Having coached hundreds of women over the years, I’m truly not surprised about the #METOO hashtag tsunami on social media. As a matter of fact, it’s long overdue. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are life-changing events that cause many women to question their self worth, often derailing audacious career trajectories.
If you don not understood why it takes some people 10, 20, or even 30 years to finally accuse their perpetrator of horrible abuse or crimes, then you should be very grateful that life spared you of such painful life lessons. Having survived a racial physical assault myself over 15 years ago without ever seeking justice, I can assure you that the social circumstances that make seeking justice a counterproductive event are highly subtle and invisible to many until they become victimized themselves.
Hierarchical social systems offer more protections to those in power than to those who are not.
It would be silly to be upset that a 10 pound sack of flour weighs more than a 5 pound sack because the laws of physics depict the outcome regardless of how you feel about it. Likewise, our social structure that places the most powerful and influential at the top with the lesser powerful worker bees at the bottom also has certain characteristics that we should acknowledge without becoming upset. The laws of hierarchical social structure might not be found in any textbook (probably because I just made it up), but you can see these laws play out each and every day in our lives.
For example, as a child you probably experienced the “do as I say and not as I do” phenomenon when your parents or older siblings laid down the house rules while doing the opposite. If you confronted them, a typical response might be, “Well, I’m older” or “It’s my house”. Here’s the translation: I’m in power at the top of this hierarchical system and you’re not, so I’m protected from any repercussions if I break any rules.
Over a lifetime of watching powerful people break rules and remain unscathed, we are conditioned to accept this phenomenon as an accepted bias that soon becomes second nature. If a pebble is released, it will fall to the ground; likewise, if a powerful person breaks a rule or crosses the line, they will have a soft landing without much (if any) repercussions.
I’m not trying to make out hierarchies to be good or bad, they’re merely social structures that have certain side effects on the people within them. There are many powerful and positive side effects to hierarchies, but the #METOO movement is one of those negative side effects that has rightfully found its place in the limelight.
Many victims toward the bottom of the hierarchical power spectrum perceive justice against those with power to be a fleeting illusion. This is why so many don’t speak out for fear of retaliation by the very system that they rely on for livelihood, but instead wait 20 years until those who have power can’t hurt them anymore.
It should be noted that the human concept of social “power” has no singular characteristic since every social structure defines power differently based on local criteria. So while position, money, gender, or skin color might make someone seem powerful in one situation, that power might not transfer in another.
Hierarchical social systems soften the voices of those who lack power.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
Have you ever heard a child exclaim, “Nobody ever listens to me because I’m the smallest!” Oh, out of the mouths of babes, indeed. Of course we try to make everyone feel like an important part of the team, but in the end the laws of hierarchical social structure are designed in such a way that it magnifies the voices of the powerful while simultaneously stifling the voices of those with less power.
Of course this phenomenon continues today in your daily life. How many brilliant ideas do you have that could positively impact the world if your voice could only be heard? Meanwhile, there seems to be no shortage of powerfully influential people who have everyone’s attention with nothing inspiring to say.
It shouldn’t be surprising then, that someone might think twice about seeking justice when a more powerful person victimizes them by crosses the line or breaks the rules. Plainly stated, a worker’s word often carries less weight than the a boss’ word, especially when that boss is supported and uplifted by an entire system.
Thankfully because there is strength in numbers, many #METOO victims share their stories because they feel protected as part of the movement.
Without empathy, we are simply reduced to machines.
Massive power imbalances combined with stifled voices of those who lack power have created a perfect storm for the #METOO movement. Yes, it’s all a toxic bi-product from the laws of hierarchical social structure, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tweak the system we already have to make it better. Perhaps we can impact the perception of women in our next generation of boys? What do you think might be a way forward?
Empathy for #METOO victims would be a powerful first step towards creating lasting social change. Without empathy, however, we are stripped of our humanity and reduced to upholders of the status quo who can easily be replaced when we question the system.
Perhaps we should all practice a little introspection by asking, “Could I have ever been perceived as hurting someone because of the things I said or did while in a position of power within the hierarchical system?” If the answer you come up with is no, then I urge you to empathize harder. Because it’s only human to step on each other’s toes in the dance of life.