“Power” is one of those words that is both so polysemous (having multiple meanings) and so emotionally loaded, that I would be just as happy if it was never used in public discourse. However, I am going to be using it a lot in this essay.
1. Misattributing Power to People Who Don’t Have It
It might seem strange to dive right into the first fallacy without stopping to define “power,” but rest assured, all will become clear.
Consider this quote from Ibram Kendi:
One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist.page 9
OK, let’s skip over the shocking naivete of this statement. (It overlooks the #1 source of “problems”: the sinful heart within every individual human being.) Do you see what he did there? Let us not blame groups of people. Instead, let us blame “power.” But this is obviously a dodge. Power (he is talking about social power) does not float around naked through our cities, towns, and countrysides. It is exercised by people. Hence, locating the roots of problems in “power” is nothing but a sneaky way to locate the roots problems in certain groups of people … those deemed to have power. I say “groups,” not individuals, because Kendi apparently is incapable of considering individuals. Also, historically, when people have sought scapegoats, they are seldom satisfied with individuals. When getting rid of one individual (or his power) does not cause problems to vanish as anticipated, people who locate problems in power tend to seek to root out an entire villain class, and like concentric circles in a pond, this class tends to widen.
Here are a few historical examples. Witches, in Salem, Massachusetts, were deemed to be a class of people with a lot of power. They were thought to be able to cause sickness, crop failure, bad dreams, sudden sensations of being pinched, and I don’t know what all. This power was misattributed. The girls’ sufferings were caused by their own mental illness (possibly their own involvement with the occult), not by their neighbors. But questioning their misattribution of power meant challenging the accusers’ lived experience, and was likely to get you included in the enemy class.
The Kulak farmers, in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, were prosperous, and so they were deemed to have a lot of power. It was, supposedly, their prosperity that was causing the poverty of the other farmers. They were wiped out, their farms taken, and it transpired that the only “power” the Kulaks had was expertise at farming. They were not powerful enough to stop their own slaughter.
The Jews in Europe, due to being smart and hardworking, were often prosperous. They were wrongly attributed with having a lot of power, even to controlling whole industries and being responsible for nearly everything that went wrong in society. We all know where this led. But despite the horror, this misattribution of power has a ridiculous side too. A recent hilarious example was speculation about a Jewish space laser that was used to set the California wildfires.
What should be clear from these examples is that if we follow misattribution of power all the way to the end of the path, it leads to killing people, sometimes a lot of people.
Unfortunately, it is really easy to misattribute power when we locate it in groups. Even if some particular group has many powerful individuals that arise from within it, it is almost never the case that all members of the group, distributively, have social power.
So let’s take a break from groups for a moment and talk about individuals.
2. Mischaracterizing Power as Always Arbitrary and Unnecessary
Another way to read Kendi’s statement, above, would be that nobody should have any power at all. No social or legal power, no authority. I don’t think that’s what he means, based on his policy recommendations (whispers: he wants power), but let’s set that aside and go with it, because this is actually a position that is very appealing to human beings. When we talk about power as a bad thing, which is easy to do because nobody likes being under it, it is very easy to begin talking as if all power is unearned and arbitrarily given. In short, that every instance of power residing in a human being is synonymous with injustice.
This is the basic attitude of a kindergartener who sees that his parents are controlling his life in a very totalitarian way. They control his wardrobe, his diet, his bedtime, his screen time, and whether he gets to jump on the couch. He figures that this is very oppressive. If all these arbitrary rules were to vanish, his life would be nothing but fun. It never crosses his mind to wonder, Do we actually need somebody to be in charge?
To be fair, we adults can also fail to ask ourselves that question. That’s because we want to be in charge (most of the time). And most of the time, this is appropriate. In an ordinary, non-emergency, non-war type of situation, each adult should be able to govern him- or her-self, well enough to get through his or her day, with little to no supervision. And then it will actually appear as if no one is in charge.
However, as soon as a drastic situation arises, it becomes obvious that someone has to have power, both in the sense of the power to get things done, and in the sense of authority over others. If there are children around, there must be a parent with power. A platoon needs a leader, especially on the battlefield. As soon as an emergency arises, most people freeze, looking about and wishing for someone to tell them what to do. They are usually relieved when someone takes charge.
As these examples show, power is not always arbitrary. Sometimes it is earned. In the best cases, it is earned by competence. (You hope that the person in charge in the operating room has a lot of medical training and experience.) But there are also cases where someone is in power and it is not arbitrary, despite that they are not an expert in the field. It could be that they were put in charge by someone else, or that they were simply the person who was willing to step up and start giving orders, which is in emergency situations is usually a job that no one wants, because once you are in charge, you are also responsible if things go wrong.
Returning to the ordinary situation where an adult can get through their day just fine with no one telling them what to do, we now see that this can happen only in very stable conditions. These conditions are good and we like them. What we may not notice is that one of their prerequisites is somebody still has to be in charge. If you are not living in the Wild West where you have to fight for your life on the way to work, that is because there is some kind of law enforcement out there somewhere, even if you don’t see them. If you are living in a region that is not torn by war, thank your president or prime minister or the local warlord who is keeping things peaceful in your county. He may not be a nice person (quite the opposite), but he managed to get things under control so that, for the time being, you can live a normal life. If not for him, then just to survive and defend your family, you would be forced to exercise a lot more personal power.
And this raises the question of what exactly power even is.
3. Failing to Recognize Complexity
Now let’s finally define our terms.
Power obviously has a cluster of senses in physics that don’t concern us here: velocity, force, pressure, energy, and the like. But even just restricting our discussion about power to human beings, there are several different meanings.
Power can mean social status. A powerful person can shame or ruin another person but not be susceptible to the same treatment.
It can mean authority, the ability to make people do things without having to physically force them. Of course, authority has to be backed up, ultimately, with physical force when it is not recognized.
This brings up physical strength as another type of power. This one is highly relevant because, as we saw in the last section, if you remove all other types of power (legitimate authority, rule of law, etc.), then conflicts between human beings will ultimately come down to who is bigger.
Finally, there is power in the sense of ability to get things done. This is an interesting one, and hugely important to all of us in our daily lives. Being able-bodied is a kind of power in this sense. It enables you to do all sorts of things for yourself in the way that you would like. Money is a kind of power in that it enables us to get things done that we otherwise couldn’t. Competence in various areas is also a kind of power. When I cook a meal for my family, I am able to do so because of the power given to me by the technology of my electric stove, the money with which I buy food and pay my electric bill, my strong legs that allow me to stand in front of the stove, and my competence at food prep. All of these are different kinds of powers.
The ability to get things done, or mastery, is the kind of power that babies lack. When we become toddlers, our whole life is about gaining this power to make things happen. We figure out how to walk and talk, how to flip the light switch, how to get various reactions from adults and other people around us. The more competent we become, the more our sphere of personal power expands.
Seen from this perspective, it is obvious that every person has a sphere of power in their daily life. In Bible terms, these are our “kingdoms.” (I owe this point to writer Dallas Willard.) Our kingdoms vary in their extent and in the shape of their borders. But everyone needs some sort of power in order to live. In the typical case, we have to have a job at which we are competent. We need to be making money, so as to convert our competence in that one area into a form that can get things done for us in other areas. We need to have authority over our own bodies (personal hygiene and the like), our schedules, our property, and (getting more complex now) various kinds of power in our relationships with family, friends, bosses, coworkers, etc. There is nothing wrong with this kind of power. It is a basic part of human dignity. In fact, one of our favorite kinds of stories, that of the underdog, features a main character who has no social status or legal authority, but has a great deal of personal presence and forcefulness, and who may be physically very strong (think Jean Valjean).
But this is a complexity that simplistic power-bashing rhetoric does not take into account. People will often speak as though, if someone has a lot of social status, they also necessarily have a lot of ability-to-get-things-done in every area of their life.
When I lived as an American expat in Asia, I was in this position. As an American, I was very visible and was assumed to have a lot of social status. I was also assumed to have great wealth. (I had plenty, especially compared to the average person in that country, but not as much as people assumed.) Yet, despite all this, my ability to get things done was close to zero. As a foreigner, I couldn’t move house or even take an overnight trip without getting letters of permission from at least two government offices. My visibility and assumed wealth made me a target. My assumed status made people interpret everything I said and did in the most (pardon me) bitchy way possible. And because of government regulations, when it came to the work that I actually went there to do, I was prevented from doing virtually any of it. I never did get most of it done.
I’m not even complaining about all this. When you go to another country, you have to follow their rules. My point is that status (even wealth) and actual on-the-ground power don’t always go together.
Of course, it can work the other way too. People can have lots of advantages in their personal life (like a prosperous farm or business, as in our first section) but not have much social status or legal power. Sometimes when people are prosperous, the kind of power that got them that prosperity was personal energy, industry, and competence, not status arbitrarily leveraged to rob others.
The bottom line is that everyone has power of different sorts and in various degrees at different times in their life, and even in different spheres of their life at the same time. Thus, people who want to draw a line down the middle of the world and declare that people on one side of it “have power” and people on the other side “don’t have power,” are guilty of an oversimplification so gross that it is indistinguishable from a lie.
Seriously, Please Stop Telling Me I Have “Power”
I have some, sure. The kinds I would like everyone to have. I have health, housing, an income, the ability to raise my own children. And let’s not forget the vast intellectual powers, before which you must all tremble.
But I have been reliably informed that because of certain personal characteristics, people like me have an arbitrarily ascribed status that is so lofty that we should be able to get literally anything done that we want to. This is a dicier claim, but I have tested it.
We should be able to walk into any room and get exactly what we want; for example, publishers will beat down the door to publish our books. We will not get pulled over for possible drunk driving because we were driving down the middle of a country road and not down the right side because we wanted to avoid the ditch (not that this has happened recently). And when pulled over by the cops, we are not nervous. Our group status protects us from a variety of diseases such as migraines and “female problems.” Oh yes, and we never experience the normal insecurities that every woman experiences about her appearance, because we embody our culture’s standard of female beauty.
Experience has proven all these things to be false.
That is why I am not very patient when told by a writer or celebrity whose status is so high that they could ruin me with a single tweet that I need to acknowledge and give up my power. Sorry, friends. I don’t have a lot, but what I do have is legitimate and I’m going to try and hang on to it.