By Hugh McGeary, Director, Counselling, Catholic Family Service
Catholic Family Service is all about Building Strong Families. To that end, we could take some time to reflect on the current stories about people coming forward to disclose incidents where someone with power and privilege did them harm.
Rarely has there been a social discourse as dramatic, dynamic and far-reaching as the #MeToo movement. To me, it’s a declaration that our society is ready to rewrite the narratives about human interaction, make the covert overt, and call on all of us to reflect on our behaviours, past and present.
Doctors, coaches, bosses, partners, spouses, religious leaders, politicians, teachers – people with more power and privilege have too often taken advantage of others. Finally, those without voices have begun to be heard. Action is being taken to address past wrongs and to put in place protective mechanisms.
What I have noticed is that in many cases privilege and power is invisible to both those with and without it. Some do recognize and intentionally abuse their privilege and power, but others don’t see it because they have been “in it” their whole lives – in relationships with family and peers, in the media, at school and work, and in society.
What we are called to do now is to notice, observe, reflect, challenge, call in, and call out what has been going on, and to co-create a society and relationships that are healthier. As a family therapist, I have learned to observe human interactions, and what I notice is that once you start observing, it becomes impossible to not see. Once you see what is going on, you have the opportunity to reflect on your own and others’ behaviours, and then choose a path and contribute to better relationships and society.
It’s seductive to access and use the power your gender and other factors allow. Reflecting can be painful as you look back at ways you have thought and acted that, through a new lens, you now see as abusive and harmful. Is it true that consent isn’t possible when there are conditions in a relationship that contribute to imbalance of power, such as age, gender, race, sexual identity, status, charisma, wealth, position in hierarchy, degree of sobriety, physicality, and alignment with ideology and religion? Not absolutely, for power/privilege imbalances occur in all relationships and consent is possible in many of these. Perhaps when the discrepancy is larger, more discernment about protective responsibility is needed. I know that this is not easy to assess, because how can we know how influential a particular set of factors are for any specific person?
Knowing that power imbalance arises from many factors in relationships, we all hold a responsibility to ensure that we remain conscious of the power we have and not excuse ourselves and others’ behaviours just because a version of superficial consent was obtained. It’s more than just minors, students, patients, or people with impaired capacity who are vulnerable in relationships.
I see the #MeToo movement as many things, and for me, the most important is that we are called upon:
- To truly see and take responsibility for power and privilege, both past and present, in our lives.
- To take responsibility and to make amends.
- To make the factors that contribute to imbalance of power and privilege overt, in the present and future.
- To consider how we ought to govern ourselves differently when we are in relationship with those who have less power and privilege than us.
- To put in place protective policy, practice, legislation and social discourse to improve people’s awareness and safety.
If we do these things, maybe we can protect ourselves from acting in ways we would reflect on later and be ashamed, and do more to protect those in our society who are more vulnerable.
Hugh McGeary heads up Catholic Family Service’s Affordable Counselling Program. The program serves people of all ages, faiths, cultures and backgrounds. We ask clients to pay what they can – no one is turned away because of finances. Read more about Affordable Counselling at Catholic Family Service.