Power Distance and Abuse (Or: I Kick Therefore I Am)

In management theory, there is an important concept termed “power distance”. By power distance, the academics do not just mean authority over another person. It relates more to unfair influence over another person. For example, most people will accept that a boss can tell you what work you should perform. However, it is not valid for the employer to tell you this in an abusive, offensive, or derogatory manner.

The concept of power distance is well established in the workplace situation. Western countries such as Australia tend to favour a very low power distance factor. In practical terms, it means that we are very intolerant of workplace bullying, sexual harassment and on-the-job discrimination. Indeed, we go so far as to enshrine those attitudes in legislation.

In some societies, a large power distance is quite acceptable. For example, in India, if one is born into a low caste, then one tolerates power abuses by those from higher castes. Indeed, in India again, and most probably in other countries as well, the fact that there is a large power distance between sons and daughters (that is, sons receive very favourable treatment over that given to daughters), has resulted in aberrant behaviours as highlighted in the recent gang rape controversy.

Within the Western family context, there is some power distance between parents and their children. This means, normally, simple things such as “you have to eat your broccoli before you get your ice-cream,” or “no, we can’t afford an X-Box and you’ll have to accept it.” Given that there is an automatic power distance between parents and young children, in that the parents are bigger and control the finances, restraint must be shown in the use of these.

Again, we would consider it an abuse of that power distance if the child was malnourished or physically beaten. Such abuse is sufficient for society to remove the child from the care of the parents. Many people who ended up in the old children’s homes were subject to such orders. Unfortunately for them, at the children’s homes, they were subjected to the same sorts of abuses by their societal carers.

Besides the obvious factors of economic, physical, and social status differences, one of the other forms of power distance is the right to redress or to complain to an independent person. In today’s world, we put a lot of effort into advising both children and adults that there are avenues for them to express concerns about their situation; for example, police, ombudsmen, and other adults, for example teachers.

One area where our society has totally failed to deal with the power distance problem has resulted in the current plethora of child sexual abuse cases. If one looks closely at the cases, it becomes very clear that the main reason the abuse could be hidden for so long was because there was an inherent power distance problem. A reason for the often 20-year or more delay in reporting abuse has been that as the person developed, the effects of that power distance reduced, at least marginally.

Sometimes the abuse of power distance is not readily apparent. For example, when this author was running the support group, FICH, a lady was at a small meeting (as an adult) with other women who had been in the same children’s home with her, when a couple of them mentioned that they had been sexually abused by a priest while in care there. For the first time, the lady told these other women that she too had been abused by the same priest. At the time, the lady was dying of cancer.

The tragedy of the power abuse in this particular case was that the lady had been told by the abusive priest that if ever she told anybody, she would go to hell. Despite assurances from the other women, and indeed from her own family, the woman remained convinced that she would indeed go to hell when she died. Approaches were made to a nun that the lady had a positive view of to add her voice to the others. The nun agreed to this, even though she was quite elderly by that stage. The nun came to Brisbane but unfortunately afraid approximately 5 hours after the lady had passed away.

Another less obvious example was the case of a young man who had continuously been told that his IQ tests indicated that he was a moron, resulting in significant loss of self-esteem. Eventually, under the Goss government’s freedom of information laws, his files from the old orphanage were obtained. Amongst the documents were the results of three IQ tests (Stanford-Binet) which, lo and behold, all indicated that he was above-average intelligence. Finding out this information removed his power distance block and he was able to pursue his claims against his former abusers.

It can have unfortunate ramifications sometimes when the factor behind the power distance is eventually removed. It has been well established that in the Salvation Army boys’ homes, the physical difference in size was a great factor in the abuse. Even when the boys were grown men, in their minds, for many years, they were still smaller than their abusers. This problem is magnified for women, who tend to remain smaller than their male abusers even when fully grown women.

In many cases, children were told they would be killed if they ever revealed the abuse.

Power distance was not inadvertently used by abusers in children’s homes and elsewhere, it was consciously and deliberately used as a tool to facilitate the abuse and ensure that victims could not immediately report the abuse. In most cases, in fact, the abuse of power distance was so great and so effective, that in most cases, it takes many, many years for victims to overcome it. It is therefore the height of  insensitivity for abusive organisations to hide behind the Statutes of Limitations, which, in Australia (in contrast to other countries with a more enlightened attitude where the time limit has been totally removed), generally impose a three-year or so limit on people making civil claims for redress for abuse.

If there is one thing this author would like to see come out of the royal commission, it would be concrete, practical procedures to remove power distance blocks suffered by the victims. While most of the literature, as mentioned before, occurs in management and related fields, with application to the workplace, it would be useful if, for example, psychologists were to look at the abuse from this angle. This would reduce the Statute of Limitations problems, particularly if it were sufficiently effective in removing the power distance block such that a child could immediately report the abuse to a responsible adult. Concomitant with this, it would be useful if the disingenuous reliance upon things like the Statute of Limitations by abusing organisations was challenged for being, in fact, a perpetration of the initial abuse by being a defensive reliance upon a key aspect of the abuse.

TOMORROW: We’re not as bad as others

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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