Treating people well is a skill

Sometimes, people go into various fields thinking that they are inherently safe people because they know certain things from experience. For instance, people with disabilities go into the field of service provision thinking that they will know how to avoid abuse of power. Or people who have had bad experiences in school and think that they would never use their power in ways that hurt kids.

Sometimes people think that they are safe people because of their political values, or other values. For instance, people sometimes think that reading a lot of disability rights theory makes them ideal staff. Men sometimes think that reading a lot of feminist theory means that they’re immune to gendered power dynamics. White people often think that reading things about diversity and tolerance makes them immune to white supremacist attitudes and hurting people of color with their privilege. But it doesn’t actually work that way.

Your politics do not make you a safe person. Treating people well is a skill, and it goes far beyond knowing what’s at stake. It also goes far beyond knowing the right words and being able to deploy them. It also goes beyond being angry at the world or objecting when other people do blatantly awful things. There is a component of action, too. You also have to know how to act right towards others, and this is something you have to work on continually. No amount of radical conceptual knowledge will replace the need to work on the actual skills involved in treating people well.

And to state it somewhat more simply - knowing that there are power dynamics doesn’t make you immune from abusing power. Neither does identifying them when you see them. Having spent a lot of time thinking about it doesn’t make you immune, either. No one is immune. You have to constantly watch yourself, listen to feedback from people you have power over, and work continuously to improve your ability to treat people right and use your power the right way.

No one is ever, ever beyond the need to keep working on the practical skills involved in treating people well.

It’s not about what kind of person you are; it is never possible to make yourself into a kind of person who is too good to abuse power. It is possible to continually work to improve your actual actions.

Make sure you’re doing that work. It’s important.