Sexual advances and the advancement of power

The weekend papers were full of it. Nick Clegg came back early from his holiday to issue a statement. The next morning the top Catholic in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, brought forward his retirement and recused himself from the Papal conclave soon to begin which will choose the next Pope.

But it’s not just about those whose names are known and paraded in the press. Nor is it just more about the women, or men, affected. It’s about something that let this happen, and not just in its magnitude but also in the little things, the hand on the knee, the closed door, the subtle pressure to go along.

It is about the relationship between men and women, and about the relationship between sex and power. Lord Rennard, the former chief executive of the Liberal Democrats has been accused of inappropriate sexual advances to various women over several years, and that has been accompanied by accusations the party did not do enough about it. And Cardinal O’Brien faces allegations of inappropriate behaviour toward three priests and one former priest in the 1980s.

It could be presented as a straightforward case of right and wrong, or of particular people acting badly towards other. And in a way it is and they did. But it is not straightforward, men were the alleged victims as well as women, and as several commentators have blundered into saying, what’s so wrong with a hand on the knee?

That’s where power comes in. It’s why it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or woman, or girl or boy. It’s what differentiates a hand on the knee that’s a fairly normal act of flirting, from abusive behaviour.

Power changes things.

It makes something wrong that might otherwise be okay. And why does it do that? It is because power places pressure; power exists in hierarchy; power operates with authority. And that matters because power takes away autonomy. Power makes it hard to say no. Power makes us dependent on other people.

Whether it is with a boss who could fire you, demote you, make your life a living hell. Or a respected community figure, a church leader, part of who’s role it is to tell you what is right or wrong. And now what they are doing – they are telling you, with their actions if not words – is right and to object is wrong.

It is what made it hard for Liberal Democrat staffers to come forward and talk about their experiences. It is was has enshrined a culture of secrecy in the church that has covered over a multitude of sins.

When power is used to silence, it is a sign that something is wrong. This is what we are talking about when we find that we are not able to talk about something. In Shane Hipps’ book ‘Selling water by the river’ he talks about light and darkness. Light is not the opposite of darkness, darkness is the absence of light. It is impossible for the two to exist together, one removes, without hindrance, the other. Where there is light there cannot be darkness.

Where there is light there cannot be darkness.

It doesn’t mean the darkness never exists. But it means that there is another road. A road where light illuminates the way, and where things that might thrive in the dark, may be enforced by an abuse of power, have no place.

Sex and power also point to other things. These two forces rarely operate in isolation, they expose other agendas, other problems that might lie a little deeper down. Whether it is questions about whether celibacy in the Catholic church has had its day, or if women in politics have to fight a culture we may have hoped had seen its last.

And maybe this is where we circle back around to the conversation about sex and shame and silence. And why we need to talk about things that might be awkward, if only so that others are helped to talk about what might be the hardest words for them to say.

Speaking truth to power helps others speak truth too. If there are things that we will not say, we should question our silence if only to question whether we might be complicit in others feeling they have no option but silence.  

The deafening sound of silence

In Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic he talks about the time when you cry out to God, when you summon the energy to convince yourself he might in fact be there, and you are met with nothing but silence. To more precise, not quite silence, more like the empty static at the end of an old vinyl record. Almost the sound of where something should be but is not.

It’s the silence that intimidates because there is a voice that should be there. It is the silence heard when a young man goes into a school and shoots a score of children, their teachers and his family. It is the silence we hear when we want something to hear.

I had the idea for this post, and the series I will post each day this week, before the shooting on Friday. But the tone would have been different. It might have been slightly hectoring against the tendency to commercialise Christmas. I might have made the point that Advent is to be a time of waiting, but in fact we spend it rushing to and fro frantically doing all the things that we do not need to do. Only to be able, for those few precious days, relax and do nothing. We precede inactivity with a frenzy rather than waiting and then moving towards action.

In a way I suppose I have done what I said I would not, even in the act of saying I am not doing it.

Silence is a funny thing. It leaves things open. I could have just not said I was ever going to discuss anything else. Any break to the silence, any interruption, changes things. When someone speaks they cannot unspeak. It’s not about hearing what you want to hear, silence isn’t waiting to get the answer you want. Silence is waiting.

Silence is pregnant. There is something about silence that is temporary, otherwise it would be unremarkable. It is a pause, a step before something is said. It is the pregnant expectation that something is coming.

Silence is hard. We want answers, we want reassurance. When there is violence and hatred, and exploitation and suffering we want someone to say everything is okay. The outpouring of grief could cause people to cry ‘where is God at a time like this’, but those voices are pre-empted by those ready to tell whoever will listen exactly where God is. For a few it is he who sits in judgement orchestrating actions to punish our decadent ways, for others it proves his absence. For some it shows he is distant, unconcerned with the tragedy that befalls us all at one time or another, but particularly acute in a corner of Connecticut this weekend. For others he is there with his arms flung around the parents grieving the loss of children that will not see another Christmas Day.

For four hundred years the people of Israel lived in the midst of such deafening silence. A God who had spoken through their forefathers and prophets appeared to have left the stage. They wanted answers.

But the attentive could still here static in the background. This was not an absent God, he had not walked away.

Silence leaves room for hope.