Where does your power come from?

Equality as a true/false condition doesn’t happen in the real world.  It’s not only a continuum, but people can be equal in some ways but not others.  Attempts to change this even in science fiction always end badly.  Even if everyone were completely equal physically and mentally, a well-functioning society requires some sort of hierarchy, because everyone can’t know everything, take everyone else’s concerns into consideration, and agree on courses of action.  That’s as true in the federal government as it is in a family home or at the office.  Can you imagine a large society where everyone voted on everything?

The question is, how do the people at the top (or even the middle) get there?  How do people gain authority over others, how do they keep it, and why do the people who they have authority over listen to them?  What do they do with their power?  These all vary greatly in implementation and degree of fairness.  As you read this, please keep in mind that I don’t treat “power” itself as a bad thing.  How one gets it and what one does  with it may be, though.

Let’s start with the office.

Anyone who has worked in a company of 50 people or more has probably seen someone promoted that shouldn’t have been.  Maybe it was seniority.  Maybe it was social engineering, nepotism, or just plain sucking up to the people above them.  Sometimes the people above them see only their positive short-term accomplishments and not the damage they do to morale or other long-term costs.  Many people who quit work today do so because of bad bosses or bad working environment.  It’s hard to feel good about following someone who you don’t feel should be leading.

In a perfect world, employees follow their boss’s lead because they like and respect them more than because they are their boss.  That’s not always possible.  Good managers try to reach that state.  Others try to manage with carrots or sticks.  Nothing is as effective as having employees follow you because they want to.  That kind of power, wielded correctly, can make for a healthy business relationship where everybody wins.  I’ve worked for Managers like that, and it was great.

What about the government?

I heard a call-in discussion by some talk show hosts debating what percentage of politicians are in that field for “the right reasons”.  Estimates ranged from a measly 17% to a more optimistic 35%.  This is of course unfounded opinion with no relation to reality, but there’s no producing enough truth serum to find out for sure.  I would like to think it’s a lot higher than that, but if that’s how the people feel, then that say something either way.  When is the last time you felt strongly positive about a politician when they got out of office, as opposed to when they started?  It’s been a long time for me.  It’s been a long time since I’ve even trusted a politician I liked to act as advertised while in office.

If most people feel that way about politicians, where do they get their power from?  Only a brief look at political ad campaigns will tell you politicians move up by pushing others down.  Negative ad campaigns are the norm.  Sure, local politicians often send out postcards with their list of accomplishments, but when I’ve dug into their actual track records, many of the points on those postcards are either distortions of the truth, or a minor part of their record.

Often politicians try to hide their true record.  One blatant case that just happened is that the recent “bill to keep the federal government running” had several pork and entitlement riders attached which had nothing to do with keeping the federal government running.  Who put them there?  My least favorite politician Anonymous.  That’s right. Congressmen can anonymously attach things to bills when they’re in their committee.  That’s about as far from transparent government as you can get.

So why do we vote for these politicians?  Frankly, most don’t.  And many who do, do so out of party or cultural loyalty instead of the candidate’s own merits (which is both somewhat understandable and not entirely evil).  I myself am guilty of voting for “anyone but X”.  Is this a sound basis for a representative government?  Is it working?  What could we do to make sure that political power is meted out to those who will work for the good of their people?

All in the family

This is a scary, touchy one.  As long as there have been families, there have been power struggles, both spouse to spouse and progeny to parent.  The source of a parent’s power is clear in the beginning.  They are legally and morally responsible for their children, and have an emotional bond.  In a healthy family, when a child does as a parent asks, it’s usually more about that emotional bond than fear of punishment.  As the child grows older, they often test that authority more and more, no matter how much they still need their parents.  The nature of these conflicts change, as does the balance (and source) of power.  Just a few weeks ago I was talking to a mother who had an 8-year-old daughter that was extremely manipulative.  She always managed to get her way.  She even convinced them to have another child when they didn’t want to, because she wanted a baby brother.

The power of one spouse over another varies so widely I won’t talk about it here, other than to say that sometimes it’s a good thing.  In the best of relationships, spouses  function as partners.  They divide up the responsibilities of running the family (like a business), which leads to one spouse having more power in some areas, and the other having power in others.  Some people are just naturally better at handling the money, or the repairs, or the calendaring, or work.  Again, power over another in itself is not necessarily bad.  An imbalance of power can be (but isn’t always) bad though. We all have our weaknesses, and to the extent we rely on our significant others to help us in those areas, we willingly give them power over us.

Masculine power

This is the real reason that I am writing this post.  Someone forwarded an article to me recently about a cheerleader being sued by her school because she would not cheer for her rapist, and another one  called Redefining Masculinity.  I searched around and found several articles (here, here, here, here, and here) with similar messages.  The main point of these articles is that “masculinity” as it is defined in many cultures today, favors power derived from superior strength, aggressiveness, and risk-taking.  The Manliest Man is the one who takes what (or who) he wants.  The best athletes don’t have any problem with cheating in the game or on their spouses, and have interesting definitions of “consent”.  This is the path to misogyny, unfounded entitlement, bullying, abuse, and rape.  Almost every article that I found on the subject says that (1) There’s very little that women can do to change this that they haven’t already tried, and (2) If this is going to change, the change has to be when they are boys, particularly boys playing organizes sports.

Here’s the sad part.  I had hoped to include links to articles about men wanting to show their feelings and work things out more than in the past, and articles about women fighting against abusive men, but I really couldn’t find any recent articles from reputable sources with either theme.  Really.  Search for “men want to show their feelings”, and pretty much every match really says “Why won’t men show their feelings” or “Men should show their feelings”.  Search for “men want to show their feelings”, and pretty much every match really says “Why do woman put up with/stay with abusive men?”.  Rather than try to search deeper, or spin these articles as counterexamples, I will have to admit that we may not have made the progress in these areas as I had hoped.  Because that’s how science works.  It seems men seeking power (over women an other men) by asserting themselves over others instead of earning respect and working for equality is not quite the norm yet.

Feminine power

Women abusing their power, or deriving it in negative ways, is certainly not talked about as much as with men.  Finding articles on the subject that felt unbiased to me was a bit harder.  I did find this, this, this, this.  While it’s generally considered less prevalent (though in reality it may not be), here’s why it’s also a hard problem:

  • Women more often abuse men emotionally, which is not only harder to see, but harder to even define
  • “Manly men” don’t admit they’re being abused
  • Men hesitate to fight back,because they know they will be seen as the antagonist, or don’t want to hurt the woman
  • In the case of mother and child, there are no clear lines on what is good parenting and what is using guilt, threats, or violence to influence your child (this one, of course applies to fathers, too)
  • Just like men, women may assert their power in non-productive ways like withholding sex, hurtful words, and other passive-aggressive behaviors.  These behaviors make reconciliation even harder, because they avoid or obfuscate the original source of attention instead of confronting it.  Once you get past the power struggle, you’re still left not knowing what drove the woman to that action.

Please stay tuned

I hope to get a lot of feedback on this post.  It’s certainly the longest post I’ve written in a while, and I spent hours on it.  I do want to add a section on power (and its abuse) in the workplace, and maybe one or two more sections.




  1. Might I say, This is one of the most Interesting Articles, I’ve seen, By Far. And now having read this, I would like to give my opinion on some things. The first thing that caught my eye in this article, was “How do people gain the authority over others”…..And Wow, this may sound weird, but this question stood out the most in my mind. Life its self, has its own way of effecting others lives, and how they live them. I Believe the Power in someone, wanting to Lead, Control, Manipulate, Abuse, Own,..Is Created, As one grows around a Certain Environment..Whether its a child, with no Family, Or Child neglected by Family, boy or girl…Is Deeply effected by others surrounding them, friends, family,..(People) I for some reason feel, we all start as equals in our World we call Earth, and then We all Rise or even sometimes Suffer, As We grow older. Another ones actions can effect another ones life, very quickly. This Causes people to do Actions (Take Control*Power*) Whether it be Emotionally or Physically. And i feel People even sometimes, dont realize what they’re doing as their just trying to get by, like everyone else in life. Like you said, quote “Sometimes the people above them see only their positive short-term accomplishments and not the damage they do to morale or other long-term costs.” This also really caught my eye.* Because when i read this, i think of how if people were all raised and taught, and respected a certain way, maybe life would be more equal and fair. But its impossible, because as we all grow, and fill this Beautiful Earth, with more people. The economy its self, Takes Power***And we Ourselves, Just struggle to get by, day by day. Mothers, Fathers, Childreen, Teens, Politicians, and Masculine Power*- its self. My Opinion on “Struggling to get by” is, (People) who are On Top/Have Control, (They Hide their emotions), And usually from what I’ve seen in my life so far, Those People Are the Srongest Ones* They Struggle by, bottling things up and using Power to Control(giving this person Something to Feed off of) And as they Grow, It Continuously happens, While they are trying to stay on Top the Entire Time. Money, Love, & Another Ones Weakness Helps it Grow. (Including, Household, Office, Government as well) Now, For the (People) who are Not On Top/Ones Who try to Become Equal/ & Or Try To Gain Power, Are The, Not so Strongest ones.. Whether it be someone holding them back (Another Person With More Power) Or Because they have not yet Gained a Kind of Power Within Themselves, To feel On Top, or Equal. These People Struggle by, trying to Gain Power. This is Caused by lack of communication with another ones Child,or Employee. Verbal and Physical Abuse, Neglect, and Control/Power, Causes another ones Life to Change Drastically. And again i feel, This also, Continulously happens, While One’s Trying to get On Top. I Think We all Live Our Lives, *Trying to Gain Some Kind of Power** Just To Feel Equal And Happy* And The Government, I Feel Has One Of The Most Biggest Effects on Our Society, Today. Money Makes the World Go Round. Greed And Happiness, Is What I See People Struggling For Every Day. In all Regards To this message, I’m Only Speaking My Opinion. And i Hope no one Takes Offense to any words that have been said. This Article, Really Opened my Mind. Thank you Very Much For Taking the Time to Share This Amazing Article. And i Hope my Opinion, Some what made since.**)


    1. @Sophia: Thank you, Sophia. I think your main point is that people are largely the product of the environment they grew up in. The abuse, aggressiveness, violence, lack of respect for others, and lack of focus on the common good, are all learned behaviors. Bad parents raise bad parents.

      I wonder if there were more equality in the world, whether that would break the cycle by making the world less of a competition. It’s very easy to think, in today’s world, that the more some other guy is making, the less you make.

  2. I just read this post, David, and my mind is still processing it. But a couple of thoughts do immediately occur to me.

    Firstly, the connection with the basic human need for status and Robert Sapolsky’s research of baboons: Each of us needs to feel like they’re accepted by their social group for the accomplishments they’ve achieved. Each of us needs to feel like we’re “the best” at something. And fortunately, we can each find that fulfillment in some little niche. But some people seem to pursue status by exercising power over others, even if that power is unearned and undeserved.

    This is where the baboons come in. Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky was interviewed in one of my favorite documentaries, Stress: Portrait of a Killer (available on Netflix), regarding his research of baboons. Baboons spend an inordinate amount of energy tormenting each other, just for the hell of it; because they’re angry, agressive sons of bitches. And the angrier and more agressive you are as a baboon, the higher in the hierarchy you can reach, and the more you can get others to kiss up to you in order to curry your favor.

    Says Sapolsky, “You get some big male, who loses a fight, and chases a sub-adult, who bites an adult female, who slaps a juvenile, who knocks an infant out of a tree, all in 15 seconds… Tremendously psychologically stressful for the folks further down on the hierarchy.” He goes on to admit, “I don’t actually like baboons all that much… They’re these scheming, backstabbing, Machiavellian bastards; they’re awful to each other.”

    And at some point, I realized he was not just talking about baboon society; he was also talking about human society.

    Which brings me to my second thought. Like baboons, humans can change. In the documentary, Sapolsky describes a rather traumatic experience that changed one baboon troop, permanently. All the most agressive males were wiped out, because their own thirst for power caught up with them; and female values started to dominate that troop. New males that later integrated into the troop had to adjust, give up their old ways of beating up on the weaker baboons. “We don’t do that here” was the message they had to learn. And they did.

    This story became part of the justification for my content-moderation policy on my own blog. And now, reading your post above, I realize that, if you’re looking for anti-aggressive men, you’ve found one. And now, I’m thinking, I should probably integrate some of the ideas you bring up here into my own message.

    (I used the word “anti-aggressive” above. I don’t know about “want[ing] to show their feelings,” as I tend to think of this as a separate topic, which you’ve conflated with anti-abusive behavior. Elevating emotion over logic is probably more often the root of abusive behavior, rather than its remedy. However, I do think that it’s important to learn to recognize and understand the feelings of others, and to learn appropriate ways of expressing genuine feeling in order to connect with others.)


    1. @Tim: The story you brought up about the baboons reminds me of the science fiction story, Stranger In A Strange land by Robert Heinlein. Micro-setup: A human from Earth raised by Martians on Mars, who gets brought back and learns our culture from scratch. Nevermind that he has superpowers now. He has a very hard time understanding humans, and their treatment of each other. They take him to the zoo, and he sees some form of primates (I read the book too long ago) enacting that very behavior; The momma ain’t showing the biggest one any love, so he beats up the next one to get out his frustration, who in turn beats up another. Seeing this, He falls down laughing, exclaiming “I finally understand humans!”

      I do hope that we can change. It might have to start with the big picture though; how governments and religious groups deal with other governments and religious groups. Frankly, there’s too much profit in war the way we are structured right now. I don’t think we can change as a race until that changes.

      The reason I use “want[ing] to show their feelings” in the same sentence as (or even as part of a continuum of) aggressive behavior, is that I very frequently find those that can voice their feelings, and what’s bothering them, use that as an outlet for their frustrations instead of abuse. YMMV.

      Tim’ as always, thank you for your comments.

  3. Oh yes. I absolutely agree that if one can learn how to define your feelings and describe them, he is probably less likely to act them out to destructive ends. -TimK

  4. I hate the women’s manipulative power games probably as much as you hate the men’s violent power games. Like the baboons, operant conditioning works on humans. Behavior that is rewarded increases in frequency. These bully dynamics also operate at the international level – every war has reinforced the message “I’m stronger than you, and therefore right”. That message does not cultivate respectful people.

    You want to have your worldview turned upside down, trying reading ‘The Story of B’ by Daniel Quinn.

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