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.
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.
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.