What is power?
I ask because we need to look closely at this thing that we spend a lot of time assuming we all understand. We say that people have power of others and what do we mean? One could say power is the ability to allocate resources (financial, emotional, opportunities). Perhaps it is the ability to influence the way people make decisions using a variety of tactics. Still, these definitions seem to be a result of power rather than the thing power itself.
Without becoming overly philosophical – I ask this because there are assumptions we make in conversations that might be hindrances to the truth. We assume, for example, that the priviledged person will have power of the less privileged one – but is that true?
And if so, what is power?
“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?”
- Vary’s, a Song of Fire and Ice
It becomes evident that power lies in will. In this case, who the sellsword wills to kill. Will is, of course, the initial driver of ability – we will ourselves to do things. It is the collective will of the people that moves societies. This will comes from authority. We will ourselves to do what we want but we bend our will when faced by an authority(real or perceived). The thing about authority is, there are few places where we must bow to authority. In the office, for example, we must follow what the people in charge want. In society, we must follow the law – but there are few others. All other ways in which we succumb to the will of others are voluntary. Or beyond voluntary, transactional. For example, you still bend your will sometimes for your parents because you would like to continue to receive their good graces.
And, of course there are people who bend their will to suit what you want – tis the nature of life.
Hence creation of authority creates an illusion of power. And, because power itself is an illusion then it might as well be the real thing.
The reason this is important is perhaps in realizing this we can begin to see how we have assigned authority based on our definitions of power and how that has affected our interactions with people. For example – how does your assumption that all women are emotional affect how you interact with women? Do you thus perform actions that provoke an emotional reaction and confirm your theory? Or your idea that all men are cold and emotionless – do you go around being pre-emptively microaggressive and thus making sure people keep their distance from you and confirm your theory? What authorities have we given people (how have we organized the worlds in our heads) and how does this authority shape who we think people are (and who we think we should be)?
Perhaps now it becomes clearer that when we speak of “reclaiming our power” we are not necessarily talking about moving in opposition to something, rather than moving towards actualization of our own will. And in order to know what our own will is we must start by trying to see the world we are trying to create – what it looks like, who can live there and how to get there. It might seem like the same thing, but is very different from simply identifying the things we do not want in the world.
Because many times the very thing we don’t like is a reflection of ourselves, and positions based on negatives often lead to debates about exceptions. For example “we would like to eliminate murder from the world” leads to questions like “what about self defense? Or manslaughter?” Whereas building from a place of “we would like a world where people are not pushed to violence” allows us to have the conversation from a place of laying the groundwork and creating the environment for the non-existence of murder.
The second statement starts from a place of before the murder has happened and begins to address the root cause, rather than begin from “okay, a murder has happened – the person who murdered is bad, how do we punish them?” Rather than destroy what has already been willed it begins with the bottom – what moved the will in the first place? And this conversation leaves room for solutions that could be more sympathetic rather than punitive towards the murderer and hence leaving room to break long term cycles. This is because the first position assigns that murderer the authority of evil. All evil begins and ends with the act of murder. Whereas the second position distributes the violence – allows for the murder to be part of a larger picture.
Just to clarify that I’m not saying that this should be how we write laws. Rather it is how we should approach conversations. Rather than assign privilege the authority of evil in a conversation, how would it change if we walked into conversations and stripped people of the authorities they are supposed to have – and ourselves of the ones we assumed ourselves to have – and tried to reach/understand? Where would conversations go? What kind of solutions would show themselves?
“…get firsthand information. Know for yourself what it feels like. And then you too can become a superhuman empathetic person. You can care about people you never met, and worry about problems you don’t even have.”
So this week, maybe a question. Who have you given authority? Who have you given your power? Where do you bend your will? And how can you stand up straight?