Power and Human Nature

The Pilgrim’s Pensieve #16

It’s not every day that you learn something profound about life while watching a movie. This happened to me while I was watching Will’s Smith movie Concussion. It’s about an immigrant Nigerian pathologist in the United States, Dr Bennett Omalu, who discovers a degenerative brain disease that affects American football players, yet the National Football League (NFL), the highest professional league of the sport, resists his research. The basic reason for their antipathy was it would affect their credibility, and ultimately their bottom line, if the sport was perceived to be a serious long term danger to a person’s health. What fascinated me about the movie was not the sport. I am not interested in American football. (In the world there is only one football and you actually play it with your feet!) It was really a study of politics and human nature. Another thing about it that really resonated with me was there were parallels in my own experience.

I have not taken on before a multibillion dollar industry with a product loved by millions of people. I do know, on a much smaller scale, what is like to be unintentionally drawn into organizational politics. This happened no less in a church group where we, like Dr Omalu, presented the sincere truth to power (also in a document) hoping for a positive change but  were met with strong, vitriolic opposition. As I watched the drama unfold, it began to click for me why certain seemingly innocent or unassuming things can be such a catalyst for so much drama in real life. I am not talking about scandalous reveals or direct intentional attacks on people or organizations. I am referring to the unassuming things like what goes on in the scientific community as in the case of Dr Omalu.

Dr Omalu was described as un-American for his work yet in his mind the only place second to heaven on earth was the United States. I immediately wondered why people said that after all, American football is just a sport. What happens is that things that are little or inconsequential in themselves, when they are found in certain social or cultural settings become more than themselves, they become symbols. Without any fan fair or attention seeking they become representative of a way of doing things. In worldviews terms you would call the sport a symbolic praxis, that is, things and actions that represent a certain way of life and understanding of the world, and is a cultural identity marker. On the face of it, it is really just a sport, but it has become so interwoven with the American consciousness. So it became unthinkable that something that brought national joy would be the cause of death for its biggest stars. It was cognitive dissonance on a national level.

His work, like so many other examples in history, was not just a threat to a way of life but to power itself, and it wasn’t an idle one. The NFL is not just a money making juggernaut. It is a broker of culture itself and through that it has become wealthy. It is their cultural position that has granted them with power. Dr Omalu’s work represented another cultural authority called cutting edge medical science. It was an internal clash of key cultural authorities. Since it was hard to attack the symbol as more and more research validated the science, they attacked the man who carried the symbol. Look at the trial of Jesus. The Gospel of John said the temple authorities were most afraid of losing their positions but they couldn’t find fault with what he represented, that is, the message he embodied. So they decided to attack his character and integrity. I am not saying what happened to Jesus, a first century Palestinian Jew, is the same as what happened to a 21st century Nigerian immigrant in the U.S. What I am doing is drawing the parallels to help illustrate that human nature has not changed in its relationship to power.

Now what the NFL is doing reminds me of another powerful corrupt organization in sports but way bigger, the International Federation of Football Associations, abbreviated in French as FIFA. Last year’s scandals rocked the footballing world leading to the resignation, firing or arrest of key officials in world football. Sepp Blatter, the former head of the organization for 18 years, reminded me off something very close to home. In fact both the NFL and FIFA are very similar to African politicians. When you listen to the news in Ghana and hear the antics of our politicians and government officials, it can be so disheartening and you wonder if our country has any future at all. Their main goal is to use power for their personal benefit no matter who gets hurts in the process, even if it is a nation filled with millions of people. What’s even worse with big corporate or international organizations worth billions of dollars is that unlike governments they cannot be voted out. They use their wealth and lack oversight to push their own agenda.

One of the lessons I learned from all these things is that the African leadership problem is not an African leadership problem. Sure there are peculiar features to the problem you might not find anywhere else but no matter which people group or period in human history people behave in the same way. The only constant is human beings therefore it must be something wrong with human nature itself. When people have power and no sense of accountability they abuse that power. If you have power and you answer to no one else, you are your own final authority, you will do what will satisfy you and not care about how it affects another person. Whether it is in professional sports, national governments or a small church organization, like the one I was in, people act in essentially the same way.

The problem is not really with power. Power is a good God-given thing but power comes with responsibility and that implies accountability. Authority comes from a greater authority and the chain ends with God who is the ultimate conceivable authority. However there is something wrong with human nature, what the Bible calls sinfulness. Therefore when power is uncoupled from responsibility and accountability we behave immorally. The nature of power is that it demands accountability or it degenerates into something base and evil.

The thing with power is that it comes in many different form. Determining what power is and then how one should use it and who at all should have it is a complex issue. It is a discussion which involves everyone, especially today where the world has an obvious leadership problem. The traditional structures of power and authority are seen with great distrust since most people think they are in it for themselves. These are things that affect the ordinary man or woman on the street so we need to rethink how our societies do power.

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