A professional academic will probably be situated within at least two hierarchies of power: that in their profession and that in their institution. And each hierarchy can have different types of sub-hierarchies. A female philosophy professor might turn to the more powerful members of these hierarchies for help when dealing with problems of, for example, egregious harassment.
And the response she receives might show a stunning lack of understanding. And if you are like me, you may be left wondering how a seemingly wise person can miss out on so much. How does acute understanding come to have such limited scope? Don’t we inhabit the same communities?
One answer from the social sciences is that power limits empathy.
Can people in high positions of power — presidents, bosses, celebrities, even dominant spouses — easily empathize with those beneath them?
Psychological research suggests the answer is no. Studies have repeatedly shown that participants who are in high positions of power (or who are temporarily induced to feel powerful) are less able to adopt the visual, cognitive or emotional perspective of other people, compared to participants who are powerless (or are made to feel so).
I think these findings are very troubling. When I looked recently at a committee formed to deal with some climate issues, I was shocked to see a particular powerful person on it. This person is quite happy to say that he doesn’t think academic women are discriminated against. Even if we grant his belief is within the circle of permissible opinions, at least he should see that his opinion is problematic. And he didn’t.
So when bias and bigotry can undercut the credibility of bottom-up efforts at reform in a profession, why haven’t there been more top down efforts? Particularly from the dominant majority? Could powerful members of a dominant majority just care much less? And if so, does that explain the large stretches of neglect we see in, for example, reactions of indifference to scandals of abuse? Or even support for abusers?
And then there’s the men of the US Supreme Court.
Philosophers interested in standpoint theory may profit from looking at the references in the article quoted. Some research suggests that having power can alter our neuropsychological capacity for social knowledge.