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Thu, Dec. 12

Column: Let’s not mistake privilege for personal power

Hopefully one of the enduring lessons of our current political era will be a better understanding of the difference between privilege and personal power.

We have in front of us some highly visible examples of the privileges and influence that come along with wealth. Key positions in the federal government are populated by elites from Wall Street, a CEO from economic giant Exxon and scions of wealthy families with no apparent qualifications for their government roles.

In our President, we have an especially apt example of the fact that privilege is not equivalent to genuine personal power. The individual with true power is one who knows his own talents and limitations, maintains his personal boundaries with conviction but without rancor, whose poise allows him or her to stand unmoved “’midst the crash of breaking worlds” rather than reacting impulsively.

How do you acquire this kind of power? Can you sue for it in a court of law? Do you create it by denigrating and diminishing others? Does it come from demanding the respect and loyalty of subordinates, under threat of losing their positions, pride or both?

The spectacle of these strategies playing out on the world stage is painful to watch. Still it’s to our benefit to witness and understand that the answer to these questions is a resounding, “No.”

Is it possible that a third of our population has mistaken the outer show of privilege for real power? The scepter and orb, however gilded and bejeweled, are empty symbols when they’re not backed by strength of character, willingness to take responsibility, solicitous care for the people impacted by the exercise of authority.

Some teenagers, not knowing much about themselves or the world, are plagued by fears of powerlessness. They reflexively assert their “strength” in negative ways — smashing pumpkins, covering public spaces with graffiti, bullying vulnerable peers.

Compare these juvenile behaviors to that of empowered adults. Mature people confront the truth of their unearned privilege as well as the privileges denied them through no fault of their own. Their recognition of unearned privilege inspires gratitude and a genuine interest in the challenges others face. Their experiences of dis-empowerment act as a goad to search deeply within for the strength to overcome.

Most of all, while understanding the need to make their way and compete in the world, they develop an abiding empathy for their fellows. They use their hard-won life lessons not just to their own advantage but to give an understanding ear and a helping hand to others going through similar experiences.

Mature empathy isn’t passive or weak, it’s realistic. The fact is that all people are bound together by their humanity, not to mention sharing the same planet. We hold in common the capacities to suffer, to covet, to love and to loathe. From our shared human nature can come acts of indifference and cruelty. Yet, our interconnectedness can also spur individual sacrifices and group cooperation that ensure a safer, more compassionate world.

It’s the old story of the two dogs: the one we feed will prevail.

There comes a time to put away childish things. Self-interest and bullying threats coming from the highest levels of government aren’t the hallmark of a mature society. We need leadership that acknowledges the unearned grace that has blessed America thus far, and finds in our difficult experiences common ground with other nations.

Alexandra Piacenza is a Prescott resident and is the immediate past president of Prescott Area Leadership.

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