Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Cruelty of Disempowerment

A few days ago, without thinking too much about it, I was cruel to a colleague. I was in an irritable and intolerant state and this person, at least in my foul mood, inadvertently promised a possible remedy. Funny how a negative state assumes a negative action can balance the scales. Regardless, this associate of mine momentarily pissed me off with her seemingly incessant need to be involved and, in retaliation, I chose to hurt her. I smiled the sweetness of smiles in response to her questions, tossed a “never mind” over my shoulder and walked away.
On the surface the event was rather trivial but cruelty does not have to be blatant bullying; it can be just about finding someone’s vulnerability and then exploiting it. This woman’s weakness is her need to know things whether or not it is her business. It derives from a deep insecurity that leaks out in the myriad of ways she goes through her day. I know this because she is the mirror image of who I was in my younger years. And that, of course, is at the root of why she irritates me.
Later that day I apologized for my behaviour. She accepted it but even as she brushed it off I know my cruelty had hit its mark. I touched her arm in a gesture of reconciliation and felt it stiffen; a part of her was still hurting—a seemingly minor event with lasting results.
There is a mythology that I still hear spoken that women are hard to work with: they are supposedly vindictive, sly, secretive and cruel. I used to believe this to be true. Due to a certain maternal upbringing, I grew up a misogynist. As a girl and later as a young woman, I not only disliked but distrusted females: I found them to be controlling and, yes, cruel. While I now know this to be a fallacy—men can be just as mean and hurtful (or kind and loving)—the issue, I have come to believe, is not so much about gender but power. To be specific, when we don’t feel empowered, the worst within us can come out.
When I feel disempowered (justifiably or not), and whether that be because of actual discrimination, employment conditions or irritation due to pain or over-active hormones, I lose sight of who I am.  And, when I cannot see (or choose not to look) within myself I tend to view the world with a shuttered perspective: it is their fault, not mine; if only they would do this, I would be okay. In a disempowered state it is not only easier to blame others but also to hurt them. I am not justifying my behaviour but trying to make a point. When we are disempowered the ability to see and appreciate ourselves is diminished. If we do not value ourselves, it is harder to value another. Disempowerment, whatever the cause, can hold the seeds of violence.
A vast majority of girls and women have lived in disempowered states for several millennia. They have been at the bottom of society’s ladder and as such have had to find alternative ways to work with and garner whatever power needed to survive. Sometimes this has meant that women have had to be less than direct in getting their needs met.  And, sometimes, that indirect way has resulted in competitive or hurtful situations that have earned women some of the insulting descriptors I believed in my youth.  This, of course, is no different than what men have done and can do but, as we all know, myths are shaped by those in power. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that when we feel disempowered—man, woman, black or white—we tend to start looking at ourselves in the same way we perceive that society is looking at us.
Although there have been vast improvements and advancements in the lives of women the world over, violence and harassment continues. Many women are disempowered by government policy and inaction, familial hierarchies and religious doctrines. Even in Canada, where we (especially those of us who are white) live relatively privileged lives, UBC only recently raised salaries of tenured and tenured tracked women to parallel those of male professors. The RCMP, meanwhile, is not only showing a constant bias against women in the ranks but has been accused of systemic bias against the First Nations women they are hired to serve and protect. We have a lot more work to do.
And then there are the many stories of violence and bullying between girls. I honesty do not think this is a new phenomena, only one that is currently being exploited by the media. It’s a terrible thing, we all hear; something must be done, we are told—we have anti-bullying days and new school policies, criminal charges and public apologies. These are all good and fine but we need more, something that addresses the roots.
If we truly want and desire an equal and just society—an interdependent community where men and women, and girls and boys thrive—we need to learn how to empower rather than disempower. This means everyone, but especially girls. Young women are still at the bottom of the ladder and need our help to show that they are unique, of value and can make important contributions just by being who they are.
For more information on how you can help empower women and girls go to:
Or read Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
And, for a local program, contact Carla Webb at Empowered by Horses where heart centred leadership provides the key to  compassionate and successful lives.

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