of Jewish hierarchies need to share leadership, and those lacking power must continue organizing on a grassroots level in order to enter the conversation. Our fundamental cultural and legal systems should be left intact but our human relationships to them can be transformed if we ensure that all are involved in the law-making process. We should invite more young professionals to serve on boards, without financial barriers. More women should be represented at the top leadership level of organizations. Grassroots projects of the underprivileged should be strengthened. Jewish monopolies should be challenged. We need to become more attentive to the systems that we control in order to challenge the current control dynamics, a far less than ideal power structure.
The social activist’s mantra of "speaking truth to power" can be put in moratorium if we ensure that the speakers of truth also attain power. Only then can the rules of society truly be just. So while Pirke Avot tells us to "hate holding power," we can understand this command as a reference to power held by the few. But power in the name of what is just and good and shared with others? This is a recipe to heal the world.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.