Of all the bad takes I’ve seen regarding the recent debacle at Aretha Franklin’s funeral – and there have been many – the one above really bothered me. It wasn’t simply because it was another in a long line of very bad takes, but it was because of its reach in presuming a measure of rationality and innocence on the part of Bishop Charles H. Ellis III. Boyce Watkins’ reach is, unsurprisingly, par for the course for men and women in positions of power/influence who are being called out for their behavior and actions, and is also symptomatic of a culture that, as a dear friend would always tell me, fails to accept that impact > intent.
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We intuitively understand power/influence as finite: it is a thing that can, in theory, be taken away and voided with the slightest of missteps. As a result, I believe it’s common for us to presume that those with it would never deign to jeopardize themselves and their power/influence with “silly mistakes”, like the one that now has Bishop Ellis under fire. This presumption is not consistent with reality, however. First, it doesn’t fully acknowledge the fact that power/influence is usually conferred and inherited through nepotism and pedigree, rather than earned exclusively through one’s own merits and hard work. Because we assume a larger share of the latter, it’s easier to believe that a reasonable person wouldn’t recklessly throw away “all that they’ve worked for” than it is for us to accept that power/influence is insulated and protected by the very people and systems that create and confer it, at the expense of those who have been and continue to be victims. It’s even harder still to see how the rest of society is complicit in that insulation by making excuses for those with power/influence, again, at the expense of their victims.
Consequently, this presumption is blithely ignorant of the pathology, and of the defiance and deviance of power/influence, in that those who have it are effectively given a carte blanche to be and to do whatsoever they please, with little to no oversight and accountability. So, while we understand power/influence as finite and fleeting, in reality, it is allowed to reign in perpetuity because there exists no societal infrastructure or will to enforce moral law and/or a code of ethics. Why? Because, in reality, power/influence is not given by the voice and the will of people; it is conferred by the interests and priorities of the ruling and privileged elite.
Therein lies the great danger with power: while we know that, with great power/influence comes great responsibility, those with it are far too quick to claim their innocence through ignorance (or through some misguided sense of moral absolution), and the rest of us are far too quick to absolve them of their responsibilities when and where it matters most through some misguided sense of identity or neutrality. This is why the conversation becomes that of “why would he/she do that”, rather than “why did he/she do that.” What’s the difference? In this context, “would” is used as an auxiliary to express desire, willingness, preference, habitual actions, or intent. Conversely, “did” expresses impact: something that was committed, executed, brought to pass, and carried out. “Would” is subjective and open to interpretation, and makes for lively conversation in the comments section; “did” is objective and definitive. There’s nothing to discuss.
To ask the question of “why would [Bishop Ellis] sexually assault Ariana in front of millions of people”, suggests that the Bishop has the desire, willingness, preference, the habit of, or the intent to do so, and it places “the man” as the subject of query and scrutiny, as opposed to the man’s actions and the victim. When we focus on “the man”, it creates the opportunity to entertain the myriad of reasons why someone “like that” could not, would not, possibly do such a thing. However, when we focus on the actions, on what was committed, executed, brought to pass, and carried out – and the impact of those actions on the victim – we can then assess the situation objectively and hold the person accountable for what was done, regardless of who the person is, and extend to the victim the support and respect and humanity due them by right.
The danger of “would”, and its ensuing rhetorical and intellectual acrobatics, is that, should the time come for an individual to actually atone for what they have done, the penance is merely superficial and performative – the proverbial “slap on the wrist”. The danger of “would” means that the equally performative apology becomes, “maybe I crossed the border, maybe I was too friendly or familiar…”. Now, this should go without saying but, to state the obvious, “maybe” implies there’s a chance that whatever is, is not… which is also part of the culture and part of the problem. The danger of “would” is that, after a minor timeout from the public eye, the accused can then attempt to ease back into their former lives to a warm reception and a standing ovation. After all, “it is easier, for far too many people, to empathize with predators than it is to empathize with prey.”
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We must also come to terms with the culture that allows these behaviors and actions to propagate without consequence. We’re talking about a culture that, essentially, erases consent and agency, and creates a [false] sense of entitlement and unlimited access – to a person’s body, their sex, their time, their attention, their affection, etc. Furthermore, we must understand that this culture normalizes these unacceptable actions/behaviors to the point where we 1) don’t see anything particularly wrong and/or 2) presume the perpetrator’s innocence by way of their “intentions”.
Regardless of one’s intent leading up to an interaction, or one’s intentions immediately afterwards, what matters is what was said/done to someone and how it violated that individual’s agency and autonomy. Harassment and assault, as matters of fact, are matters of impact and not intent. This is especially true within The Church where we preach a message of love and fraternity that often manifests itself in ways that casually and habitually cross boundaries. Just ask the women and girls that you go to church with, and they will tell you — if you, if we, would only listen.
Based on my observations, this has been the prime disconnect and a key point of frustration and anger for me during the #MeToo Movement: while its creator, Tarana Burke, and it’s champions are clearly seeking to bring awareness to the actions and behaviors of individuals and groups (impact) — especially of those with power/influence — and the culture that allows these actions to happen with little to no consequence, on the other side, we only ever seek to speak to the individuals and groups themselves (intent) and how there must be some misunderstanding because, why would he/she do that? This is particularly true when people identify with the accused for any number of reasons (e.g. “a respected black man”).
It is the nature of power to corrupt, and it corrupts inevitable and absolutely. If we’re serious about changing the narrative and shifting the culture, then it falls to us to call to task those with power/influence before their behaviors and actions have crossed the line, as well as after the fact. We cannot be so quick to absolve these individuals from all personal responsibility simply because we identify with them, because we like them, because they are “good” people, or because they do so much “good” in the community. We must hold these people accountable for their actions, and ensure that their struggles with entitlement and access are kept in check so that the agency of others are kept sacred and undefiled. If not, the danger of would renders us all as mere cogs in a well-oiled culture of silence and ineptitude.