The Evolving Language of Power and Predators


The Predator in Power problem is now being reveled as endemic. No longer is this just an isolated incident or a single industry that we can view like a side-show attraction at a zoo. We are no longer voyeurs to this problem. As every new day brings new charges, new allegations, and new admissions, we are finding we are no longer sufficiently equipped with the language to deal with this issue. Every conversation is now forcing us to evolve our language to describe, support, or address the issues.

Discomfort Brings Evolution

Every few years …

The 1991 Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy galvanized the country as we stopped to watch the hearings unfold. While harassment was not a new topic, this event impacted the workplace as organizations began to evolve their language, training, and policies on the identification of harassment.  

Growing up, you were either labeled gay or straight (or, if you listened to a lot of David Bowie, you might be androgynous.) Little universal understanding existed for someone to describe their gender or sexuality other than broad terms that never seemed to fit. Every 5-7 years a big cultural event forced the topic of sexual and gender identity into the open (from the Stonewall Riots, to Harvey Milk; from the early AIDS epidemic to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell;" from the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to the Shepard Act) and brought the conversation into headlines and water-cooler conversation. As a slowly evolving result, my kids now know what LGBTQ stands for.

Conversations on equality are forced upon us every few years - racial, sexual, gender, cultural, secular. Some of these events cause us to move 3 steps forward, others 2 steps back. Some frustrate us even more as we make seemingly little progress in any direction. The path forward is not a straight line and it is never over. We are, however, fairly universal in that we won't really talk about it until we can no longer turn away. Some outside force jars us into discussion, into action.

The Language of and for Predators

Every day brings new accusations of predatory behavior from seemingly every industry and profession. To publish an example list of those abusing their power is now almost hazardous - the list is so long that inevitably you will forget someone, leave someone off. Are predators to be ranked and rated? Is one worse than the other?

But this is the crux of our problem - we as a culture don't have the understanding yet to deal with an issue this impactful and at this scale. As we come to grips with abuses from those in power, do we even know what questions to ask or ask of ourselves? 

A recent over-heard Starbucks conversation hit on the idea of ranking who was the worst predator. For one, it was a math equation (number of victims times severity times years of the behavior); for another, it was age of the victim relative to the age of the predator. 

Is it worse if that person is your religious leader or your boss? How about if you think they are good at their job or just "a great guy?" Or the inevitable "that's just how he is" argument? 

Is it worse if the victim is a woman or a man? How about if the victim’s career was destroyed or just her soul? How do you assess damage? If the predator was going through a "bad phase" (alcoholism or 20's frat boy behavior) does that effect how we think about him or how those victimized by him should feel? Is it worse if it happened yesterday or 40 years ago? Does time matter?

Does age matter? Is praying on an 8-year-old worse than an 11-year-old? Is 13 worse than 15? If they are an adult, does it matter if they are 19, or 36 or 54? At what age do our scales start to tip and make it less offensive?

We are ill-equipped

Many men and women have come forward and countless others have not. Many suffer in silence. Many are now in playback mode of their lives, considering the behaviors they regret or the damage they may have caused. Most people just don’t know what to say.

There is no real silver lining to a litany of scandals brought on by abuses of power and inequality. Hopefully some measure of peace, some measure of justice can be found. Hopefully some better understanding and actions come from this. Hopefully we find better language, know the questions to ask, and learn how to react to these revelatory events. 

If we repeat our history, it will be too painful to bear and we will wish it away. Put it on the back shelf until another event shakes us and forces us to deal with it again.

Maybe this time is different and our path forward will be straighter, more purposeful, more direct.


Todd Wilms can be followed at