What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ teaches us about power and engagement

“Now I’m awake to the world.  I was asleep before.  That’s how we let it happen.  When they slaughtered congress, we didn’t wake up.  Then they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution.  We didn’t wake up then either.  They said it would be temporary.  Nothing changes instantaneously.  In a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you even knew it.”

This monologue sets the scene for an episode of the recent television drama ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, attempting to explain how the leaders of the Republic of Gilead came to be in power.  It suggests that they gained control by making small changes, bit by bit, until nothing was the same and they had so much hold over everything, there was no choice but to do what they said.

In the story, a religious dictatorship has taken control and its leaders introduce a strict regime within which, women’s rights are removed and a caste system introduced.  One morning, the main character ‘Offred’ has her debit card declined when attempting to buy a coffee.  She later discovers that this is because ‘they changed the law’ and women are no longer allowed to have assets.  Instead, they find that their money and any estate must be handed over to their male next of kin.

We are told that there is a serious problem with infertility in the Republic of Gilead and so fertile women are sent to families with standing in the regime where they find themselves forced to bear children for the family.  When the women are taken by the regime, they lose their identity.  Offred is literally ‘of Fred’ and we see in the programme that when a handmaid is reassigned, their name changes according to the man they belong to.

Children are taken away and second marriages are dissolved.

The dramatization brings to life the famous book by Margaret Atwood which was published in 1985.  Since its release, the book has won a number of awards and is a standard course text for English Literature students across Britain and maybe even further.  What makes the tale so chilling is the knowledge that when Atwood wrote the novel, she committed to only writing things that have actually happened in the world.  It’s quite scary to think that what we see in this show is or has been a reality for some.

The novel tells a cautionary tale of totalitarianism and setting it in Trump’s America makes it scary to watch as it feels conceivable that civilisation could crumble, allowing power to settle in the wrong hands.  As we watch the President’s first year, we see many rising up against a perceived threat to civil liberties and growing unrest makes many fearful for the future.

So how on earth can anyone gain so much power that they can make people live as we see in Gilead?

It begins with the construction of ‘them and us’ using negative for ‘them’ and positive for ‘us’, creating an enemy which people can easily be turned against.  The President’s travel ban is a good example of this as he sought to ‘protect the nation from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals’.  It created unrest across America and uneasiness amongst those ‘foreign nationals’ who live in the US and those who value diversity.  He has also been criticised for comments about other groups such as women (see Trump sexism tracker) and those with disabilities.

Those who agree with these views take strength from such comments and show how easy it is to ‘us’ against ‘them’ as we saw during the election campaign and more recently in Charlottesville.   Of course what these perpetrators don’t realise is in a culture where this kind of power has taken hold, no one is safe.

One of the key techniques in a totalitarian regime is encouraging people to turn each other in when they are not respecting the regime or its leader.  We only have to look to Nazi Germany, communist China and North Korea to see that a central part of retaining power is encouraging people to report those who have done something wrong.  Even a small misdemeanour can lead to death.  Punishing those who have done wrong and rewarding those who turned them over is the perfect way to reinforce the status quo.  An example of this is the so called ‘slut-shaming’ which encourages women to rat each other out and expose others who are then subject to further abuse.

I’m sure it isn’t just me that wants to hold on to my freedom and so the most important thing is to pay attention to what’s going on in the world and not be asleep while things are changing beyond your control.

Have you been watching The Handmaid’s Tale?  Let us know what you think it teaches us about leadership in the comments below.

 

3minuteleadership.org

 

What makes a true leader? Fancy job title, fat salary or the courage to stand up for what you believe in?

Watching President Trump’s inauguration and the events that have followed has made me think about the history of the civil rights movement in America. It’s clear to see that civil rights and human rights in the US are at threat under the new president. His first day was marked by women’s marches in major cities throughout the world and he is already taking forward decisions that many people feared.

The first action has been to sign an executive order begin the process to repeal Obamacare. He has reinstated the Mexico City Policy known as the Global Gag rule which withholds US foreign aid money to NGOs that provide abortions and abortion counselling. He has signed two executive orders which will build that wall he’s talked so much about, boost border patrol forces and increase the number of immigration enforcement officers who carry out deportations. And today he has been advocating torture which has made me especially glad to be an Amnesty International donor!

All of this has driven me to rewatch films like Selma and The Help to remind me of how far America has come and how much it has to lose. In turn, these films have reminded me of a key leadership quality – the courage of conviction and willingness to risk everything to defend what you believe in. This is what marks out the great leaders of the world.

Nelson Mandela gave a 3 hour speech at the Rivonia Trial in 1964 where he and others were accused of sabotage. He concluded his speech by setting out his vision for equality and harmony. So strong was his belief that he finished his speech saying that he would give his life to achieve the ideal he dreamed of:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. Nelson Mandela, 1964

In the film Selma, directed by Ava Duvernay, we see the great Martin Luther King lead a march from Selma to Montgomery which had been prevented previously by state troupers by force of violence. During his campaign for civil rights, King was arrested many times, had his house bombed and was finally assassinated in 1968. He believed so much that what he was calling for was the right thing that he continued even though he risked his own personal safety and freedom.

Disney’s The Help portrays the same conviction when a budding journalist asks the African-American maids to tell their stories. In the film, the women she interviewed knew that they were likely to lose their jobs if they were identified, they could have their house burned down or even be killed for telling their story. They did it anyway and showed great courage in doing so.

And that’s it for me – a fundamental leadership quality – the courage to stand up for what you believe in regardless of the consequences. If we didn’t have people like that, we would never achieve any change. These leaders often are not the leaders with the fancy job title and fat salary. These are community leaders and individuals who are willing to put themselves on the line to speak out against injustice. Those people are the real leaders in our society.

3minuteleadership.org

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