The Moral Equivalent of Power
APRIL 01, 1967 by JOHN A. HOWARD
Dr. Howard is President of Rockford College, Rockford, Illinois. This is a condensation of his Convocation Address of September 21, 1966.
Some twenty-five years ago a man died and bequeathed a small fortune to be spent in helping the people of other nations to understand the American way of life. The agents chosen to administer the funds were bright, conscientious folk and they went to work to carry out the intentions of the deceased. The task sounds simple enough when it goes by the first time, but it is an elusive object when one tries to apprehend it. After all, what is the American way of life, and how can it be explained?
After many months of seeking advice from experts and weighing carefully one project after another, the executors concluded that the more elaborate or grandiose the plan, the less likely it was to fulfill the purpose. Ultimately, they decided to make some movies about the everyday life of inconspicuous citizens, with the commentary available in many different languages.
The film followed a paper boy on his early morning route, and a milkman on his, as they left their deliveries on front porches and at apartment doors. A small town banker was shown at his desk discussing loans with farmers, and later, in his overalls, painting his front fence. There was a committee meeting of a service agency and some firemen playing baseball with the neighborhood kids.
Such scenes scarcely seem destined to make the blood boil with undying enthusiasm for the American way of life, but there are some messages here which you and I cannot read. We are blind to what we take for granted. We attach no special significance to whatever is commonplace in our own lives. However, in many nations, nobody would dream of leaving anything outside a front door, especially anything as desirable and as swipeable as fresh milk or today’s paper. The readiness with which an American dirt farmer can obtain a loan for seeds, fertilizer, and machinery is a surprise to many peoples, but not half as astonishing as the vision of a banker doing manual labor. A view of public servants engaged in a children’s ball game is likewise a jaw-dropper in those nations where a status position requires a rigid formality of behavior. But the real shocker in many foreign cultures today, as it was to the Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, one hundred and thirty years ago, is the voluntary banding together of common citizens in a service agency to help their neighbors.
The films portrayed simple actions in the lives of trusting, helpful, friendly, unpretentious people. It was a benevolent society in the precise meaning of that word — benevolent, well-wishing.
Today many of us might see these films as the creation of a naive Pollyanna, or at least as the presentation of a distortedly favorable and falsely healthy American community. The festering sores of poverty, prudery, hypocrisy, human exploitation, and unfulfilled civil rights have been unbandaged and revealed in all their raw ugliness, and the public has come to look upon the general American as something less than healthy, if not outright sick. Actually, the executors of the bequests were not all that insensitive or indifferent to our social problems, but their charge was to convey what was unique about life in this country, and in that, I believe their work is still remarkably valid.
However, the qualities of American life which they highlighted are, it seems, waning. And it is to this point that I think we must attend today. Trustfulness, friendliness, helpfulness, and unpretentiousness seem to be yielding to suspicion, arrogance, aggression, and defiance. Power is becoming the dominant motive of our domestic relationships as well as our international ones — power sought and power wielded and power feared. We observe on all sides people trying to force others to behave differently. Alternate techniques of human interaction are being cast aside in favor of muscle and might.
Union Abuses of Power
In recent months we have seen union phalanxes running roughshod over the opposition, exerting brute power with apparent indifference to the consequences for the general public or even for the welfare of their own membership. A self-defeating newspaper strike in New York City eventually wrested some concessions, principally for severance pay, from those employer newspapers which survived the strike. In the same city, the public transport workers forced a new wage scale which the city officials confess they cannot pay without subsidy from other levels of government. The grounding of a number of major airlines extracted precedent-setting pay increases. Wholly apart from the millions of people whose livelihood was directly, and in many cases, very seriously curtailed by these work stoppages, the effects upon the nation were damaging beyond any possible justification.
The right to strike has been wholly accepted as a technique of the conduct of life in America. And yet this right has fostered the concentration of power to such an extent that a relatively small segment of the population can disrupt the entire economy.
The Federal government has likewise come into greater and greater power which it applies with increasing frequency. It has, in recent months, publicly threatened the banks and the Chicago schools and the producers of tobacco and aluminum and steel with the heavy guns of its economic arsenal to the point that the officers of an increasing range of enterprises candidly admit they can no longer express public opposition to the policies of the Washington Administration. When power is concentrated, freedom is threatened. When power is used, freedom is curtailed. A diminishing atmosphere of freedom would normally arouse the intellectual community to the defense of the victims, but, so far, the government has used its coercive weapons in behalf of objectives dictated by the intellectual community and the freedoms that have been abridged were those of "the enemy." The traditional defenders of freedom have either cheered or sat silent.
One Violation Becomes the Justification for a Chain of Others
This attitude on their part is, I am convinced, woefully shortsighted, for aggression begets aggression and feeds on itself. Successful strong-arm techniques used on one battlefield are quickly adapted by the storm troopers on another. The intellectuals who have been so willing to have the government overpower those who think otherwise are finding their own academic centers victimized by powerful assailants. If there is any truth to Professor Feuer’s article entitled "The Decline of Freedom at Berkeley" in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, last year’s student assault has already brought substantial devastation to one of the world’s most renowned academic centers.
Force cannot be a legitimate weapon in my hands and an improper one in yours, if we are equals. Once force becomes the main instrument of public policy, all aspirants to anything are automatically licensed to intimidate and brutalize, if they can. One is reminded of an illustration used recently by Barbara Ward. "I would even go further and say in New Guinea, it is attractive to live in a village because every time you leave that village, you change your language and that gives you a perfect right to head-hunt in the next village. Well, obviously this is a very attractive way of running human affairs and this is what some people want to restore in Europe. What after all was 1914 and 1939 but the idea that your tribe can head-hunt in the next village?" We haven’t yet returned to actual head-hunting, but we are aimed in that direction.
Civil Rights Plus Power
The civil rights movement has caught the disease, and has made the predictable progression from an original basis of limited, applied pressure to a spectrum of coercive action that includes outright terrorist tactics, leaving many of its most genuine and active participants confused and dismayed at the beast they have helped to nourish.
Perhaps you saw the article in Look Magazine reporting an interview with Lillian Smith, the author of Strange Fruit, who was one of the best-known backers of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Miss Smith, gravely weakened by cancer, talked about her resignation from SNCC when it embraced the Black Power concept. She recalled an early warning she had made to the officers of that organization. "You’re going to have the same temptation that Jesus and Gandhi had — the temptation of personal political power. You will want to get power in your own hands… You will want to stir people’s hatreds."
As in the case of anybody that starts down the path of power tactics, the civil rights leaders have had to run faster and faster to keep ahead of their troops, procuring more devastating arms and making more sweeping demands to satisfy the power appetite they have generated. Napoleon and Hitler and Stalin, indeed, all tyrants, have been destroyed by the same self-accelerating pace of aggression.
In the Name of the Church
The national acceptance of force as the main technique for change is nowhere so startlingly manifest as in a statement printed in the July 31st issue of the New York Times signed by forty-eight members of the National Committee of Negro Churchmen. Their purpose is to help people comprehend the reasons behind the thrust for Black Power and to justify Black Power within a certain framework of understanding. The entire text is based on an assumption that "powerlessness breeds a race of beggars," and that it is only as power is placed in the hands of Negroes that they can achieve the actual role of complete citizens and the full dignity of human beings.
There is some reason to believe that instead of powerlessness breeding a race of beggars, power breeds a race of tyrants, but my point here is that these are Christian clergymen who declare that power in its coercive, leverage, intimidating sense, is essential to the full life of a citizen. It is my recollection that Christ at no time recommended or endorsed the use of force to accomplish any of his aspirations for mankind. His doctrine was a self-policing one. He did not urge that prostitution be prevented by law and stamped out by a constabulary. He directed the individual offender to go and sin no more. That half a hundred of Christ’s prominent ministers would proclaim a human right to power in his name is, I should think, dramatic evidence of the degree to which coercive power is coming to dominate the hopes as well as the actions of all segments of our population.
The Process of Corruption
Now, there are some fundamental problems that may arise when force becomes the instrument of social interaction. I shall indicate only two. One is that however lofty the original motives of any power-wielding group, human nature is such that that power eventually seems to fall into the hands either of self-serving or self-righteous officers. On the one hand, the original slogans become hypocritical justifications for plundering the community and for gathering more power. On the other, the officers seek additional power in order to force their "enlightened" views on more and more people.
Perhaps you heard of the company president who called in an employee who had refused to sign up for the pension plan. "You sign or be fired," he declared. "I’ll sign," was the quick response. "Well, why in blazes didn’t you sign before?" demanded the boss. "Nobody explained it to me like this before."
Any person can readily compile his own list of corporate profiteers, or labor leaders, or government officials, or college executives, whose commendable motives, which brought them to positions of leadership, have yielded to the empire-building impulse and whose concern for their constituency has given way to the grinding and inhumane techniques of tyranny.
The degree to which the press for power leads to corruption of word and deed is dramatically illustrated in the Berkeley uprisings, and has been incisively analyzed by Ayn Rand in an essay entitled "The Cashing In." She observes:
To facilitate the acceptance of force, the Berkeley rebels attempted to establish a special distinction between force and violence: force they claimed explicitly, is a proper form of social action, but violence is not. Their definition of the terms were as follows: coercion by means of a literal physical contact is "violence" and is reprehensible; any other way of violating rights is merely "force" and is a legitimate peaceful method of dealing with opponents.
For instance, if the rebels occupy the administration building, that is "force"; if the policemen drag them out, that is "violence." If Savio seizes a microphone he has no right to use, that is "force"; if a policeman drags him away from it, that is "violence."
Consider the implications of that distinction as a rule of social conduct: if you come home one evening, find a stranger occupying your house and throw him out bodily, he has merely committed a peaceful act of "force," but you are guilty of "violence" and you are to be punished.
The theoretical purpose of that grotesque absurdity is to establish a moral inversion: to make the initiation of force moral, and resistance to force immoral —and thus to obliterate the right of self-defense. The immediate practical purpose is to foster the activities of the lowest political breed: the provocateurs, who commit acts of force and place the blame on their victims.
Force and Counterforce
The first problem inherent in the use of coercive power as a social instrument — the abuse of power by its agents — is a problem of human tendencies, albeit regularly recurrent tendencies. The second difficulty is an absolute and is always available to those who would use it in the situations where power is used to produce change. If any action is taken because of applied force, then the logical means for bringing about a counteraction is to amass an even greater counter-force. We watch with well-justified squeamishness as the thrust for Black Power provokes the counterthrust to quash Black Power. Aggression begets aggression and feeds on itself. Unless there is a massive and convincing repudiation of the strong-arm tactics in the field of civil rights, and in the arena of student demands, we can expect to see civil disorder spreading to every other point where issues are joined. When the accepted vehicle for social change is coercion, the destination is ultimately either absolute despotism or primitive, savage anarchy. In either case strength prevails, reason is superfluous and compassion an impediment. The rallying cry of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, "Strike now, analyze later," is a monument to power gone berserk.
Let us remember that in the history of man, the usual condition of his life has been one of oppression. Tyranny has reigned over most peoples most of the time. We in this country have been blessed with a period of liberty and security and domestic tranquillity. It may be that our luck has run out — that it was only luck — that reason and good will are recessive human qualities and aggression the dominant one. It appears as if our society is not only tolerating force as the means of social change but encouraging and even demanding it.
Let Government Do It
What can be done about a tendency of society to rely on force to accomplish its ends? Man has long sought a moral equivalent of war. Our problem here is to move that target a little closer with, perhaps, a better chance of hitting it. What we need now is a moral equivalent of power.
In the first place, most civilized men have a natural reluctance, individually, to jam something down somebody else’s throat. The use of force seems to grow in acceptability as it becomes the instrument of a committee or a group, or better yet, an even more impersonal agency, the law. It would be a strange paradox, but I suspect one could make a good case for the proposition that the law has become a substitute for morality. In any event, to avoid the circumstances which invite the use of more force, the efforts to produce social change must be undertaken by individuals or by the smallest possible group of human beings. Change undertaken by large groups or by government decree seems to neutralize moral impulses, to paralyze compassion and to evoke resentment and resistance. If it is possible to create within a society a moral equivalent of power, it must emerge from a decentralization, really an individualization of action. It will require what might be termed voluntary amelioration.
There is still much of the trusting, the helpful, the friendly, and the unpretentious in the American people, but it is being upstaged by the rioters and the power-seekers and the promisers and the mischief-makers who feed on unrest, and by the hysteria they create. Many well-intentioned people have been swept along by seductive slogans and have, perhaps thoughtlessly, lent themselves to new coercion and new aggression. We seem to be moving further and further toward a public reliance on force. History tells us unmistakably that that is folly.
What is needed is a new breed of young leadership which will find answers that do not create new tyrannies in eliminating old, which will apply the immensely satisfying human qualities of invention and compassion and stamina in attending to needed change and which will have the raw courage to damn the demagogues and the intelligence to discredit them.
Schweitzer said, "The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives." The same can be said of a civilization. Much of what has been best in our society seems to be dying in the process of trying to cure what has been worst. If we heal the sores and lose the soul, the zombie we will have left won’t be worthy of survival. The irony is that those qualities of American living which have been our greatest glories can, I am certain, be directed to the successful elimination of the qualities of American living which have been our greatest trials. The moral equivalent of coercive power is already ours, at work in all those voluntary, trustful, benevolent acts and operations which have characterized the best in the American way of life. The task is to multiply the number of responsible centers of local initiative so that the needed changes can be effected with benevolent rather than brutal means and with increased understanding and cooperation rather than fear, resentment, and retaliation as the end result.
The Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, John Gardner, has noted that we are faced with a number of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems. The discovery of creative alternatives for coercion is certainly one of them.